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Hiking: Good for the Whole Family (But Make Sure You're Prepared!)


You've decided that this is the summer you're going to get your family involved in hiking. And what a great decision that is. Hiking is a lot of fun for everyone. It teaches children respect for the environment. It's a way to spend time together without the distractions of telephones, computers and errands. It clears your mind to spend time in nature. And hiking is very good for you.

The health benefits of hiking

Hiking gets the whole family in a healthy mode. It's an aerobic exercise, so it helps to

  • Lower high blood pressure
  • Control blood sugar
  • Prevent heart disease
  • Prevent osteoporosis
  • Improve your mental outlook
  • Burn calories, helping you to control your weight. A very comfortably-paced, two-mile-per-hour hike will allow a 150-pound person to burn 240 calories in one hour.

    Make sure you're physically prepared

    Even a hike that lasts only a day requires you to be in reasonably good shape, especially if you'll be going up and down hills. Before spending a day on a trail, take some time in advance to get yourself in good physical condition. Take regular long walks or get other regular aerobic activity so that you can handle a day in the woods.

    Hiking with kids: preparation and patience essential

    The first thing to be prepared for when you take kids on a hike is that it takes a lot of time to get ready and the hike will be slower and shorter than you probably would prefer.
    One of the things children like best about going on a hike is seeing wild animals. So parents need to stress the importance of being quiet as you walk. Let them know that the quieter they are, the more animals they're likely to see.

    Other preparations parents need to make:

  • Keep in mind that children get tired fast, even the ones who seem to have boundless energy at home. Keep your hike short, especially at first, until you know how far your child can comfortably go.
  • Plenty of water is a must. Kids can get dehydrated easily, especially in the warmer weather.
  • Carry high energy snacks with you, such as granola bars, fruit and cereal.
  • Take rain gear so you're prepared for sudden storms.
  • Try to find a trail that has a goal, such as a beautiful waterfall or a pretty view.
  • If kids' energy starts to flag or they lose interest in the hike, you can try playing a game on the trail, like I Spy.
  • Avoid using scented shampoos and soaps, because they may attract more bugs than usual.
  • Dress the kids in bright colors so you can see them easily if they run ahead.

    Other ways to be prepared

  • Learn to use a map and compass before your hike, and carry them with you when you go.
  • Avoid blisters by walking around in your hiking shoes before you go on your hike.
  • Pack a fully stocked first aid kit.
  • Limit your group to 10 people. It becomes too hard to keep track of everyone otherwise.
  • Take more food than you expect to eat. You'll be burning up calories as you hike, and you'll get hungrier than usual.

    Regarding snakes

    Most snakes are harmless, but since you may not know what's on the mind of a snake you come across, follow these guidelines:

  • First of all, leave snakes alone. Keep your distance, because as you approach, a snake is able to strike out at you faster and farther than you might expect. They can reach out to about half their body length. So stay at least six feet away.
  • Don't even touch a dead snake. The fangs can still contain venom.
  • Don't reach into areas where you can't see the ground. Snakes can lie underneath ivy and other ground cover.
  • Remain on trails whenever possible. If you plan on leaving the trail, wear long pants and boots.

    If a snake bites you…

    Before you get nervous about this, remember that about 75 million people in America go on hikes each year, and fewer than six die of snake bites each year. Most snakes are harmless, and most snake bites are not fatal. However, you should follow these precautions if a snake bites you.

  • Call 911 if possible, and get to an emergency room as soon as possible. If you can wait for help, do, but if you can't reach help by phone, make your way slowly out of the woods to the nearest hospital.
  • If your bite is on your arm or hand, remove rings, bracelets and watches, in case you experience swelling.
  • Leave the bite alone. Do not try to suck the venom out of the wound, either with your mouth or with a suction device.
  • Leave the snake alone.
  • Don't put ice directly on the wound.

    Dealing with poison ivy

    At any time in your life, you can become allergic to poison ivy, oak, and sumac. These plants contain an oil called urushiol, which is found in all parts of the plant. It's this oil that gives you the rash. If you've been around these plants, wash everything as soon as you come inside to get rid of the oil right away.

