Getting sick at home is bad enough, but catching a bug in the backcountry, miles away from your cozy bed, can feel like a serious setback. But, by being able to recognise the signs and symptoms of an illness, you can come up with a proper treatment plan that can help you feel better and possibly even let you continue on your trip.
Note: The symptoms of flulike illnesses and gastrointestinal problems are common to many other medical conditions and can occasionally be the initial indicators of more serious ailments. If your condition lingers or worsens, consult your physician for a complete examination.
The most common sicknesses to hit backcountry travellers fall into two broad categories: flulike illnesses (colds, upper-respiratory infections, sore throat, fever, headaches) and gastrointestinal problems (nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea). By being aware of the signs and symptoms associated with these conditions, you’ll be able to decide how to proceed with treatment.
“Flulike illnesses” is a catchall term for a variety of common ailments, including colds, sore throats, upper respiratory infections, fevers and headaches (it does not include the influenza virus, which is a specific medical diagnosis). Flulike illnesses are often a viral infection of the nasal passages and throat, which is why they usually include a runny nose, sore throat, coughing and sneezing.
In many cases, a patient with a flulike illness will display these signs and symptoms:
If the signs and symptoms include lots of coughing, sneezing and nose blowing, the patient may have an upper-respiratory infection (URI), which is a viral or bacterial infection that affects the sinuses, pharynx, larynx or bronchi. Here are indicators of a URI:
If you’ve ever been stricken with a “stomach bug” or “stomach flu” that’s left you dashing for the bathroom, then what you probably had was gastroenteritis. Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the gastrointestinal system caused by a virus, bacteria or parasites.
A patient suffering from a mild case of gastroenteritis will likely report these signs and symptoms:
With severe gastroenteritis, the patient will typically experience these signs and symptoms:
Based on the signs and symptoms that a patient is displaying, you can develop a treatment plan that will hopefully bring some relief and let you continue on your way. However, sometimes the thought of another night spent in a tent while sick can be unbearable, so know that you always have the option of cutting a trip short and heading home.
Many flulike illnesses can take a week or more to clear up. The aim when treating these ailments is to help the patient feel better by treating the symptoms while the illness runs its course. Here’s how:
Most people will get over a case of mild gastroenteritis in about 1–3 days, which means they can often continue on with a trip that lasts longer than that. Here are some ways to treat mild gastrointestinal problems (severe gastroenteritis requires evacuation and a visit to a doctor):
One of the challenges with treating illnesses in the backcountry is determining when things are bad enough that you need to evacuate. Here’s some direction on when you should head home and see a doctor.
If you or someone in your group experiences any of these signs or symptoms, evacuation is required:
With serious cases of gastroenteritis, evacuation is required. It’s time to head home if you or someone in your group experiences any of these symptoms:
In the case of an evacuation where the patient requires assistance, you may need to call for help. Cell coverage can be spotty in the backcountry so it’s wise to have a backup to a cellphone.
Being sick is never fun, but it can feel even worse when it interrupts an outdoor adventure. To help prevent future illness, follow these common tips:
Practice good hygiene: Just because you’re outdoors doesn’t mean you should tolerate poor hygiene. The spread of gastrointestinal illnesses and flulike illnesses can often be blamed on contaminated hands. It’s important to always wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitiser prior to handling food and after going to the bathroom.
Disinfect your water: Waterborne threats such as protozoa, bacteria and viruses can make you very sick. Don’t take any chances with untreated water; purify or filter water before drinking it. Learn how in our article.
Cover your coughs and sneezes: Flulike illnesses can be spread as an aerosol, so if someone is sick, it’s important that they cover their coughs and sneezes. Use a tissue, handkerchief or elbow.