Injuries and Boo Boos on Hiking Trips?

Andrew teaches how to treat hiking blisters
Andrew Skurka explains how to treat hiking blisters

It’s not a real hike unless there’s mud or blood. 

I’m a pretty careful hiker, but I’ve had my share of injuries and boo boos in the backcountry.

For example,

  • I burn myself at least one a year by touching cook pots and stoves before they’ve cooled
  • I scratch my face and legs on bushwhacks, sometimes quite deeply, even when I’m wearing protective clothing
  • I fall on scree and scrape my hands and knees
  • I turn an ankle about once a year, enough to sideline me for a few weeks
  • I get a deep blister once in a while that takes about two weeks to heal

Minor stuff, but I also know quite a few very experieneced hikers who break bones, have bad falls, get minor cold injuries, experience fever, dehydration, and hypothermia, and suffer from various stomach maladies on the trail. I expect these things are more prevalent that we might realize.

What injuries, boo boos, and ailments have you experienced while hiking?

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  1. I think burns are the most common for me — grabbing hot pots, singing hair while building fires, etc.

    Getting minor scrapes while hiking past vegetation is probably next on the list. I punctured my Platypus water bottle when I got too close to a yucca plant, ruining a trip because I didn’t have a back-up water bottle.

  2. My typical ones are bushwhacking-related, i.e., scratching arms and legs most of times, when an unpredicted bushwhack came up (getting lost and needing to get back to the “right” path, for instance, or wanting to skip tedious forest tracks) and I was wearing t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes getting sun-burnt, falling on a scree and injuring my hands, I once got an insolation when I was 13 years old. I don’t wish anyone the experience.

  3. Walked through some stinging nettles last year. Very painful! I almost always hike in shorts, so yeah definitely get bloodied up by brush, thorns, etc. pretty often. Once tripped & fell over tree roots hiking in the dark. Didn’t think much of it until I saw it hours later, my entire calf was covered with blood lol.

  4. I’ve experienced the typical bumps, bruises and scrapes associated with hiking. I also slipped and fell while descending the Valley Way Trail in the Whites two years ago. I ended up tearing my left ACL and hobbled out slowly. It was a long 3.5 miles to the trailhead…thank goodness my husband was with me.

  5. I must be accident prone. I have twisted my ankle so hard that I broke my leg. I was very out-of-shape at the time and had done no prep for the hike, no neighborhood walks or anything… Thankfully, I was only a mile from the car, quite a long way to scootch on ones rear! I have also been involved in a shattered wrist, and hypothermia. Oh, and the usual cuts, abrasions, etc.

    Very excited to say, I am enrolled in the AMC’s Wilderness First Aid Course, here in Maine, next weekend.

  6. I know this may sound trivial, But I *always* seem to cut my fingers / knuckles when stuffing things or pulling things out of my pack. Okay, not a big deal on a short trip, but on a longer walk this becomes a bit of an issue, as nicks & grazes don’t heal as the protective scabs are constantly being knocked off.
    Jackets get smeared in blood as does the pack.

    Sunburnt ears are a problem too on the TGO Challenge – generally my right ear, as it is facing south… I’m taking a cap with a built in ear/neck flap this year.

    • I tried one of those hats once. Looked goofy. But you may be able to pull off a Lawrence of Arabia look with your height. LOL

  7. Yes, scrapes, minor burns & cuts, pokes from sticks, etc are very common. Using any sort of tool in the backcountry, such as a short magnesium flint stick, can be a bad experience if you slip. An occasional tumble needs to be expected.

    Gathering firewood can be bad. Cutting wood with a saw, or, breaking a piece can lead to off unexpected ballance issues.

    Blisters, well I rarely get blisters on my feet. Wet feet for a few days in a row can be bad, though. On occasion, paddling has led to a blister or two in rougher water.

    Treatment for most of these is about the same. I carefully wash the area. Dry it with a fuel soaked bandana, then make a pad of TP and tape it (duct tape) in place. A deeper cut, sprain or even a broken bone can be painful and cause you to rethink an early exit. Usually, just make sure you bleed freely and there is no debris in the wound, proper. Keep dirt, etc out of all injuries. Even minor scrapes can be bad if they start getting a bit infected. Avoid using a stream for washing a wound, generally, boiled water with a boiled bandana is MUCH better.

    Missteps, sprains, twists, overdoing, etc are common because we tend to push on vacation. Well good, but really, why? Avoid hiking in darkness. Sometimes you get stuck, but do not make it a habit. Do not hurry, because it’s dark and you are going to be late. Walk carefully during a bushwack. Sometimes even the ground can drop out from under your foot, seemingly.

  8. Back in 1978 a buddy and I did a winter ascent of Mt Whitney in California over our Thanksgiving holiday from school. On the way back down I slipped on some ice and broke my right arm at the wrist. My buddy reset my arm and made a splint with an Ace bandage and some sticks. We fashioned a sling out of a bandana.

    That was the worse that I’ve personally dealt with. However, during my rock climbing days I’ve participated in a couple of rescues including assisting in hauling an injured climber to a waiting helicopter.

    I’m glad to say that minor burns and cuts are the most I’ve had to deal with for many years now.

  9. While walking on the PCT heading into Scissors Crossing, thinking about apple pie in Julian, I stumbled and to break my fall I put out my left hand. The weight of my pack, and gravity, twisted me around and I landed with my hand behind and under me with fingers bent back. Turned out I broke my pinky and dislocated the next one. It took 6 hours to get to a town large enough to have an x-ray machine and to get it set. I never got that slice of apple pie.

  10. My worst was about a 10 foot fall where I damaged 3 ligaments in my knee and fractured my tibia. My knee bent sideways when I landed and my foot was by my waist (I could have tied my shoe because my leg was bent sideways to where I could reach my foot while sitting). I wrapped my knee with a garbage bag and duct tape and hobbled 1.5 miles back to my truck and to the ER. Crutches for 12 weeks…not a fun experience, but it turned out fine in the end. I’m actually a stronger hiker now and I think a lot has to do with that fall.

  11. One time while camping, I stubbed my toe on a rock and stumbled. I put my hand out to catch myself. Unfortunately, I put it into the campfire with still hot coals! I burned the crap out of my hand and now have scars as a constant reminder to pick up my feet!!!

  12. All the little things you named above are fairly common with me and my brood. Add to that a little heat stroke every now and then and then the post hike migraine that makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep on the trail and that about covers everything.

  13. It’s gonna take a LONG time to write my list!

    …but I’ll do it.

  14. While I have never broken anything on a hike I have been on two hikes with the scouts where someone was seriously injured. One kid fell down a ravine and broke an arm half way through a 3 day trip and we had to put it in a sling. No way to get him out early so he had to hike out that way. We took turns carrying his pack. Another kid suffered severe ankle sprang an and I ended up carrying him about four miles to an access road where he could get picked up. I think the worse thing I have ever done on a hike is a deep cut on my hand from trying to open a can of Vienna sausages. More embarrassing than anything. :)

  15. A couple of years ago I tripped and did a forward somersault going down a rocky section of the King Ravine Trail in the Whites. Walked away with three fractured ribs and numerous cuts and bruises.

  16. I rolled my foot and broke my fibula while bushwhacking up Mount Isolation. I tightned my boot, summited, and then hiked 7 mles out with it. . It made for a long afternoon.

  17. While on a winter hike of Liberty & Flume I slipped and tore my ACL in my left knee. I hiked down Liberty with a full winter pack. Had reconstructive surgery and was back hiking the very next winter.

    Two years after my ACL tear I was on a winter ascent of the Tripyramids and I tore the medial meniscus in my right knee. Descending was not that bad as a meniscus tear typically does not hurt until a few days pass. I had surgery on that knee as well.

    I also have degenerative cartilage loss on the medial femoral condyle of both knees but thats not because of hiking.

  18. My most common injury is the dreaded hangnail. Sounds funny, but very easily infected. Although taking hand cream sounds like a luxury, it’s a necessity for me!

    The most serious injury I’ve seen happen other than my knee injury while X-C skiing (tore nearlyall the ligaments) was when car-camping with my kids. They were playing two-o-cat (does anyone play that any more?) with the kids from the site nearby and one of the neighborhood kids slid into the base (a rock) on one knee and removed most of the surface skin. My kids of course told their mother, “My Mom can fix it, she just took a Wilderness First Aid class.” Ha–the surface skin on the knee was hanging down in a big flap and there was a ton of dirt ground in. I strongly recommended that they drive the two hours to the nearest ER. Cleaning the wound without local anesthesia would not only have been extremely painful to the kid, but he’d have had to go into for a tetanus shot and stitches anyway. And hard telling what was going on underneath the wound. Of course if we’d been out in the wilds a couple of days’ hike from the nearest trailhead, it would have been a different story. The kids were back playing ball the next day, but with spare socks as bases instead of rocks. Nobody wanted to slide into bases, either!

  19. The kid’s first overnight she spiked a fever in the middle of the night. I ran my bag down to the car, ran back and met them on the way. Carried her a mile or two. She wanted to go again!

    Sun gives me migraines, so I’ve spent too many evenings puking.

    Other than that, nothing requiring more than minor patching.

  20. I just about always end up with scrapes, often I don’t even realize I scraped myself until later… and blisters… ouch. I have definitely had my share of those. However the blisters and the scrapes are well worth the enjoyment of a great hiking trip.

  21. Aside from assorted bumps, bruises, scratches, sunburns, and aching muscles, here’s a few…

    A person in our party slipped and fell 22′ in a canyon in Big Bend National Park and broke her back in three places. She made a full recovery.

    1986, 1987
    While canoe camping in Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend, a flare up on a Coleman Peak One stove toasted some buns–not of the wheat variety. The stove henceforth became known as the Nuke One.

    Cut hand while canoeing over waterfall in Mariscal Canyon. River was at flood stage and river was pouring over rock the size of house. Just HAD to… shouldn’t have.

