From falls while walking in the woods to shoulder injuries from dragging deer back to camp, physical therapists like myself tend to see a surge of hunting-related injuries in the weeks after deer season opens. As a hunter myself, I hate to see this, because in many cases an ounce of pre-season prevention can help ensure part of the season isn’t missed due to injury. Unfortunately, the one key piece of equipment that is often ignored during pre-season preparations is a hunter’s body.
Most of us know of someone who had a close call (or worse) some time during the hunting season. At our camp, it was an uncle who fell out of a treestand during bow season. He was reaching around his back trying to strap himself to the tree when he lost his balance. Fortunately, he had a soft landing and only broke his arm and wrist. It could have been a lot worse. A Lifeline keeping him attached from ground to tree stand would have been best, but if Uncle Ed’s shoulder and spine flexibility and balance had been a bit better, he more than likely would have been able to reach his safety harness without a problem.
It’s always good to take some measures ahead of time to avoid unforeseen trouble. Here are three critical body systems to think about and suggested ways to test their readiness for hunting season while there is still time to make some improvements. Note: This information is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional.
Heart and Lungs
For some hunters, walking through the woods and, if they’re lucky, dragging a deer out will be the most intense exercise they will get this fall. A casual springtime morel hunt in the forest is one thing, but walking through the woods in full hunting gear while carrying a bow or firearm and daypack is another. The largest deer I’ve taken was a beautiful 8-point that collapsed about 20 yards from where I shot it, which ended up being 75 yards deep into a swamp. My dad and I were huffing and puffing after dragging a field-dressed, 165-lb. whitetail over that terrain, and I was in pretty decent shape at the time.
A few years ago, I was curious how much weight I gained after suiting up on opening morning, so I stepped on a scale. It was 25 pounds! Imagine carrying more than 3 gallons of milk or a 2-year-old child on your back during your trek to the blind. This will get your heart rate up and likely get you breathing heavily by the time you arrive. Every year, we hear about a few hunters who have heart attacks on opening morning, and the combination of general excitement and increased cardiac demand is often a contributor.
Can you walk up and down a flight of stairs a couple of times carrying all of your hunting gear without difficulty? If you become dizzy, lightheaded, or are gasping by the end, some cardiovascular conditioning and/or a trip to your doctor may be in order.
Muscles and Joints
Depending on how Mother Nature treats us this fall, you may be wearing several layers this October through December. Warmth is good, but for every added layer you lose a little flexibility and mobility. If your body is already tight and stiff to begin with, climbing up into that treestand may become more difficult and dangerous than if you had your street clothes on. The best way to compensate for the extra layers is to work on improving your flexibility before you head into the woods. Hunters of all ages and both genders tend to be tight in their upper back, chest (pecs) and shoulders, so those are a few great places to start.
While wearing your hunting clothes, can you easily reach overhead, squat down and touch the ground, and turn to look behind you? If not, some combination of body flexibility and gear fit may need to be addressed. Most men and women over about 40 tend to lose flexibility in their upper back and shoulders. Give “upper thoracic stretch” and “lat stretch” a quick Google search for several ways to improve mobility in these areas. It is also a good idea to stretch your hips by bringing your knees to your chest one at a time, holding for about 30 seconds each side, repeating 3 times on each side. Five minutes of stretching before you head out can do wonders for your flexibility while on the hunt.
Stepping over fallen branches and trees in dry weather is difficult enough. Doing so in the snow or rain with gear on can be significantly more challenging. Our balance system requires the cooperation of our vision, inner ear, and proprioceptive systems (more on that last one in a minute). If any of those three systems are compromised, the risk of a fall increases unless the others are able to compensate. Many falls occur on the way into or out of the woods at the beginning or end of the hunt. Because this usually occurs in the dark, it is important that the other two balance systems are ready and able to stabilize the body. Proprioception is the ability of your joints and muscles to keep you from falling. For example, if you stand and lean your torso forward, you’ll feel yourself pushing through your toes to stay in place. That’s proprioception.
Can you stand on one foot for at least 30 seconds without touching an outside object or hooking one leg on the other? Can you walk on uneven ground while turning your head side to side without stumbling or deviating from a straight path? Trouble with either of these indicates that your balance could use some work. Increasing the time you’re able to stand on one foot by practicing for 30 to 60 seconds at a time is a great start towards lowering your fall risk. If you can stand on one foot for 30 seconds or more, try doing so with your eyes closed. Still easy? Now do the same with your eyes closed and turn your head side to side. Once you have that mastered for 30 to 60 seconds, you can be fairly certain that your balance is good to go.
If you’re having issues with any of the above, there is still time to make significant improvements before the season begins. I actually have a few patients who schedule their physicals in September or October so they know they’re good to go before opening day, which is a great idea. You’ve put in the work on the rest of your equipment, so don’t ignore the most important one. Good luck and safe hunting!
About the Author: Jeff Samyn is an NDA member, physical therapist, orthopedic clinical specialist, and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center in Petoskey, Michigan. This information is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional.