Tips for a Safe - and Healthy - Hunting Season

By Keith Murray, M.D.

As hunting season starts in Pennsylvania, you will no doubt be hearing about hunting-related accidents. But did you know that hunting is actually safer than bowling and golf? It’s estimated that hunting injuries occur in just 0.05 percent per 100 participants. But despite the relative safety of hunting, there are ways to further ensure a good hunt and that everyone in your hunting party returns home safely. 

For me, safety can be broken down into four categories: personal health, gun safety, environmental dangers and first aid preparedness. We'll take a closer look at each of these topics in separate posts this week. Today, let's discuss personal health.
Hunting involves more than just sitting in the woods. It can be physically demanding so I strongly encourage anyone considering hunting to engage in some sort of physical training program months prior to the season. This gives hunters a chance to test their physiology and to also improve their cardiovascular fitness levels.  A 2007 article published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that most middle-aged hunters fitted with heart-rate monitors during a hunt exceeded their maximum heart rate they had previously achieved on a treadmill test. Dragging big game produced the most elevated of heart rates but several of the hunters entered the "red zone" simply by visualizing their target.  This puts a decent strain on the heart and can act like nature’s own stress test.  There are no known national statistics on the number of acute coronary syndromes (ACS) directly attributable to hunting but it does set up the perfect scenario of physical strain, sympathetic excitation and environmental stress.  One of the study authors also noted that many hunters in the study group exhibited life-threatening heart-rhythm irregularities that had not been apparent on electrocardiogram, or EKG, readouts during laboratory stress testing.  Think about this the next time you strap on 10 pounds of insulating clothing, a 13 pound rifle, various other hunting accoutrements and a wilderness destination that requires a hike into the area.  In addition, if you do make a kill you will be carrying around 50 pounds of meat out of the location along with your other gear.

To minimize your risk of ACS, see your doctor regularly.  If you have medical comorbidities or a heart condition, I strongly advise getting evaluated by your physician annually.  This may be something as simple as an office visit or as extensive as provocative testing of your heart.  Either way, this is a good strategy to minimize your chances of having a cardiovascular event while in the field and far from medical intervention. 

Also, become familiar with the warning signs of ACS.  The classic teaching of substernal chest pressure, left arm numbness/tingling, and/or jaw pain can all be warning signs of an impending heart attack.  Sometimes it can be more subtle.  For instance, a feeling of nausea, fatigue, shoulder pain and right arm pain can all be signs of ACS as well.

Some hunting advocates endorse buying a heart-rate monitor and setting audible alarms for when you are approaching your theorized maximum heart rate.  Generically this is calculated by taking 220 and subtracting your age.  If you are a trained athlete you can add 10 to this value.  As an example, a 40-year-old would have a theoretical maximum heart rate of 220-40=180.  If they were a trained athlete the maximum would bump up to 190.  It may seem high, but you would be surprised what your heart rate reaches when walking up a mountain carrying  80 pounds of gear. That’s why I believe getting some endurance training prior to heading into the field is important.  It allows you to get a feel for how your body responds to elevated heart rates, and teaches you how to recover.
Overall, maintaining a decent physical state, ensuring adequate hydration and nutrition and being well rested come opening day will all help improve your chances for a successful, safe and rewarding hunt.

How do you prepare for a hunt? Let us know in the comments below. And join us back here this week as we explore the following topics: