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Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Hiking Trail Information

Medicinal Plants for Backpackers

By Steven Gillman

Why learn about medicinal plants? Certainly, backpackers shouldn't leave the first aid kit home, but it can be useful and interesting to know a few plant medicines too. Whether you are someday in a survival situation, or you just lost your first aid kit and have a terrible headache, wouldn't it be nice to find relief nearby?

You can. There are many effective medicinal plants. Some are also dangerous, just like synthetic medicines can be. I won't discuss those here. This is a quick guide to a few safe plant medicines.

Plants For Pain Relief

Fill the bottom of a cup with shredded willow bark, and make a cup of tea with it. Let it steep for a few minutes before you drink it. The active ingredient is salicin, closely related to salacylic acid, which is used to make aspirin. You might also try chewing on a few balsam poplar buds.

Antiseptic Plants

Sap from "blisters" on balsam firs is a strong antiseptic. Pop the blisters on the trunks of young trees, and the sap will ooze out. You can spread it over cuts and small wounds to prevent infection. It is very sticky, however, and it will be difficult to wash off (At least it smells nice).

The crushed leaves of Saint John's Wort can be used as an antiseptic dressing as well. I once put a wad of the mashed leaves on a nasty gash in my foot, replacing it occasionally, and the cut healed faster than I've ever seen a cut heal. St. Johnswort has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties.

Medicinal Plants For Diarrhea

You can drink tea made from the roots of blackberries and their relatives to stop diarrhea. Just fill the bottom of the cup with the cleaned and shredded roots and pour boiling water over them. Let the mix steep for five minutes before drinking.

Oak bark and other barks containing tannin are also effective. I have also used the twigs to stop diarrhea when I was backpacking in Mexico. Make tea with a spoonful of the bark or chopped-up twigs. Tannins can be hard on the kidneys, so drink just one cup of tea, or use oak only if you don't have other options.

Skin Medications

You can relieve the itch from insect bites, sunburn, or plant poisoning rashes by applying a poultice of jewelweed (Impatiens biflora). I have seen a poison ivy rash cleared up overnight using the juice from jewelweed. It is also said to work on sunburn as well as aloe vera.

Make a tea of witch hazel leaves (Hamamelis virginiana), and you can use it for relief from insect bites, and sunburn. Witch Hazel used to be a common astringent that women used as a "tightening" face wash.

There are hundreds of wild medicinal plants that could be useful to hikers and backpackers. You don't need to become an expert to benefit from them. Just learn to identify and use a few of the most widespread and safest ones.

(related article:  Helpful Wild Plants)

Steve Gillman is a long-time advocate of lightweight backpacking. For more on medicinal plants, plus tips, photos, stories and a new Wilderness Survival Guide, visit The Ultralight Backpacking Site:

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Like this article?  You may also enjoy:  Hiking Shoes- Light & Cheap by Steve Gillman, Do Walking Sticks Conserve Energy by Steve Gillman and Breakfast Recipes by Steve Gillman


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