    A person in our party stepped off a rock onto some gravel, her foot slipped and she broke both bones in her lower leg. The day before, my sister wiped out on a mountain bike and got a concussion. A week later, I fell while descending a mountain off trail and broke my wrist, also sustaining a deep puncture wound and severely scratched eyeball–which hurt worse than the puncture and fracture put together.

    While canoeing through Mariscal Canyon in Big Bend, one person in our party got his canoe pinned on a rock. While winching the canoe off with a come along, the rock on shore that the line was attached to split and sent rock shrapnel flying, knocking my brother in law about ten feet and giving him a cut on the head.

    I got hit in the head by a falling rock while riding on the catwalk on the side of a locomotive on the Chihuahua al Pacifico railroad in Mexico as the train entered a tunnel. My brother in law, who calls me his insurance policy because he says whatever will happen, will happen to me and not him, was standing on the catwalk next to me. When the train exited the tunnel, he stood over my dazed, bloody self lying on the catwalk and said, “I told you I’d be safe if I was with you!” The only time his insurance lapsed was the 1989 incident above this.

    I backpacked 47 miles in the Bob Marshal Wilderness with my brother. It didn’t rain the full five days we were on the trail–some of the days it was sleeting and snowing. As we neared the finish line, I told my brother, “I calculated that we made 120,000 steps each and not once have we…” At that moment, I stepped on a root, my foot slipped, and I made a giant pirouette. I didn’t get hurt (for a change) but my brother and I still laugh about the timing of that comment.

    I backpacked in Big Bend in 24ºF and snow while suffering from a long term bout of bronchitis. I thought I’d find out how well I did on a strenuous hike while not at my physical best. Since the snow had finished falling, I “cowboy camped” and just slept on the ground. I seemed to be doing fine until the last 3-1/2 miles, the easiest part of the hike, downhill from Laguna Meadows to the trailhead. I called my wife on the radio and told her I’d be down in about an hour and a half. Once I dropped off the pass, there was no radio coverage and as soon as I started down, I “hit the wall”. I was having trouble breathing and it took herculean effort to place one foot in front of the other. I just wanted to lie down on the trail and go to sleep but I knew that was a bad idea. Besides, getting rescued there would be akin to having the ski patrol pluck me off the bunny slope. It took 3-1/2 hours to finish and I collapsed in the RV at the bottom, gasping for breath for hours afterward. I was fine the next day. I found out about hiking when seriously ill.

    While day hiking on the Hermit trail in the Grand Canyon, a friend and I ditched our packs to do a 3 mile round trip to a spring and small waterfall. Once we started back up the trail to Hermit’s Rest, we realized we’d both sucked our hydration bladders dry. The temperature was in the mid ‘80s and there was no shade and we still had a 1500′ ascent ahead of us. I did not realize how quickly a person can deteriorate due to dehydration. My friend is younger and runs half marathons and does lots of R2R hikes so he shot up the trail to bring me back some water. The next day, we hiked to the bottom and returned the day after that. I cameled up on those days and have remained very water conscious since, except for a bad mistake in 2009.

    On New Years Eve, I took my then four year old grandson on his first backpacking trip. I made him hot chocolate and put it in a bottle for him. Before I could warn him, he chug a lugged it and toasted his tonsils, an experience he remembers to this day.

    I took three grandchildren on a 3-1/2 mile day hike in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma on a brutally hot summer day. My wife dropped us off at one trailhead and drove around to pick us up at the other end. Somehow, I left half our water on the counter in the RV and we ran out of water half way through the hike. I ended up carrying my three year old granddaughter on my shoulders while my twelve year old grandson carried his five year old brother the same way to finish the hike. My conscience plagued me that day (and still does) because the kids trusted me and I let them down as far as safety is concerned.

    While day hiking off trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park with my brother in law (and providing him insurance coverage), I fell into a creekbed, receiving severe bruises on my hip that slowed me for several weeks.

    I fell in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma when caught in a sudden storm while hiking with the grandkids, receiving multiple fractures in my wrist and a number of cuts and bruises.

    From the above, you can see why I have a pretty extensive First Aid kit and plan to take a Wilderness First Aid course. I may just be too clumsy to go hiking, but I love it!

  22. One trip I got foot blisters so big and deep I could not wear shoes for a few weeks (minimalist sandals became my footwear). My pack was too heavy, my boots too hot for the weather and I was hiking with someone who was frustrated by my speed. I felt the hotspots and worried about stopping to tend to them. Huge lesson learned on that trip.

    I still get blisters occasionally but I tend to them early. The biomechanics of hiking throw the monkey-wrench at least once a year.

  23. After a 25 year hiatus from backpacking I hike a small section of the AT in PA. This resulted in me falling twice. One day one I fell and my left hand / arm was elevated and as I was trying to decelerate my descend toward the ground. I stretched my arm / shoulder out pretty bad. A trip to the doctor and an MRI are probably in my future. On day two I fell again and my ring finger on my right hand became badly sprained and deformed at the second knuckle. It points toward the pinky now. It is getting better each day and I still have it taped. What sucked is that I had to finish the hike in order to get to the car. I ended up w/ some blisters, but nothing too unbearable.

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