What to Do If You Get Sick While Camping

By Sarah Buer

Jan 12, 2017

Woman wearing scarf pulled up to nose and beanie hat
Photo from Pexels

“A cold” can refer to a range of viral, flu-like symptoms like fever, sore throat, sinus infection, cough, stomach bugs, upper respiratory infections, or simply the sniffles. Getting sick and having some combination of these cold symptoms can be common when you’re hiking, camping, or doing another activity outdoors. While having a cold is never fun, being in the backcountry when you get sick can make it that much worse.

How You Should Treat Cold or Flu Symptoms

Here are NOLS’ recommendations for general management and for handling specific symptoms:

  • Hydrate.
  • Wash hands and maintain good hygiene.
  • Rest and be patient.
  • Massage for muscle tension headaches.
  • Consider pain medications for headache and muscle aches.
  • Consider decongestants (for congestions) and anti-cough medications.
  • Consider antihistamines for a runny nose.
  • Consider acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce a fever.
  • Bland diets are best for gastrointestinal distress.

Tips for When You’re Sick

We also asked a few NOLS grads, staff, and instructors for their personal advice on managing a cold in the backcountry. Here’s what they had to say:

"Sleep when I can, hydrate, make sure I eat bits even if I don't feel like it. I apply the ‘no fun rule’ when I'm on a personal trip, and for NOLS courses, if the I-team can safely take care of me and the students, grin and bear it while getting as much rest as possible .”—Era Aranow, NOLS Faculty, Staffing Coordinator

“Plenty of fluids and copious amounts of hand washing.”—Greg Gaskin, NOLS Faculty

“Make sure if you're sick you're especially careful about food prep and hand washing. I usually bow out of kitchen duty entirely—your cook group won't resent you, they'll thank you.”—Katherine Boehrer, NOLS Expeditions Grad, Social Media Coordinator

“Emergen-C, the beverage. Then I sweat it out in my sleeping bag.”—Clemencia Caporale, NOLS Faculty

“Peppermint tea, an extra muffler or scarf or neck gaiter…”—Judd Strom, Equipment and Materials Manager

“Lots of hot drinks. I try for 4-5 liters a day of fluids. Stay as warm as possible, rest if you can but make sure to get at least some light exercise.” -Drew Seitz, NOLS Faculty

How to Avoid Spreading Your Cold

Viruses and bacteria can be spread while camping in a number of ways. The best treatment is prevention.

  • Wash your hands well. After going to the bathroom, before cooking, etc.
  • Do not share water bottles, spoons, lip balm, etc.
  • Don’t use personal utensils in the communal cooking pot or reach hands into food bag.
  • Keep a clean camp kitchen. Don’t cook for the group if you’re sick.
  • Clean cooking and eating utensils well and rinse with hot, disinfected water.
  • Cough into elbows or clothing to avoid spreading an airborne virus.
Four silhouetted figures on a snowfield in the mountains at sunset
Photo by Johanna Garcia

When to End Your Trip

Sometimes having a cold can affect your expedition and how you feel enough that it may be best to call it quits. Here are a few guidelines for when it’s necessary toevacuate yourself or someone else with a cold.

  • Persistent fever that lasts more than 48 hours or is over 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 Celsius)
  • Stiff neck, severe headache, or difficult breathing or wheezing develops
  • Signs or symptoms of pneumonia develop, like shortness of breath, decreasing exercise tolerance, increasing fever, worsening malaise (general feeling of illness or discomfort) and weakness with predominant coughing
  • Sore throat in conjunction with inability to swallow water/maintain adequate hydration develops
  • Isolated sore throat with fever or a red throat with white patches develops
  • Patient has a headache that does not respond to treatment. Evacuate rapidly if it is sudden and severe or is associated with altered mental status.

Learn more about what to do if you get sick while camping on a Wilderness First Aid course.

Editor's note: This post was originally published 1/12/17.

Written By

Sarah Buer

Sarah is a Wyoming native, Wilderness First Responder graduate, and former marketing coordinator for NOLS Wilderness Medicine. When she’s offline she enjoys running, singing and playing guitar, and playing in the mountains

Up Next