Emergency Wilderness First Aid Tips

In wilderness first aid, you must be ready for anything.

While common injuries, like a sprained ankle or infected cut, are troublesome in the city, they can become truly life-threatening medical emergencies in the wilderness.

But treating common, even serious, injuries is actually relatively simple. Really. Wilderness first aid is primarily about stabilization.

Think of it like an EMT. Emergency Medical Technicians are the first responders; their goal is to assess the situation, treat the emergency as best they can, and get the patient to proper medical care.

That's your job in the wild. Improvise, make do and get out alive.

Common Wilderness First Aid Injuries

  • Burns
  • Choking
  • Cuts
  • Animal & Bug Bites
  • Sprains
  • Broken Bones
  • Heat Exhaustion
  • Hypothermia
  • Allergic Reactions
  • Infections
  • Blisters

Emergency First Aid Techniques

Burns

wilderness first aid - second degree burnSecond Degree Burn - Thomas Quack / Thinkstock.com

Burns from a campfire or the sun are common and should be treated before they become infected. Treat first (commonly a sunburn) and second degree burns (skin is bright red or blistered) by applying sterilized, cold water.

Burns continue to damage tissue even after contact with the heat source stops. Keep the burn cool for an hour soaking a boiled handkerchief or bandana  in cold water works well.

wilderness first aid - third degree burnThird Degree Burn - Diane White Rosier / Thinkstock.com

Third degree burns (skin is broken and appears white or charred black) should be covered by sterile dressings as soon as possible. Never remove clothing stuck to a third degree burn.

Burns of all kinds can cause dehydration; drink plenty of water and seek medical attention immediately.

Choking

wilderness first aid - heimlich maneuverHeimlich Maneuver - Hakan Corbaci / Thinkstock.com

Perform the Heimlich maneuver. This involves grabbing the victim from behind and placing a fist between the belly button and rib cage. Cup your other hand over the fist and jerk back and upwards into the stomach to dislodge the blockage.

  • NOTE: Ribs can be broken with this procedure. Never perform the Heimlich maneuver on infants.

Instead, lay the infant, stomach down, on your forearm. Cradling the face in your palm, place your index and middle fingers on either side of the mouth and thump the infant on the back. To help dislodge the blockage, position the infant at a downward angle.

Cuts, Bites

Treating minor to serious lacerations is easier than you’d think with basic, and unconventional, wilderness first aid techniques. Use superglue. While the wound is fresh, drop some super glue directly on the bleeding wound.

The glue acts as a coagulant, stopping blood flow in seconds. It also creates a water-proof seal over broken skin. It doesn’t even burn or cause additional pain when applied. Once the glue dries, it helps to prevent infection and even allows you to get the area wet, without the nuisances of a traditional bandage.

Check the wound daily and reapply glue as needed.

  • TIP: Don’t waste your money on the liquid bandage products found in drug stores. Go to the hardware store and pick up a 5 pack of cheap, all-purpose superglue. It should cost around $2. You’ll never go back to band-aids again.

For life-threateningly deep cuts (severed arteries, partial or full amputations), place pressure on the wound. If possible, apply a tourniquet between the wound and the heart by tightening a belt, piece of cloth, a rope or even vines a few inches above the wound.

Especially in this case, wilderness first aid MacGyvering will only hold up for a few hours. Get to a doctor fast.

  • NOTE: Tourniquets cut off blood flow and should only be used when death from blood loss is imminent. Check wound frequently and remove the tourniquet as soon as possible to prevent loss of limb.

For poisonous bites, do not suck on the wound. In addition to transferring mouth bacteria to the wound, poison can enter the mouth. (Plus, it's just plain gross.)

Instead, flush the wound with clean water and elevate the bite above the heart to slow the flow of poison through the body.

Sprains, Broken Bones

Immobilize sprains and broken bones immediately to prevent further tissue damage. Wrap minor sprains with an ace bandage or length of cloth.

Serious sprains or broken bones should be immobilized with a splint. Create a splint by wrapping the injured area in soft cloth or a blanket. Next, place two rigid objects (sticks, ski poles, tent stakes) on either side of the sprain or break, then snugly lash with paracord, a belt, or length of cloth.

Heat exhaustion

When suffering from heat exhaustion, it’s important that the victim rest, be moved into the shade and drink plenty of water. The body is being cooked. Take it seriously.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia rarely happens in the extreme cold, on arctic mountaintops. If moisture is present, hypothermia can kill in surprisingly moderate temperatures. Though victims of hypothermia are suffering from a lowered body temperature, it is important to warm them up slowly. If the body is warmed up too quickly, it can go into shock and shut down completely. Meaning, in other words, death. (Bad.)

Remove any wet clothing, replace with dry clothing or blankets. Administer tepid (not hot!) liquids and check their temperature regularly.

Allergic reactions

Unless prescribed epinephrine (commonly called an Epi-Pen) for serous allergic reactions to food or animal stings, administering oral antihistamines is your best defense against allergic reactions in the wilderness.

Infections

A wound is infected if it swells, is red in color and/or is oozing pus. If possible, apply an antibiotic ointment to the open wound. If no commercial antibiotic cream is available, flush and clean the wound with warm water. If the infected wound has closed up, lance it with a sterile knife or needle.

Some non-commercial antiseptics are: honey, salt water, garlic and sphagnum moss (a natural source of iodine). These antiseptics can also treat rashes or fungal infections. Creativity and improvisation are key to performing successful wilderness first aid.

Apply a clean bandage or close with super glue.

Blisters

The best blister treatment is prevention. Change socks frequently, keep feet dry and make sure shoes fit well. Small blisters should be covered with bandages or even duct tape to prevent popping. Larger blisters (dime size or bigger) should be lanced at the base, then allowed to drain. Coat with an antibiotic cream or antiseptic and cover with a padded bandage.

Check out the wilderness first aid checklist here

Want to learn Wilderness First Aid techniques first-hand? Check out classes from SOLO.

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