Answers from the Field

When $%&! Goes Wrong: Spraining Your Ankle in the Backcountry

By Adam Berkelmans

Our adventures to procure wild food, whether through hunting, fishing, or foraging, can bring us into some extreme situations and sometimes, despite our best efforts, $%&! can go wrong. In this series, we’re going to talk about different adverse situations you may find yourself in, and the best ways to deal with them.

This month, we’re talking about spraining your ankle in the backcountry.

This will apply to anyone who spends time hunting, foraging, fishing, scouting, camping, or hiking in the backcountry. It is a very common injury and can happen easily, especially in areas with loose rocks, uneven ground, or tripping hazards. Though the ankle has some ability to turn inward (pronate) and outward (supinate), if it goes too far either way, the ligaments attaching the tibia and fibula to the talus bones can become strained. This is a painful occurrence that makes walking very difficult. A severe twist or break can result in those ligaments tearing, which is extremely painful and makes walking nearly impossible. What should you do if it happens to you, particularly if you’re alone?

Before it Happens

Prevention is always the best medicine and that’s no different when it comes to your ankles.

Be Prepared Before You Go

  • Add ankle-strengthening exercises to your workout routine (visit HERE for proper exercise techniques)
  • Stretch and warm up your legs and ankles before starting your walk
  • Keep your eyes peeled for hazards and changes in topography
  • Wear the proper footwear: medium- and high-top hiking boots are a must in rough terrain
  • Replace old or worn footwear that may no longer have the necessary support it once did
  • If you’re prone to ankle rolls, or have had ankle injuries in the past, consider wearing an ankle brace
  • Know the terrain you’re heading to and your limitations!
  • Stay well-hydrated and rest when you are fatigued. A tired and thirsty hiker isn’t paying attention to where they are walking
  • Use trekking poles to help stabilize you while you walk
  • Join a first aid or wilderness first aid course to stay up-to-date and well-practised for dealing with backcountry emergencies

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What to Bring

Having the proper first aid equipment in your pack could really make getting out of the backcountry easier if an accident does happen. Consider bringing:

  • an ACE or compression bandage
  • Instant cold pack
  • C-Splint
  • Your preferred medication for relief from pain and swelling (Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Phone to call for help
  • Trekking poles to help support your weight while you walk out
  • Some sort of flashlight for if you get stuck in the dark
  • Basic survival tools (blade, fire starter, emergency blanket, water purification, etc.) for spending the night in place

When it Happens

If you twisted or sprained your ankle and are experiencing pain, swelling, bruising, and tenderness in and around the ankle area then you should stop and take action. If a loud POP or SNAP occurred along with the injury, major damage is likely and walking on the affected foot will be impossible.

What to Do:

  • REST: take 10-15 minutes and rest your ankle while sitting down with your weight off of the foot. If the sprain doesn’t seem too bad, consider leaving your boots on as swelling may prevent you from putting them back on if you remove them. If the injury seems serious, remove shoes and socks. If full ankle movement can be achieved and your ankle can bear most of your weight, you can carefully carry on after a good rest. If not:
  • ICE: Apply cold to the afflicted area to reduce swelling and numb pain. Ice or an instant cold pack are best, but a cold stream or lake can also do the trick. Remember that pain is not a good indication of the severity of the sprain. Sometimes the most severe sprains won’t be accompanied by as much pain as a lighter sprain.
  • COMPRESSION: Wrap the ankle with an ACE bandage or a compression bandage using a figure-8 method (wrap the bandage gently but firmly around the top of the ankle, then around the instep of the foot, back around the top of the ankle, then around the heel, over the ankle itself, etc.). Make sure the wrap isn’t too tight. If the toes begin to turn blue, remove the wrap and tie again less firmly. If you don’t have any first-aid equipment, clothing, straps from backpacks/gear, socks, headbands, etc. can be used.
  • ELEVATE: Elevating your ankle above heart level is recommended while you rest. Try using a rock or backpack, or making a sling for your leg/foot with rope or clothing. Gently wiggle your toes to keep blood flowing in the area
  • If you’re going to have to walk far to get back to somewhere safe, you may need to create a splint. Use either an ankle brace from your first aid kit, or immobilize the ankle with found sticks and strips of clothing, tape, straps, string, or hair elastics. The more binding, the better.

Getting Out

  • If daylight and weather conditions allow, wait for the initial pain and swelling to subside before heading back to safety.
  • Call for help if you are able to.
  • If travelling with others, have them carry your gear, and use one person to support your weight on your uninjured side while you walk.
  • Use a trekking pole or found walking stick/crutch to support your injured side whether or not someone is there to support the other side. If alone, find a second stick to help support your uninjured side. To make a rudimentary crutch, find a solid stick about 4 feet in length with a ‘V’ on top and cut to size. Use a piece of clothing to pad the stick underneath your armpit.
  • Consider leaving unessential heavy gear behind and returning for it later if feasible.
  • Walk slowly and take a break whenever the pain returns or becomes overwhelming.
  • If walking seems impossible or is taking too long and sunset or inclement weather is approaching, consider making the call to be evacuated. If you do, know that it may take several hours for rescuers to appear, so find a comfortable spot out of the weather and try to stay warm. If out of cell range, consider making camp and trying the walk again in the morning.

After it Happens

Once you get home, there are still steps you can take to mitigate long-term damage. Pain from ankle injuries can disappear within a day, or last for weeks or even months. In some cases, surgery may be required to fix the problem.

  • Seek medical attention if necessary (especially if you heard a loud pop or snap when the injury occurred)
  • Visit a physiotherapist to help facilitate healing and return full movement
  • Consult with your doctor or physiotherapist on stretches and exercises to help strengthen your ankles once healed
  • Learn from your lesson and evaluate how the injury happened. Take precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen again!

What should you do if you fall through the ice? Be prepared and read all about it here!


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