(This is an article I recently wrote for goHUNT.com. To view all content, click the link at the bottom of the article)
Preparation is crucial to a successful hunt. We plan, pack proper gear, practice our shooting accuracy, watch our nutrition and train regularly to ensure that we have the best chance of success. Yet, if we are not careful, all of that preparation can be rendered meaningless if we get injured. Not only that, but the wrong injury at the wrong time in the wrong place could spell dire consequences. While injuries are a likely reality for someone who is active in the backcountry, there are some common causes of injuries that you can avoid as well as some proactive measures you can take to prevent injuries before they happen. In the event that an injury does occur, it is important to know how to deal with the injury to minimize further complications and get on the road to recovery.
The Anatomy of an Injury
Injuries in their most basic sense occur when a specific body part is forced to do something that it is not made to do. When muscles, ligaments and bones are made to move too far, too fast or in the wrong direction, injury occurs. This can be a break, tear, strain or even inflammation of an area that triggers nerve endings to tell your brain that something hurts. Your brain then tells that part of your body to take a break by inhibiting movement in order to keep the injured area at rest and induce recovery. Your body inhibits movement in multiple ways but, as many of us know, pain is arguably the most effective way because it lets you know right away that something isn’t right and you don’t want to move.
Causes of Injury
While there are myriads of reasons someone may get injured, the following are some of the most common reasons injuries occur:
If you are not active and you try to do something your body is not accustomed to doing, you are very likely going to get injured. You body is a lot like an engine: if you let it sit for a long time without using it, it will need some TLC to get it back to strong, running condition. If you live a sedentary lifestyle in which you sit at a desk all day, come home and sit some more, you need activity and exercise in order to get your muscles and ligaments working properly again. Jumping off the couch and tackling an elk hunt in Colorado is crazy; you’re going to get hurt. Regular exercise ensures proper functioning of muscles and tendons while also improving flexibility. It is important to stay active before your hunt so that you have a smooth transition from training to the backcountry.
Lack of Attention
All of the training in the world can be rendered ineffective if you are not paying attention. Your body can only be pushed so far and lack of attention can put you in harm’s way. When you are hiking in the backcountry, pay careful attention to your surroundings and watch where you are going. Keeping your eyes open for animals is important, but so is not rolling your ankle on the rock that you aren’t aware of. Paying attention will greatly reduce the likelihood of getting injured.
Ignoring your Body
Our bodies are pretty incredible. The human body knows when something is wrong long before we realize it. The notion of pushing through pain, while appearing tough, is stupid. When something hurts, your body is saying, “Something is not right!” Ignoring these warning signs will never result in the problem just going away; it will always get worse. Many injuries occur because someone was unwilling to listen to what his or her body was saying and decided to “tough it out” which lead to a much bigger problem. Listen to your body, pay attention to what it is trying to tell you, slow down and take care of yourself.
Proactive Injury Prevention
There are certain things that every person can do to prevent injuries from occurring in the backcountry. While these will not guarantee that you will never get injured, they will create safeguards against injury by addressing the main sources of injuries.
Strength training does not just build bigger muscles; it strengthens your muscles and leads to improved stability. A well-rounded strength training routine will build core strength, improve balance and increase muscular endurance. Many injuries happen when fatigue sets in; training will reduce this risk.
Flexibility is key to staying injury-free. Stretching helps lengthen muscle fibers and also increases range of motion by increasing joint mobility. There are essentially two types of stretching: dynamic and static stretching. Dynamic involves movement that steadily increases range of motion (deep walking lunges, arm circles, etc.). Static stretches involve holding a position and breathing deeply while focusing on increasing the stretch during the exhale. Both forms are important and you should incorporate both types of stretching into your workout routine
Your body needs nutrients to work properly. If you aren’t getting the proper nutrients, you are going to be at a higher risk of injury. In addition to taking a multivitamin, you should also make sure that you are getting the nutrients your joints need. Omega-3 fats act as a natural anti-inflammatory and also help to improve joint function. Joint health formulas are also great for getting the right nutrients to your joints. These formulas often contain Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane), which are three key nutrients for your joints.
Packing properly, knowing your terrain, wearing proper gear and eating right are all forms of proper preparation. If you are going on a five day elk hunt, you need to have a pack that can handle the weight of the meat and that also fits properly. Many hunters have permanently injured their spine because they did not have the proper gear during a pack out. Plan and prepare well and you will eliminate a large portion of injury risks.
How to Deal with an Injury
While preparation and care is important, sometimes it still isn’t enough; sometimes you still get hurt. What should you do if you do get injured in the backcountry?
Carry a basic first aid kit
You should always have basic first aid supplies in the event that you get injured in the backcountry. It does not need to be exhaustive, but it should contain things like pain relievers, antihistamines, antibiotic ointment, cotton swaps, malleable splint (for fractures or sprains), multi-tool, dressing pads, gauze roll and bandages. A first aid kit is one of those things that you don’t need until you need it, but when you need it you’re glad you have it.
Carry a communications device
If you are hunting solo, this is a no-brainer; however, even if you are with others, cell service is not a guarantee. Having some form of radio or satellite communications device could be the difference between being found or being stranded. Don’t risk it; spend the money and get one.
Address, Evaluate, Act
If you are injured in the field, follow these steps:
Address the immediate issues
- Bleeding – Are you bleeding? Before you do anything else, stop the bleeding and bandage properly.
- Swelling – Swelling is a sign of muscle and ligament damage. If there is swelling, you will need to stabilize the injured area.
- Pain – Pain is an indicator of a bigger problem. Attempt to determine the immediate source of the pain in order to know the seriousness of the injury.
- Limited mobility – If the pain or swelling has limited your mobility, then you may not be able to get out of the area on your own. Stabilize the body part with limited mobility so as to not worsen the issue.
Evaluate your physical ability
After addressing the immediate issues, you have to take an honest assessment of your ability to move. If you are not able to walk under your own power, do not force it; this will only make things worse.
Once you have evaluated your current status, it is time to act. Either get moving to get further help or if you are unable to get back to camp, signal for someone to come help. Nothing else matters at this point except getting help and getting home. If you have to leave gear, leave it. If you have to end your hunt, end it. Nothing is more important than getting home safe to the ones you love.
This is in no way a completely exhaustive list of how to prevent and deal with injury in the field. It is instead meant to give you a basic understanding from which to build your knowledge. If you have never taken a class, take a Wilderness First Responder course. You will learn so much that will come in handy when you are in the field and someone gets hurt (plus you will also learn a great deal about how to avoid getting hurt in the first place). No matter what, be ready for the worst so that when something bad happens you are able to respond well.
Be prepared, be careful, stay safe and come home to tell about it.
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