Ah, the great outdoors. It's where men morph into testosterone-fueled animals, taking summits by storm, conquering raging rivers, and flying down trails. At least that was the fantasy while you were loading up your gear. What happens instead: You fall out of your kayak, a slick rock leads to an ankle twist, or a tree branch spears you in your sleep.
But don't pull up the tent stakes just yet. You don't have to be Bear Grylls to hack it in the backwoods. All you need is this field guide, created with the help of Dr. Travis Stork, the Men's Health emergency-medicine advisor and host of "The Doctors."
Seeking shade should not be your priority.
Worry less about bears and more about a tree limb impaling your ass. If you camp under a tree with large, broken overhanging branches and a storm blows in, these "widowmakers" could fall and turn your sleeping bag into a body bag, Craig Morgan, host of the Outdoor Channel's "All Access Outdoors," said. Ideally, set up camp close to a meadow but away from tall grass, where ticks thrive. (From your tent to the best trails, Men's Health Base Camp has the great outdoors covered.)
DROP LOGS IN THE FOREST
Extend the "leave no trace" ethic to personal hygiene with the help of with the help of Kathleen Meyer, author of "How to S**t in the Woods."
1. Plan for pooping
Pack toilet paper, sealable plastic bags, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and a trowel, such as the 5-ounce U-Dig-It Stainless-Steel Hand Shovel.
"It's stainless steel, folds into a sheath on your belt, and won't bend or break," Meyer said.
2. Stake out a spot
Find a secluded area that isn't within 200 yards of a water source or right off the trail. Use your trowel to dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep.
"The best enzymes for decomposition are in that top layer of soil," Meyer said. Forgot TP? Hunt for soft fallen leaves that haven't dried up, or even a smooth stone.
3. Assume the position
Squat in a surfer's stance: butt below your knees, arms extended for balance. Done? Bury the leaves or stone along with your waste, or if you used toilet paper, seal it in a plastic bag, carry it out of the woods with you, and flush it at home. And don't forget to sanitize your hands!
(Make sure your plumbing is clear of cancer. Here are 9 warning signs you shouldn’t ignore.)
4 FIRST-AID UPGRADES
You should already have gauze pads, band-aids, ibuprofen, and wipes your first-aid kit. Bolster with it.
1. Duct tape
It's waterproof, super-sticky, and versatile.
"Pack multiuse things that are hard to improvise," Dr. Matthew Stauffer, a Wilderness Medicine Institute instructor, said.
It's perfect for covering road rash, burns, and abrasions. Brian Webster, nurse practitioner, a fellow for the Academy of Wilderness Medicine, calls this stuff "Gore-Tex for your skin."
3. Safety pins
They require next to no room in your pack—and are just as multipurpose as that duct tape. Use them to extract splinters, for example, or to turn a shirt into a sling.
4. 3M Vetrap
Vetrap is designed to wrap horses' ankles, but you don't have to be Seabiscuit to benefit.
"It's like an Ace bandage that sticks to itself," Stauffer said.
(Learn these instant first aid tips for when you need a fast fix.)
AVOID A RUN-IN ON THE TRAIL
Trails pose an agility challenge whether you're a road runner or not.
Even if your vehicle proudly displays a "26.2" sticker, you're probably less prepared to tackle trails than you think.
"Because trail running requires so much attention, it's more like mountain biking or skiing than running on pavement," Stork, an avid outdoorsman, said.
So when you hit the ground running, imagine that you're navigating an obstacle course, keeping your mind engaged and present rather than distracted by squirrels playing with their nuts.
"Focus on a spot on the horizon where you can still see the undulations of the trail," he suggested. "And start off at a jogging pace so the little stabilizing muscles in your lower extremities can adapt to the unstable surface." That means taking it slow for your first several outings.
You should also consider investing in trail-specific footwear; the recent minimalist movement has resulted in running-shoe designs that provide little to no protection in the toe region.
"Without that protection, one false landing can easily lead to a broken toe or worse," warns Stork. Check out the North Face Single-Track Hayasa, a trail shoe recommended by Running Times. It features a protective toe cap and a lightweight plate to shield your forefoot.
(Find out how to treat the top 5 common running injuries.)
GO ROCK CLIMBING, NOT FALLING
Here's how to keep your thrill seeking from killing you.
