Dealing with Headaches in the Great Outdoors


Good Day to you, Ready Nutrition Readers!  I certainly don’t want to give you guys and gals any headaches; however, if you tend to deal with headaches in the outdoors when you’re far from home, this article’s for you.  Outdoor enthusiasts will usually find themselves far from the local drugstore or their own medicine cabinet when a physical problem arises.  Headaches can be the result of a great deal of causes and can make for a very unpleasant time when you’re out camping or hiking and they strike.

The subject for discussion within this article is the common headache, and we will present some facts about headaches and some measures that may help those afflicted by them.  The information in this article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to, nor does it treat, diagnose, prescribe, or recommend any action or information outlined herein.  Consult with your family physician or health-care practitioner prior to taking any steps outlined here.

Conservatively, it is estimated that some 245 million Americans are affected by a headache each year; in reality, almost everyone has one or more for various reasons.  Headache is defined as a pain felt in the forehead, eyes, jaws, temples, scalp, skull, occiput, or neck; exceptionally common, it affects almost every person at some time. Headaches fall into two categories, benign and life threatening.

  • Benign headaches include tension, migraine, cluster, sinus, and environmentally induced headaches, the latter including such causes as an ice-cream headache or a caffeine withdrawal headache.
  • Life-threatening headaches include ruptures of intercranial aneuryms, subarachnoid hemorrhages, hemorrhagic strokes, and cranial trauma, to name a few.  Being outdoors it is not likely for you to encounter them except with an accident or trauma; however, you should still be aware of them.

*Please try and follow JJ’s rule on trauma/injury in the great outdoors:  Consider all causes for a problem and if you cannot rule them out, always suspect the most severe and take appropriate action! What this means is, for example, if a patient has a headache because he or she bumped their head, don’t just brush it off.  Examine the person.  If they have aniscoria (pupils greatly differing in size), this could indicate severe concussion.  Better to err on the side of caution: get ‘em out of there and take them to the doctor!  Follow the motto of the U.S. Army Special Forces Medics:  Primum Non Nocere (First, I shall do not harm).  The benign headaches can be recurrent or chronic, and the patient is usually familiar with the pattern of reappearances.

The biggest thing to consider with headaches is Fluid and Electrolyte imbalance that is caused by dehydration, usually resultant from strenuous activity without adequate uptake of water and fluids.

 Life-threatening headaches have a list of “hallmarks” that may be beneficial to you, the reader, to make a copy of and place with your first aid manual and equipment.  It might be a good idea for you to print the list, possibly laminate it, and place it with your first aid manual/equipment.  The hallmarks are as follows, along with the accompanying suspected underlying cause:

Life-threatening headache hallmarks and their potential causes

  1. The first or worst headache the patient has ever suffered [suspect subarachnoid hemorrhage]
  2. The first time (severe headache) in a cancer patient [suspect metastatic tumor]
  3. The headache is accompanied by fever, stiff neck, or photophobia [suspect meningitis or intracranial hemorrhage]Headache is associated with loss of consciousness or severely altered mental status [suspect intracerebral hemorrhage, brain embolism, encephalitis, or meningitis]
  4. Headache associated with neurological deficits not quickly resolving [suspect intracerebral hemorrhage, brain embolism, or brain abscesses]
  5. Headache occurs in patient with recent head trauma [suspect hemorrhage or carotid artery dissection], or a patient returning recently from foreign travel [suspect neurocysticerosis or falciparum malaria]
  6. Headache occurs in a patient with AIDS [suspect cryptococcal meningitis, Toxoplasma gondii, or central nervous system lymphoma.

        Note:  All of these are just a few examples of the more common underlying causes.

JJ Note:  # 6 is highlighted because this one is the one you will experience most often in the outdoors that is acute, meaning short term and not suffered regularly.

Treatment Options for Headaches

Treatment of headaches varies according to their scale, mild, moderate, and severe (we’ll address mild and moderate).  Mild headaches usually call for rest, massage, Tylenol, and/or relaxing music, and one of these or several in combination.  Moderate headaches usually need NSAIDS (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as Ibuprofen, aspirin, Tylenol, and at times caffeine can help to lessen many mild to moderate headaches.  Some types of headaches are analgesic-rebound headaches (occurring when pain-killing medicines are suddenly discontinued), caffeine withdrawal headaches, cluster headaches, migraine headaches, exertional headaches, and hypnic headaches.  The latter occurs when a patient is awakened from sleep, and this type of headache is bilateral and more common in elderly patients.

