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Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Tips to Prevent Outdoor Sports Injury

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Outdoor recreation is the fastest growing category of recreation in the U.S., and perhaps worldwide. In addition to hiking, trekking, backbacking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing, swimming, boating, scuba diving, and all of the other outdoor recreational activities with which we are familiar can be added sports activities, some of which include competitions. So, when you consider surfing, windsurfing, mountain biking, rock climbing, adventure races, triathlons, marathons, and all of the assorted activities that are perpetrated outdoors, outdoor sports is a huge category.

Each activity has a set of rules for injury prevention. For instance, if you are a scuba diver, there are unique concerns for which you must be aware, such as how long you spend underwater and at what depth, rapidly you ascend from the depth, which marine animals to avoid, and so forth. There isn't enough space in this individual post to consider every activity, but there is certainly room for a list of generalities, which are the foundation upon which are built the specific considerations of injury prevention.

Here is a list of injury prevention recommendations for outdoor sports, whether they be recreational or competitive:

1. Be prepared. The Boy Scouts (and Girl Scouts) have it right. There is no substitute for preparedness. Adherence to this basic rule will prevent or ease the majority of mishaps that occur in the wild. Proper education prior to situations of risk allows you to cope in a purposeful fashion, rather than in a state of fear and panic.

2. Prior to undertaking a trip where you will be far from formal medical assistance, it is wise to attend to any obvious medical problems. If you have not done so within the past 6 months, visit a dentist. Make certain that all of your immunizations are up to date.

3. Use common sense. Many accidents occur because people ignore warning signs or don’t anticipate problems. Swimmers are stung by jellyfish outside protective net enclosures; nonswimmers drown while participating in hazardous whitewater rafting adventures.

4. Pay heed to rangers, posted warnings, weather reports, and the experience of seasoned guides. For instance, in hot and dry weather, know the specific fire risks, and take no chances.

5. Prepare for situations of risk by developing your skills in less challenging conditions.

6. Wear recommended personal safety equipment, such as a flotation jacket, safety harness, or climbing helmet.

7. Do not tolerate horseplay in dangerous settings.

8. Many health hazards of wilderness travel, such as falls, can be avoided by a reasonable degree of strength and endurance, which can only be acquired by conditioning. Every expedition member should begin from a state of maximum fitness.

9. Other health hazards, such as temperature extremes and high-altitude disorders, can in certain circumstances be avoided by acclimatization to the environment. Acclimatization is a physiological adaptation that is often different from, and may be unrelated to, physical fitness.

10. Be prepared for foul-weather conditions. Always assume that you will be forced to spend an unexpected night outdoors. Carry warm clothing and waterproof rain gear. 11. Break in all footwear, and take care to pad rough edges and exposed seams.

11. Prepare a trip plan (itinerary) and record it in a location (trailhead, ranger station, marina, or the like) where someone will recognize when a person or party is overdue and potentially lost or in trouble.

12. Make sure that children wear an item of bright clothing and carry a whistle that they know to blow if they are frightened or lost. If you carry a radio, know how to tune in to a weather information channel.

13. In most stories of miraculous ocean or wildland survival, the first chapter includes the account of how the victim lost his way. All wilderness travelers should carry maps, be proficient with compass routing, understand how to signal for help, and know in advance where they intend to explore.

14. People with specific medical disabilities, such as chronic severe lung disease, may be advised by a physician to avoid certain stressful environments, such as high altitude.

15. Anyone who undertakes vigorous physical activity should consume adequate calories in a well-balanced diet. A debilitating weight-reduction program should not be continued in the wilderness, where a rescue might depend on extraordinary effort and endurance.

16. To avoid dehydration and exhaustion, take adequate time to eat, drink, and rest. Most adult males require 3,000 to 5,000 food calories each day in order to sustain heavy physical exertion. Women require 2,000 to 3,500 calories. A nutritious diet can easily be maintained with proper planning. Don’t plan to live off the land unless you are a survival expert.

17. Fluid requirements have been well worked out for all levels of exercise. Most people underestimate their fluid requirements. Encourage frequent rest stops and water breaks. If natural sources of drinkable water (springs, wells, ice-melt runoff) will not be encountered, you should carry at least a 48-hour supply. Carry supplies for water disinfection.

18. Use the buddy system. Don't enter a remote area without a companion, or better, a few companions.

photo by Lanny Johnson

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Tags: Staying Safe

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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