Anybody who scales cliffs is probably an adrenaline junkie, but be careful how you get your fix.
"The rookie mistake is not taking safety seriously," Stork said. "I was climbing with a friend, and he didn't finish his own knot, because he was so intent on tying his girlfriend's knot. His knot came undone. He fell 40-plus feet and fractured his back."
Don't be that guy.
When top-rope climbing (the beginner technique that requires a belay partner), you should always run the rope through two carabiners, both attached to the anchor as backup. And if you're climbing in an area with loose rock, wear a helmet.
If you find yourself falling, assume this position, devised by German researchers: Extend your arms forward at shoulder level. Just before you hit the rock face, swing your feet toward it so they absorb the shock when you make contact. Once you land—no earlier—grab the rope just above the knot to avoid flipping.
That's the scary stuff. More likely are overuse injuries, like tendinitis in your fingers. "Keep your center of gravity close to the wall. New climbers often swing their hips back. That strains your upper extremities," Stauffer said. "Climbing shouldn't feel like a series of pullups. Your legs should drive you."
Don't let those foot bombs turn your adventure into a nightmare.
Sock it to 'em. Look for a pair of socks made with a moisture-wicking blend of synthetic micro-fibers, advises James Christina, doctor of podiatric medicine, the director of scientific affairs at the American Podiatric Medical Association. Try Under Armour's UA Sager Crew Socks. In a study in Military Medicine, officer cadets who wore padded socks made of a poly blend were least likely to develop foot blisters.
Next, assess your footwear: Make sure your shoes are fitting properly, Christina said. You shouldn't have excessive slippage in the heel of your shoe, and there should be adequate room in the shoe's toe box for your toes to rest comfortably.
If a blister still balloons, resist the temptation to pop it.
"Let it drain on its own because opening it will increase your risk of infection," Christina said.
Simply pad the inflamed spot with a cushioned bandage, like Spenco 2nd Skin AquaHeal Hydrogel Bandages, and if the blister does pop, apply an ointment like Aquaphor to the area and cover the wound. Research from Germany shows that keeping the area moist can accelerate wound healing. (Click here to learn more ways on how to treat a nasty foot blister.)
PICK THE PERFECT POCKET KNIFE
A great blade can help you overcome lots of outdoor obstacles. Just remember: A grumpy grizzly isn't one of them.
1. Conduct a thorough quality check
Few tools take as much punishment as your pocket knife. Which is why you should seek out an established brand—like Swiss Army or Leatherman—and not some dollar store knockoff, Creek Stewart, founder of Willow Haven Outdoor survival school, said. An easy way to spot a subpar knife: The blade is loose.
"When it's open, it shouldn't wobble from side to side," Kristin Hostetter, gear editor at Backpacker magazine, said. Same goes for the tools: "Flip open each one and wiggle it. There should be little or no movement at the joint." A good pocket knife will have a 25-year warranty, at least.
2. Test the metal
Look for tarnish on the blade; if the steel's color is off, it's likely low grade. And, says Stewart, check sharpness: Can the blade cleanly slice paper?
3. Stick to basics
Stewart carries the Swiss Army Tinker, which features a wire stripper, three screwdrivers, a bottle opener, tweezers, and two blades. Not much else.
"It's the perfect all-around pocket knife," he said. "You don't want tons of bells and whistles adding bulk to your pocket." Stewart also likes the durable Leatherman Juice C2.
BREW COFFEE OVER A FIRE
Out in the woods, your emotional well-being is as important as your physical health. That's why you should never settle for lousy coffee. Consider Sarah Huck Azulai, author of "Campfire Cookery," your backwoods barista.
The gear: Buy a lightweight aluminum or stainless-steel pot, such as the Open Country 4 Quart Pot, and preground espresso or Turkish coffee—the finest grind you'll find.
1. Pour a small amount (1/4 cup) of ground coffee into your pot and add 4 cups of cold water.
2. Place the pot on a grate over a live fire. (No grate? Rest it on top of the gap between two logs.) As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, remove the pot from the fire and place it on the ground. (If you let your brew boil too long, it'll end up tasting bitter.) Let your coffee sit for a couple of minutes to allow any stirred-up grounds to settle.
