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Stay safe in nature: tips for families

I always encourage patients to get outside because nature offers significant physical and mental benefits. The outdoors is a lot safer than many people think. With a little planning, most people can handle common injuries and prevent a trip-ending medical problem.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

As an urgent care doctor who is also fellowship trained in wilderness medicine, I believe that the most important thing anyone can do is prepare for their adventure. Consider all the angles:

  • Assess the landscape. What is phone reception like? Where is the nearest hospital? What is the terrain like? How about the weather? Is this place at high risk for wildfires?
  • Consider physical capabilities. Will kids or teens be able to have fun and keep up on the hike? Is everyone conditioned enough to stay together?
  • Gear up. Does everyone have the tools to safely participate? For example, do people have boots that fit and tents they know how to put up?
  • Make a contact plan. Does someone know where you’re going, your route, and when to start worrying?

Preparation helps everyone stay safe and comfortable, prevents injuries, and lets people focus on enjoying themselves.

Pack first aid for skin

It’s also important to keep a simple first aid kit handy. Some of the most common outdoor injuries are skin-related—think scraped knees and cuts.

If someone does get injured, assess the wound to see if it’s superficial or deep. If you can see an exposed layer of fat, or if it’s deep or dirty, it’s best to end the trip and come to Urgent Care right away so the injury can be fully disinfected and closed up.

Otherwise, clean it with purified water, saline solution, or iodine, removing as much grime as possible. Let it dry, then apply a topical antibiotic and a gauze bandage, then wrap to secure. Those three things—something to clean a wound with, an antibiotic, and bandages—are about half of what you need in any wilderness first aid kit. Other important skincare items include: A topical antihistamine to calm itches, sunscreen, and aloe vera for burns.

Add a pin, pain relievers

A clean pin can be handy for blisters. Disinfect the outside of the blister, then use the pin to poke a hole and drain the fluid. Keep the skin intact as it acts as a biological bandage. If a blister becomes red, hot, swollen, or filled with pus, make sure a doctor checks it out.

I also suggest that people carry basic pain medications—acetaminophen and ibuprofen. They should bring any prescriptions that are personal to them—inhalers, epinephrine pens, heart medicines, etc. It’s a good idea to check your first aid kit and restock it before every trip.

Practice good hygiene

Infectious diarrhea is extremely contagious and easy to pass on when people are using the bathroom outside. Washing hands thoroughly and using hand sanitizer are extremely important. Diarrhea can not only be uncomfortable, it can also cause dehydration. Adding an anti-diarrheal to the first aid kit can help people make it back to town comfortably. Go to urgent care if diarrhea isn’t resolved within 24.

Bring the basics

Even if you have top-of-the-line gear and a fully stocked first aid kit, there are still a few essential items to remember, particularly if the area is remote:

  • A whistle (for signaling)
  • A mirror (also for signaling)
  • Emergency shelter (such as an emergency blanket)
  • Extra water (or a water purification method)
  • Extra food
  • Two ways to make a fire (such as a lighter and matches)
  • A sturdy knife
  • A paper map and compass
  • A flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries.

Be a Good Samaritan

When you’re in the woods, your group might encounter someone else who is hurt. It is appropriate to stop and help them, find a ranger, or call 911. Never be afraid to ask people if they need assistance. Caring for each other makes the outdoors safer for everyone.

Enjoy the journey

Finally, it’s easy to get summit fever—to want to see a certain waterfall, get to this ridge, float these rapids. While it’s powerful to have a big goal it’s also important to remember why we get outside in the first place. We go to have a better relationship with nature, to smell the clean air, and to see the sights. Injuries happen when people are blinded by their goal and ignore dangers such as changing weather or pain.

Try to focus on the journey, no matter how big or small it may be. Getting out in nature doesn’t have to be a big trip. Exploring a nearby trail, walking along the waterfront, or simply bird watching can still give you peace and connection.

Dr. Derek Meyer is an urgent care physician at Vancouver Clinic. He trusts in the therapeutic power of being outdoors and believes that spending more time among the forests, mountains, and rivers—and away from screens—can improve a person’s physical and mental health.