I have written time and again about the benefits of exercising and doing it outdoors. When I visit a a health club I feel like a prisoner. Of course, I live on the shores of Lake Michigan with the wonderful Chicago lakefront outside my door. So, in that regard, the outdoors is an integral part of my life. But, for those of you who are in town, or in the burbs, there is some preparation necessary to enjoy nature in a safe way.
If you’re heading for the great outdoors, be sure to bring along some common sense.
That’s the best way to reduce the chances that a bite, sting, cut, scrape, burn, blister, rash, sprain, strain, more serious injury or other mishap will spoil your outdoor adventure.
“Knowing your limits, not trying to do too much, knowing where you’re going and what you might encounter there and being aware of the environment you’re in are the best ways to avoid problems outdoors,” said Henderson McGinnis, M.D., an associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, medical director of its AirCare emergency transport service, a recognized expert in wilderness medicine and an experienced outdoorsman.
“Doing a little preparation before you go and being sensible while you’re out there can make all the difference.”
That advice applies to veteran hikers, bikers, campers, climbers and paddlers, but it’s essential for people with no or limited outdoors experience. And there are lots of them these days.
That’s because Americans in general and children in particular simply don’t spend as much time outside as they once did. Consequently, overall familiarity with nature just ain’t what it used to be.
This byproduct of our high-tech, indoor-oriented society even has a name: nature-deficit disorder.
“So many people are super-connected to their phones and the web and all of these virtual things that they get totally unglued when they’re out of that environment,” McGinnis said. “They may be very intelligent, very accomplished people but they really don’t know what they’re doing or seeing because they’ve had little or no exposure to the outdoors.”
That’s probably one of the reasons why some people in the woods recoil in fear at the sight of deer while others try to take selfies with bears.
“I also think a lot of people go out unprepared because they’re successful in other aspects of life and are overconfident,” McGinnis added. “They decide to go hiking or camping or whatever thinking they can handle everything just fine when they really can’t.”
McGinnis offered a couple of cautionary notes for outdoors novices.
“Don’t count on your phone like you do the rest of the time,” he said. “You might not have cell service out in the woods, even in places close to populated areas. If something happens you can take a picture of it with your cell phone but you might not be able to call for help.
“And don’t drink out of a stream or river. The water may look clean and clear but there may be cow pee in it, or runoff from a chicken farm. Have your own source of water or a way to purify water.”
So, doing a little research before heading outdoors is a clearly good idea, as is choosing proper attire.
“If you’re going hiking anywhere you should at a minimum wear some sort of supportive shoe, whether it’s a trail running shoe or a hiking boot,” McGinnis said. “You definitely don’t want to be wearing flip-flops or something that provides no traction or support. And you should wear clothes that you’re not going to be too cold or too hot in, clothes that can give you some protection from the sun, from rain, from insects.”
Bringing along essential items is also important, but that doesn’t mean you have you weigh yourself down with lots of gear. Rather, McGinnis said, determining what you carry should be based on what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.
Take sunscreen and insect repellent, for example. If you’re going to be out a half-day or less you can apply them beforehand and leave their containers behind.
On the other hand, McGinnis recommends bringing some water and a snack along even if you’re just taking a walk around a park. “You might not need either, but you might run into someone who does,” he said.
For longer outings, the packing list should be a little longer.
“If I’m going out for more than a couple of hours I’ll take a small backpack or waist pack and maybe a soft shell jacket or another layer of clothing, and definitely a hat and sunglasses this time of year,” McGinnis said. “Plus enough food and water for however long I’m going to be out.”
What about first aid?
“I often carry a little ‘boo-boo bag,’ a quart-size plastic storage bag with a couple of bandages, some tape, a little tube of antibiotic ointment and maybe a couple of steri-strips,” McGinnis said. “On a longer trip I’ll throw in tweezers or a multi-tool, baby wipes, a little bar of hotel soap, hand sanitizer gel and a SAM splint, which is a thin piece of aluminum with foam coating that you can do a million things with.”
The key, he said, is “having a little foresight to plan for what you might encounter.”
Of course there’s more to wilderness medicine than dealing with scratches and sprains incurred on weekend camping trips. This subspecialty of emergency medicine is generally defined as the practice of providing vital care to patients with acute illnesses or injuries in remote locations with limited resources and lack of immediate transportation to conventional care.
“Wilderness medicine encompasses more than most people realize,” said McGinnis, who is a member of the board of the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine and active in other professional organizations. “Many associate it with something extreme like rescuing people stranded in the Himalayas. But it also includes working in disaster regions where there’s no water or power in the wake of a flood or hurricane or whatever.
“There has been a push to try to reclassify it as limited-resource medicine. That’s probably more accurate, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”