With regards to naturopathic aids, Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is excellent for use with both nervous disorders and migraines.  One of the major problems with headaches is that they place people on edge.  Catnip is a nervine, meaning it can sooth the nerves and in this manner promote the rest that is needed.  Preparations from this member of the mint family have a calming effect.  No side effects come with it; however, its use is contraindicated for pregnant women.  It can be taken as a tea, or in capsule or extract form and can be found in your local health food stores.  Follow the directions for dosages as provided by the manufacturer on the package.

Valerian (Valeriana officianalis) holds mild sedative and tranquilizing effects, and is a centrally depressive herb with muscle relaxing qualities.  It is contraindicated for use by pregnant women, by patients with a preexisting liver disorder, and by children under 14 years old.  Valerian also interacts with those using prescription medications such as anticoagulants, barbiturates, benzodiazepenes, ethanol, hepatotoxic agents, Iron, Loperamide, and opioid analgesics. Tea is prepared from 2-3 g drug per 1 tsp, steeped in 1 cup (150 ml) for 10 minutes and taken 2-3 times daily before bedtime.  Tinctures (1:5 ratio) can be taken 15-20 drops in water 2-3 times per day.  As a sleep aid, 400-900 mg can be taken 30 minutes before bedtime.

White willow (Salix spp.) is extremely useful for headaches; the bark is the primary medicinal part.  Salicin provides salicylic acid (an antipyretic and analgesic), and this is the phytotherapeutic precursor (phyto = “plant-derived”) to acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin).  White willow is contraindicated in those hypersensitive to aspirin or salicylates, no children with flu like symptoms (because of Reye’s Syndrome), and no patients with ulcers, hemophilia, asthma, or diabetes.  Drug interactions may occur with other salicylates and also non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Daily dosage of white willow is 6-12 g daily (containing approximately 60-120 mg salicin).  Infusions and teas can be made with 1 tsp powder = 1.5 g drug, with 1 cup taken 3-4 times per day.  The extract usually occurs as a 1:1 ratio in 25% alcohol tincture and this can be taken in water 1-3 ml up to 3 times per day.

To conclude, these naturopathic aids, as well as the previously suggested over-the-counter medicines can be easily packed out in either a daypack or a large rucksack/backpack.  Another good thing to have would be Gatorade for fluid replacement therapy in Mylar packets that you can add to 1 quart of water.  The sodium and potassium are taken up by your system almost immediately, and the sugars that are in it give your bloodstream a quick boost of energy.  Remember, Ben Franklin was right: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Consult with your physician prior to using any and all information presented in this article for his approval.  Remember to prepare beforehand and then an emergency is converted/downgraded into a problem or even a simple nuisance that you are equipped to deal with.  Know your limitations and strengths and plan your trips accordingly so that you’re well provisioned with first aid materials.  I hope I didn’t cause you guys and gals any further headaches!  You have a great day, and may your outdoor adventures be enjoyable and headache free!



Jeremiah Johnson is the Nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the United States Army Special Forces (Airborne). Mr. Johnson was a Special Forces Medic, EMT and ACLS-certified, with comprehensive training in wilderness survival, rescue, and patient-extraction. He is a Certified Master Herbalist and a graduate of the Global College of Natural Medicine of Santa Ana, CA. A graduate of the U.S. Army’s survival course of SERE school (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape), Mr. Johnson also successfully completed the Montana Master Food Preserver Course for home-canning, smoking, and dehydrating foods.

Mr. Johnson dries and tinctures a wide variety of medicinal herbs taken by wild crafting and cultivation, in addition to preserving and canning his own food. An expert in land navigation, survival, mountaineering, and parachuting as trained by the United States Army, Mr. Johnson is an ardent advocate for preparedness, self-sufficiency, and long-term disaster sustainability for families. He and his wife survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Cross-trained as a Special Forces Engineer, he is an expert in supply, logistics, transport, and long-term storage of perishable materials, having incorporated many of these techniques plus some unique innovations in his own homestead.

Mr. Johnson brings practical, tested experience firmly rooted in formal education to his writings and to our team. He and his wife live in a cabin in the mountains of Western Montana with their three cats.

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published May 23rd, 2015
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  • lordchamp

    JJ do you find that meadowsweet, which also contains Salicin, is a direct replacement for willow bark in use and recipes?

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