Save Your Hide

Keep your skin intact and you'll stand a better chance of surviving.

You live in a fragile envelope made of a thin layer of skin. Its job is to keep what's inside of you in and what's outside out. Your skin is a sanitary, full-body barrier against an invasion of microorganisms that can make you sick, leave you disabled or even kill you. Break or abuse your envelope, and you leave yourself wide open for trouble. This time of year, we tend to concentrate on sunburn as epidermis-enemy number-one, but it is certainly not alone.

Cuts And Abrasions
Any time of year, the most common violations of the envelope are cuts and abrasions. It's easy to think that the biggest concern with cuts is blood loss. That can be true, but minor cuts and abrasions that don't cause a lot of bleeding can still be serious. The problem is infection. A man I know sustained a minor injury to his hand while working in the Alaska fishing industry. The unsanitary conditions led to a stubborn infection that, in turn, led to the near total loss of use of his arm for the rest of his life.

In the wilderness, a break in the skin can even result in death. George Donner, leader of the infamous Donner Party, didn't lose his life to the horrors of cannibalism, which swept his camp in the Sierras. Donner lived to see the rescue party arrive but was so weak from an infection caused by a minor injury that he had to be left behind to die.
The solution: With any break in the skin, the bleeding should be stopped and the wound should be cleansed with a diluted antiseptic solution (ask your doctor to recommend one) and dressed to prevent infection.

Frostbite
The freezing of body tissue is known as frostbite. It can happen instantly (for example, if you spill supercooled gasoline on your hands) or slowly to flesh that is exposed to cold and wind. Gradually, the flesh becomes stiff and crispy to the touch. As freezing deepens, the flesh becomes hard as wood. The sensation is not alarming, because the flesh becomes numb as it freezes. It's the thawing that is extremely painful.

If caught early enough, the affected area can be saved--if not, the tissue will be permanently damaged. The flesh will become gangrenous, turn black and split, and might require amputation.

The solution:
Wear appropriate clothing during cold weather, including ear protection, a neoprene face mask (if necessary), mittens and subzero boots. Keep all skin covered and protected against the cold, wet and wind. Never allow bare skin to touch cold objects. Use the buddy system to watch for signs of frostbite (whitish or yellowish flesh) on the nose, cheeks, chin and ears.

Trench Foot

The name of this malady derives from the painful condition experienced by many soldiers fighting in the trenches during the World War I. Standing in cold, waterlogged, filthy boots without the ability to dry their feet and change to dry socks resulted in soldiers suffering from the horrible condition known as trench foot. Gradually their feet would numb and the skin would turn red or blue. Without treatment, gangrene would set in, leading to amputation.

The solution:
Trench foot affects unprepared outdoorsmen even today. The only prevention during WWI was for soldiers to dry their feet and change into fresh socks several times a day. Today, you can prevent the problem by wearing waterproof boots and wool socks. Even so, it's a good idea to shed your boots and socks periodically, air out and massage your feet to promote circulation, and then put on fresh socks before lacing up the boots again.

Sunburn
In addition to being painful, badly sunburned skin can blister, peel, split and become infected. There goes your protective envelope, opening the door to invasive germs.
The solution: Cover as much of your body as possible. Long pants and full-coverage tops with long sleeves are best. A broad-brimmed hat, or a hat with with a Foreign Legion-style neck shade, will help. Keep your feet covered as well, wearing sandals can lead to burned feet, which will leave you unable to hike. Apply sunblock frequently--the higher the SPF rating, the better (see sidebar). This is especially important at high elevations and when you're near snow or water, because those conditions promote speedy and severe sunburn.

Four Great Sunscreens for Outdoorsmen

OMBRELLE
The active ingredient, mexoryl, isn't approved by the FDA yet, but users swear by its coverage. ombrelle.com
Dermatone
This waterproof, sweat-proof formula has a built-in pad that makes application mess-free. dermatone.com
Coppertone
The nongreasy, sweat-proof Sport formula now comes in SPF 50, for extra protection. coppertone.com
KINESYS
This pump-spray sunblock goes on easily, dries quickly and allows skin to breathe. kinesys.com