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The top 3 common injuries and illnesses in recreational hiking - the general population

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

What are the common hiking injuries in the general population?

Hiking and backpacking are becoming more popular in the United States. According to the National Survey on Recreation and Environment statistics, 69.7 million people participated in hiking and 22.2 million in backpacking between 1999 and 2003. Also, there was a 30.4% increase in the number of backpackers and wilderness campers in 2004.

With outdoor recreational activities becoming more popular, accidents or injuries happen inevitably. We love outdoor activities and like to have a safe and enjoyable trip. It is essential to understand what are the common injuries and be well prepared for it.

The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System in the emergency department collected and analyzed data from 63 hospitals in the United States from January 2004 to December 2005. Injuries in the natural environment of 21 outdoor activities were included, e.g.water sport, hiking, camping, mountaineering, and winter sports. A total of 212,708 people (representing 72.1 injuries per 100,000 people) required treatment in the emergency department. Of which hiking injuries accounted for 6.3 % of total injuries.

Injuries in different National Parks in the United States

Data was collected in an 8 weeks period from mid-June to mid-August in 2001. The park rangers or volunteers interviewed every third hiker who passed through the eruption site or received first aid attention. 804 hikers were interviewed; they all completed a 4km to 10km round trip in a rugged volcanic landscape.

471 hikers suffered from abrasions and scrapes, 403 developed blisters, and 380 suffered from strains or sprains contributing to the top 3 injuries among those volcanoes hikers. At the same time, the leading 3 common illnesses were dehydration (617), respiratory irritation (367), and headaches/migraines (307).

From 2003-2007 all injuries happened during outdoor recreational activities (excluding motor vehicle accidents) in the park that alerted the emergency response system or personnel (search-and-resume team, paramedics, and park rangers). There were 5,810,951 visitors with 159 total accidents (2.7 incidents per 100,000 visitors).

Hiking (58.5%), biking (13.8%), and camping (9.2%) were the most common activities that led to injuries. The top 3 common types of injuries are soft tissue injuries (33.8%), lacerations (26.2%), and sprains (16.9%). Distal lower limbs were the most common injury body part that accounted for 35.4% of the total injuries.

From 2003 to 2004, all injuries that occurred outdoors within the National Park and activated the emergency medical system were recorded. There were 5.2 injuries reported per 100,000 visitors. Walking contributed most of the injury, followed by hiking and camping; they accounted for 49.1% of total injuries.

Lacerations, abrasions, and burns were the most common types of injuries made up of 43.1%, followed by strains, sprains, and soft tissue injuries, which accounted for 34.3% of the total incidents. 36.6% are leg injuries, which is the most common body part that suffered from accidents.

Recreational injuries data were collected from 1997-2001 in two National Parks in Washington State; they were the Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park. Illnesses and injuries excluding motor vehicle accidents that alerted the paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and park rangers were included. Around 24 million visitors entered the National Park during the period, with 535 individuals, sustained an injury or medical attention. The injury rate was 2.2 injuries per 100,000 visited.

Accidents occurred during hiking (55%) ranked top among other types of activities, followed by winter sports (15%), mountaineering (12%), and camping (6%). Among the total accidents, musculoskeletal injuries (sprains, strains, soft tissue injuries, fractures, dislocations) were most common and accounted for 54%, followed by lacerations (15%). Most of the injuries happened due to falls (54.8%).

The top 3 common illnesses were medical illness (6.4%), hypothermia (4.3%), and dehydration (2.2%).

Please be aware that hiking is the most common wilderness recreational activity in the National Parks in the USA, therefore, leading to most injuries because of its popularity. Also, the number of injuries may be underestimated as some people visited the parks but did not participate in any outdoor recreational activity or injuries that did not alert the emergency medical system were excluded.

A self-reporting questionnaire about injuries and illness was used to collect data after 23 days outward bound alpine course. The course included camping, hiking, rock climbing, solo-experience, and backcountry safety with a total ascending vertical distance of 10,000ft.

There were a total of 343 participants who completed the survey. Lacerations (310), blisters (213), and bruises (170) were the top 3 common injuries reported. For the top 3 common illnesses, they were headaches (110), diarrhea (69), and abdominal pain (69).

Data was collected in a non-competitive fund-raising hike with a total distance of 13.6km and 2614 altitude changes (hiking up and down). One shoulder and neck injury due to a fall and 5 first aid attendance due to dehydration were recorded among 350 participants.

common hiking injuries, most common injury body part and injury mechanism during hiking

The accidents and illnesses were not overwhelmingly serious during recreational hiking and camping; however, there is still room for us to make the numbers even smaller by better planning the trip.

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