Help! I'm sick in the Backcountry!

(Credit: sergejf via Flickr)

It’s a beautiful morning, the sun is starting to rise, birds flying in the air. But all of a sudden, you get out of your sleeping bag and realize your nose is congested and you let out some coughs. It is much more different getting sick while you are out on your trip than when you are at home. However, if you educate yourself about symptoms and possible remedies, you may be able to continue your trip!

Step 1: Examination Time

The first thing you need to do once you realize you are sick is to examine yourself for symptoms. Notice that if you are experiencing headaches, coughs, sneezing, body aches, sore throat and fever, you may have flu-like symptoms. Be aware of the intensity of each of your symptoms. For instance, if you begin to experience extensive coughing and excess congestion, your symptoms point towards an upper-respiratory infection. This type of sickness is much more intense than the flu because it affects not only your sinuses, but also your pharynx, larynx, and bronchi. 

Another common sickness people get when they are backpacking is gastrointestinal problems (a.k.a. the stomach bug). With this sickness, you may need to constantly go to the bathroom. This is called gastroenteritis, which is inflammation caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites. If you have a mild case, you likely have these symptoms:

  • Cramping
  • Consistent bowel sounds
  • Possible fever (low)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Discomfort in the abdomen 
  • Liquid stool

A severe case calls for:

  • Blood in Stools
  • Symptoms of shock
  • Fever over 102 Fahrenheit 
  • Unable to withhold fluids

Step 2: Time for Treatment

When you get sick, and you’ve established what you are dealing with, your mind will start racing on how to treat it and keep on with your trip. If you have the flu, here are some good remedies and suggestions that you can take with you on your trip:

Medication and Hydration

Bringing medication alongside with you is very important. It should be stored in a first aid kit, assuming that you already bring one with you on your trip. There is no need to bring the whole container of the medications you may need, so storing them in sealed bags is a good option. Some of the medications you should consider bringing include: pain relievers like aspirin or acetaminophen, anti-inflammatory drugs, and decongestant medication. Also, staying hydrated while you are on a trip is essential. It can also help get the sickness through your system. Consider bringing some tea with you, or even soups for your meals. They are packed with nutrients that should help make you feel better.


Maybe the number one thing someone tells you once you get sick is to rest. You may be out on a trail and realized you are getting sick, but you are a couple miles shy of your intended destination. Take time to take a break and rest. Not only is your body tired from all the hiking you are doing, but it is also putting energy into your immune system to fight off the sickness. 

Be Hygienic

One of the most common ways people get sick, not only during a trip, is by having poor hygiene. Maybe that’s from not washing your hands before you eat, or not properly cleaning your water bottle or eating utensils. Also to note, if you begin to get sick, make sure you avoid sharing anything with your companions. Try not to use the same water bottle, for instance, so that the sickness does not spread.

Here are some suggestions for if you begin to experience gastrointestinal problems:


It’s a common solution, huh? When you start experiencing these problems, you may begin to vomit or have diarrhea. It’s important to constantly hydrate your body, as you lose a lot of fluids when you are sick. Consider bringing electrolyte packets that you can mix in with your water to help boost your hydration.


Again, no need to bring the whole container. Storing anti-diarrheal medication as well as antiemetic medication will help with dealing with the diarrhea and nausea. If you do have a history with stomach problems, be sure to have consulted a physician to have them prescribe antibiotics that suit your needs. 

Bland Food

With your stomach already upset, refrain from eating high fiber, high fat, and spicy foods. These tend to be hard on the stomach to digest. It will get irritated, and thus induce vomiting and diarrhea. Eating bland food that is easy for digestion will allow you to still have a meal, but limit the risks of more symptoms being persistent.

Step 3: Is it time to leave?

It’s understood that you took a lot of time to plan your trip. From picking your destination, hiking the trail, and unpacking your belongings, you would have been heavily invested. However, it’s not worth sacrificing your health for more days of being sick outdoors. Nature will always be there, and a trip can always be planned. Be mindful of your symptoms, and know when it’s time to back out and head home. Especially if you are experiencing severe cases of the flu and/or gastrointestinal problems, you need to pack up and seek medical attention.

As always, enjoy your trips, be mindful of your body, and stay safe!

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