Hikers' essential medicine kit

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

A hiking trip can do wonders for the mind and body — but tread carefully. Hikes can be remote and physically challenging, and you can fall ill even when you’re fit.

Whether you’re doing a day walk in rainforest, trekking a long desert track or scaling the heights of the Himalayas, packing the right advice and a suitable medicine kit is the key to staying well.

Packing the right advice and a suitable medicine kit is the key to staying well. (Shutterstock.com)

Check before you trek

While age and ongoing medical conditions like diabetes needn’t stop many travellers from hiking, Dr Philippa Binns, clinical adviser at NPS MedicineWise, says it’s still important to talk to your doctor first.

“You may need to gradually build up your fitness over a few weeks, or months, before you can hike”, says Dr Binns.

Your doctor can advise what vaccinations you need, and if any changes to managing your medical conditions are necessary.

“Changes in physical activity, climate, or seasons can affect some medical conditions. For instance, hiking in cold dry environments, or when pollen counts are high, may trigger asthma attacks for some people”.

Your doctor or travel health clinic can help tailor a medicine kit for your trip. Check about particular hazards for the area you're travelling to and how to deal with first aid emergencies. As well as your usual medicines, here are some other common items you may need to pack.

Dressings and bandages

Some of the most common problems for hikers are blisters, cuts and grazes. Look after them carefully to help healing and reduce infection.

Wear comfortable, well-fitting shoes to protect your feet from injury. Check your feet daily for cuts, blisters or grazes, especially if you have diabetes or circulation problems. You can also attend to ‘hot spots’ by using a blister prevention product that provides padding or acts like a second skin.

Cover injuries with sticky dressings (e.g. bandaids) or gauze dressings, and pack some bandages or tape to secure them. For burst blisters leave the broken skin intact, press gently to remove fluid, and cover with a sterile dressing.

Soft padded dressings are useful for painful blisters, or where blisters may burst such as the soles of your feet.

Altitude sickness tablets

If you hike above 2500 metres you may get altitude sickness, even if you’re fit and haven’t experienced it before.

Altitude sickness mostly causes headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, or difficulty sleeping. It can be severe and life-threatening if it causes fluid to collect in the brain or lungs. Let your body adapt to less oxygen by increasing altitude very gradually (including rest days).

Acetazolamide tablets can also help prevent and treat symptoms. You may be advised to take them if you’ve had severe altitude sickness before, your hike is particularly risky, or you’re flying from sea level to above 3000 metres.

Sunscreen and eye protection

Sunburn is another risk, especially at altitude where UV rays are more intense. UV rays reflecting off snow increase your chance of sunburn and eye problems, including snow blindness or future cataracts.

Pack a broad spectrum sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (at least SPF 30). Apply daily and reapply according to directions. Wear close-fitting, wrap-around sunglasses (meeting Australian Standard AS1067) or snow goggles, even on cloudy and hazy days.

Insect repellent and mosquito nets

Malaria is one of the most serious infectious diseases for hikers in tropical destinations.  Antimalarial medicines are usually advised, but avoiding mosquito bites is crucial to prevent malaria and other diseases like dengue fever.

Pack an insect repellent containing at least 30% diethyltoluamide (DEET). Mosquito nets and pale long sleeves and loose pants soaked in insecticide (permethrin) are useful, especially between dusk and dawn, and while you sleep.

Diarrhoea treatments

Traveller’s diarrhoea is very common, especially if you’re drinking water from untreated tanks or streams. Diarrhoea can cause severe dehydration. Drink clear fluids like water and restore lost fluid with oral rehydration solutions (such as Gastrolyte). They’re worth packing especially if you’re hiking with kids (they can dehydrate much more quickly).

Adults can take an antidiarrhoeal medicine like loperamide (brands include Imodium) in case you need to stop diarrhoea for a short time. Don’t take these medicines if diarrhoea is severe as they can stop clearing out what’s causing it and make it worse.

If your kit includes antibiotics for certain situations of persistent or severe diarrhoea, ensure you take them exactly as prescribed — and never use them to treat another person’s illness.

Pain relief medicines

Hiking ailments such as sprains and strains, altitude sickness, colds and chest infections often cause headache, pain or fever.

For these situations pack an over-the-counter pain relief medicine like paracetamol (e.g. Panadol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Nurofen). Ask your doctor or pharmacist which medicine is most suitable for you.

If you need a pain relief medicine, ensure you take it safely and effectively by following the instructions on the label or packaging or given by your health professional.

Insulated pouch or bag

Temperature extremes may make it difficult to control the storage conditions for your medicine kit.

“Most medicines need to be stored under 25°C, away from direct heat, moisture and sunlight. If you’re hiking in a very warm or humid environment, you might need to use a cooler bag, esky or insulated pouch to protect your medicines,” says Dr Binns.

Medicines may no longer work properly when stored above or below recommended temperatures.

“If your medicines get damp or accidentally freeze on your hiking trip, you may not be able to use them again. Check with a pharmacist before you set off so you know what to do.” 

More tips for the trail

  • drink plenty of water (several litres a day at altitude)
  • avoid cigarettes, alcohol and sleeping pills, especially at altitude
  • cover up with clothing and a broad-brimmed hat in the sun
  • wash hands before preparing food and after going to the toilet
  • use an alcohol hand rub if you can’t wash your hands
  • boil or add water purification tablets to unbottled water, or use a water purifier.
Call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) for more information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (including herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements).