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Backpacking Health

 

Please read our Medical Disclaimer.

 

For backpackers traveling to distant lands or remote areas, it if very important to stay health.  Minor injuries or health problems can escalate into severe issues that can bring a trek to a halt or even create a life threatening problem when isolated from regular health care facilities or basic medical care.

 

The biggest concerns to health include environmental hazards, injuries, diseases from water, food or insects and preexisting medical concerns with the possibility of isolation from basic health care, sanitation and medication.

 

Injuries

Small injuries that are of little concern when at home can develop into significant problems in the outback.  A small cut can become infected and lead to severe problems if inadequately treated in dirty environments.  Difficulties with communicating with civilization and with evacuating from remote areas can delay evacuation by days to weeks and even longer in some places and circumstances.

 

Before venturing into the outback or abroad, backpackers should familiarize themselves with at a minimum, basic wilderness medicine.  There many organizations that offer basic wilderness med courses and several books on the subject.  Also familiarize yourself with potential evacuation routes and methods as well as hospitals and embassies that may be nearby and who to get to them and contact them.

 

Preexisting Medical Conditions

Preexisting medical conditions can make travel more difficult and can put your life as well as those traveling with you at risk.  Make sure you discuss your health with your medical provider prior to any trip to ensure you are healthy enough to safely travel and have taken enough precautions to avoid potential problems.

 

You should carry enough medications with you to last through an entire trip as well as enough for any delays in travel that may occur.  These should be carried in their original containers and properly labeled with its contents, dosing and reason for use.  Delays may occur from getting lost, missing fights, natural disasters, coupes, war, changes of plans and all manner of unexpected events.

 

Common items to bring in addition to your prescription medications include legibly written prescriptions with generic names of drugs, prescriptions for eyeglasses and/or contact lenses and medications for reoccurring problems that individual travelers may have (i.e. yeast, urinary and sinus infections, migraine headaches, etc.).

 

Waterborne and Foodborne Disease

Travelers diarrhea can really slow you down physically and can really hurt moral.  In severe circumstances, such as when exerting yourself in tropical environments, or with marathon trekking, one can become severely dehydrated and require IV rehydration and medical treatment.

 

The biggest cause of travelers diarrhea is consuming water or foods with viruses, bacteria or other bugs.  Some of these critters just cause distracting diarrhea, while others can cause life threatening diseases that require prompt medical treatment.  One should avoid high risk foods and drink only treated water.  See Backpacking Water Purification, Filtration and Treatment for more information.

 

Insects and Things that Bite

Insects and other biting bugs can be a real nuisance to backpackers, but can also cause more significant health concerns.  Bites can keep you from getting a good night's sleep or can become infected.  On top of that, some bugs deliver venom or digestive enzymes with their bites which can cause significant pain, cause life threatening anaphylactic shock, or cause destruction of significant amounts of tissue.  Many bugs also transmit diseases - many of which are deadly or cause severe deformities.  Avoid bites by wearing proper clothing, using a bug net when necessary and use of bug repellants and insecticides.  See  Backpacking Insect Repellents and Protection for more information.

 

Snakes, spiders and other things that sting can cause deadly or permanent damage if not treated in a timely manner.  Know the habits or and where these critters like to hang out and avoid them.  If bit, seek medical attention immediately.

 

Hygiene

Personal hygiene is important not only for interpersonal interactions but for overall health.  Make sure that you pack an appropriate hygiene kit and use it.

 

Dental abscesses and caries can stop you in your tracks and destroy any backpacking trip.  Teeth should be brushed every 12 hours at a minimum to remove bacteria and plaque from your teeth.  Brushing also stimulates your gums and decreases the occurrence of several oral diseases.  Toothpaste with fluoride is preferred, but non fluorinated pastes, powders and even brushing with just water provides a good amount of protection against cavities.  Fluorinated toothpaste should not be swallowed.

 

Your feet and the groin region should be washed daily if possible and allowed to dry.  This helps prevent fungal and other infections and decreases body odor.  Socks and undergarments (if worn) should also be changed on a daily basis and washed when possible.  If water is not available for washing, socks and undergarments should be air dried, and exposed to the sun if possible.  Wet wipes can also be used to spot bathe your feet and groin area.  Antifungal powered, creams or solutions may be needed to treat or prevent fungal infections on your feet and groin.

 

Armpits should also be washed daily to decrease body odor.  Travelers may also wish to shave/trim their armpit areas prior to travel.  The idea is to remove hair and not to get your skin smooth to touch.  Since many odor production bacteria adhere to hair and process body secretions into odor forming substances, the removal of armpit hair drastically reduces body odor.  You can thank the ancient Egyptians for this trick.

 

Clothes should be washed when possible to decrease skin problems and odor.  More information can be found on our Backpacking Laundry page.

 

Preventative Medicine

Beyond basic hygiene, there are several measures you can take to prevent common or significant illnesses.

 

Diarrhea

Diarrhea comes in many forms and can a result of viruses, bacteria, other bugs, or your body's disapproval of foods and liquids.  Washing of hands and good food and water selection is quite important and make a big difference in your health and travel experience. 

 

Proper immunization is important prior to any travel.  In particular, you should be current on Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Tetanus no matter where your travels take you.

 

You can also take 2 tablets of bisthmus subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) prophylactically prior to meals (max 2 every 4 hours) to help protect against or treat travelers diarrhea.  Of note - you should not take this prior to of with doxycycline (and other medications) as it decreases your body's ability to absorb doxy, which can be a problem if you are taking it for malaria prophylaxis.

 

If you are already taking doxycycline for malaria prophylaxis, you can double your dose to help prevent diarrhea cased by bacteria.

 

You may also wish to switch from using toilet paper to baby wipes or water and mild soap to decrease the amount of abrasion and irritation to you butt.  See Toilet Use for some odd information about aspects of going to the bathroom.

 

Bug Bites, Infestations and Disease

You should avoid use of clothing and bedding used by others, especially those with lice, scabies, fleas or other skin/bug problems.  Keep your body and clothing clean and use bug repellents, proper clothing and netting as needed.  See  Backpacking Insect Repellents and Protection for more information.

 

Malaria Prophylaxis

This is a subject for a great deal more discussion than you'll find on this page.  Check with the CDC, countries you plan on traveling to and your appropriate governmental department for recommendations on prophylaxis.

 

Sex

If you are planning on engaging in sexual activities while in the outback or abroad, you should make sure you are aware of safe sex practices and pack prophylactic condoms as needed.  Having sexual intercourse with prostitutes in foreign lands - particularly Southeast Asia and Africa, is a good way of bringing home some nasty bugs, including HIV.

 

Dehydration

Keeping hydrated is very important with any kind of trekking, whether it's in the outback, in hot tropical cities or even in colder climates.  Make sure that you are consuming adequate amounts of safe drinking water each day.

 

Those in extremely hot and humid environments and those heavily exerting themselves will require large amounts of water intake and an increase in salt intake from diet, proper sports drinks or oral rehydration packets.

 

Although it is difficult to do, one can over hydrate themselves to the point that they are basically intoxicated.  This can even be lethal - but is again difficult to do.  Backpackers and travel groups should pay attention to hydration levels and avoid forced hydration sessions.

 


 

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