    Remember these three things about poison ivy, oak, and sumac:

  • Avoid
    Learn to recognize the leaves of the plants so that you can avoid contact with them. Poison ivy has medium-sized leaves that are shiny and cluster in threes. Often there is a slight groove in the leaf, giving it the look of vaguely having a thumb.

  • Prevent
    If you're going on a hike, consider applying Ivy Block before you go. This can prevent the rash from developing, or make the rash less severe if it does develop. If you think you have been exposed, within two hours-if possible-wash with soap and water, apply rubbing alcohol to your skin, or try washing with Tecnu soap.

  • Treat
    A poison ivy rash generally lasts about two weeks. Over-the-counter remedies, like calamine lotion, can offer temporary relief in most cases, but there is no cure for this supremely itchy condition. It's important to keep the rash clean, especially if it begins to ooze, to prevent infection. If the rash is severe, develops on your face or genitals, or if you have a fever or have difficulty breathing, see your doctor for additional treatment.

    Handling bee stings, spider bites and chiggers

    If you're stung by a honey bee, look for the stinger and pluck it out as soon as you can. The quicker you do this, the less bee venom you'll have in your system. Other bees and stinging insects-bumble bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets-don't leave stingers behind.

    Put ice on the affected area right away, and then apply a paste of baking soda and water.

    People who have severe allergic reactions to bee stings should seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

    Spider bites

    The bites of two types of spiders-the brown recluse and the black widow-are considered dangerous to humans.

  • From 1 to 4 hours after a bite, the venom from a black widow can cause muscle spasms and cramps, nausea, vomiting and difficulty breathing.
  • A brown recluse's venom causes local tissue damage. An ulcer at the site of the bite continues to enlarge, heals slowly and may cause chills, aches and nausea in the first few hours.

    If the person who's been bitten is having a severe reaction to a spider bite, call for emergency medical assistance right away. Even if the reaction does not seem severe, medical attention is necessary:

  • Call a hospital emergency department to let them know you'll be arriving so they can have the correct anti-venom medication ready.
  • Wash the area that was bitten and place a cold compress on it to slow the spread of the venom.
  • Remove rings or anything constrictive, because the bitten area may swell.
  • Place the bitten site below the heart level. Never place it above the level of the heart.
  • Constantly watch for signs of shock-decreasing alertness or increased paleness-and difficulty breathing. Call 911 if these symptoms arise.
  • If necessary, administer CPR if you are able to.


    Chiggers are bright red, eight-legged insects that feed on humans and animals. They're most commonly found in overgrown brush and unmown grassy areas, and they're most abundant in July, August and early September.

    Chiggers don't burrow under the skin. They inject a digestive enzyme from their mouth onto the skin. The enzyme dissolves the skin cells it touches, and the chigger then sucks up the skin tissue, which has turned into liquid. The result is a bite that itches like crazy.

    You can treat chigger bites with over-the-counter antihistamines, hydrocortisone creams and Calamine lotion. Be sure to read the labels to make sure these products are safe for you. And be aware that they aren't likely to provide complete relief.

    To avoid chigger bites:

  • Wear long sleeves and long pants
  • Remove and wash clothes as soon as you get home
  • Take a warm, soapy shower or bath right away
  • If you can't bathe right away, try to rub your body with alcohol
  • Mosquito repellent may be effective for chiggers, but don't forget to re-apply every three hours or so

    Always let someone know where you're going when you're going on a hike

    Last but not least, be sure to let someone know you're going on a hike, and let them know exactly where and when you expect to be back. That's one of the most important safety issues of all. Imagine being on a trail, maybe just you and a small child, and then you break your leg. Someone needs to know you're out there so that they can come looking for you if you don't return when you say you will.

    To find trails in your area, visit the American Hiking Society's Web site and go to the Trail Finder page

    The American Hiking Society; University of Pennsylvania Health System
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