3. Use a ladle or mug to skim each serving from the top. Pull up a rock and enjoy.
3 WAYS TO GUARANTEE YOU'LL SPEND A NIGHT (OR TWO) IN THE WOODS.
1. You Freak Out
That awful feeling when your mom lost you in the wilds of Walmart? Expect a flashback. Take a swig of water and inhale deeply to calm down, survival expert John Leach said.
2. You Wander
Mentally backtrack your movements, and don't set out until you're ready to shift into reverse, Kenn Griffiths, author of "The Survival Manual" said. If your memory is foggy, just stay put.
3. You Expect to Be Found
"I spent 8 years in a rescue team. We'd find people just sitting there, doing nothing," Leach said. Create signals: Light a fire, or put reflective duct tape on your clothing.
TOP OUTDOOR INJURIES
A University of Utah study identified the injuries you're most likely to face in the woods.
1. Sprains and strains: 55 percent
Wearing a pack can throw off your balance and lead to a twisted ankle, so use trekking poles to stabilize yourself. If you cross any water, "face upstream so it hits your shins and doesn't buckle your knees," Stauffer said.
Wipe out? If it's agonizing to press on the sides of your ankle or to take three steps, assume a fracture, Webster said. Use sturdy sticks for a splint, and exit the woods.
For sprains, follow the I.R.I.C.E. prescription: ibuprofen, rest, ice, compression, elevation. No ice? Stick your foot in a stream, or wrap a wet bandana around it. You'll need to rest a full 24 hours, which is why people often opt to be evacuated.
2. Cuts, bruises, and scrapes: 17 percent
Cover scrapes with Tegaderm, but don't shrug off a cut as a mere flesh wound. Flush it with purified water, hold the skin together, and apply duct tape, Webster said. If blood vessels are exposed, you'll need stitches. But you may not have to make a beeline to the ER: In a Stanford study, patients who waited 12-plus hours to get stitches fared just as well as those who sought immediate care.
3. Dental injuries: 5 percent
Even if you avoid rocks like they're IEDs, you may still end up eating earth and losing a tooth in the process. Just don't drop it in your pocket.
"Rinse it off and put it back into its socket," Stauffer said. "Use Dentemp—a paste for temporary fillings—to spackle between the adjacent teeth and cement it in. Or use dental floss to lasso it and tie it to the guy next door."
This preserves the tooth until your dentist can permanently reattach it. Whatever you do, don't immerse it in your water bottle. "The blood vessels will basically turn to mush," he said.
DON'T TRUST TRAIL WATER
You could be in deep trouble if you don't purify your H2O.
That stream may look pristine, but even a sip is a gastrointestinal gamble.
"Animals use streams and rivers as their toilets. And swimmers put germs in the water too—there's a bit of feces in every butt crack," Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona, said.
Chlorine or iodine tablets alone won't eliminate Cryptosporidium or Giardia parasites. So invest in an MSR Sweet-Water Water Purifier System, which wipes out bacteria, parasites, and viruses and was a top-rated purifier in a U.S. military report. Bonus: It has an activated carbon core to improve taste.
"Keep the inlet and outlet hoses in separate bags to avoid cross contamination," Gerba added.
KEEP YOUR HEAD ABOVE WATER
Major rapids aren't the only danger you'll encounter in kayaking.
In a kayak, you're the captain, the crew, and, if things go bad, the corpse.
"I love kayaking," Stork said. "It's also a sport that inspires fear in me. If you don't fear going into the river, you probably shouldn't be kayaking."
Why? Because there's no telling what lies beneath.
"If you see a downed tree, assume there's a 'strainer' under the surface—limbs that create a damlike effect," Stork said. "Like a colander, the limbs catch all the debris that comes downriver while the water keeps flowing."
Strainers can increase the force of the current, potentially trapping you against the limbs or even pulling you under. If you see a fallen tree or branches poking out of the water, paddle to the opposite side of the river to avoid becoming just one more piece of debris.
Potentially even more treacherous are hydraulics, where water spills over a big rock and curls back upstream. The vortex is most powerful at the surface, so the best way to escape is to submerge the bow of your kayak (or dive down if you ditched it), Stork said. That way the downstream current beneath it can ferry you out. Forced to jump ship? Replicate a vessel by floating on your back with your head up and toes forward, skimming the surface, to avoid rocks.