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Wilderness First Aid Basics

There’s nothing like hiking and camping in the great outdoors! But what happens if there’s an accident? If you get injured, you’re likely to be on your own for several hours until help arrives. That’s why understanding wilderness first aid basics is so important for adventurers!

Even a rudimentary grasp of how to give first aid in the wilderness will help enormously if you or someone else is injured deep in the wild.

wilderness first aid basics

What is Wilderness First Aid?

Wilderness First Aid is a form of first aid designed for situations where emergency medical help is not immediately accessible. This can be due to remoteness, challenging terrain, or other factors that are commonly encountered in outdoor and backcountry settings.

Steps of Basic Wilderness First Aid:

  1. Ensure Scene Safety:
    • Assess surroundings for hazards.
  2. Primary Assessment (“ABCs”):
    • Check Airway.
    • Ensure Breathing.
    • Monitor Circulation and control bleeding.
  3. Secondary Assessment:
    • Obtain patient history.
    • Conduct a head-to-toe physical examination.
    • Check vital signs.
  4. Treat Injuries and Illnesses:
    • Address based on assessment findings.
  5. Decision to Evacuate:
    • Evaluate the need to treat on-site, self-evacuate, or call for help.
  6. Extended Care:
    • Monitor and reassess the patient.
    • Protect from environmental threats.

How to Treat Wounds

When it comes to first aid in the wilderness, wound treatment prioritizes preventing infection, controlling bleeding, and protecting the wound from further injury. Given the often limited resources in a wilderness setting, improvisation and cleanliness are key.

  1. Control Bleeding: Apply direct pressure using a clean cloth or bandage.
  2. Clean the Wound: Rinse the wound with clean water to remove dirt and debris.
  3. Disinfect: If available, apply antiseptic to reduce the risk of infection.
  4. Dress the Wound: Cover the wound with a sterile bandage, gauze, or clean cloth.
  5. Immobilize if Necessary: If the wound is deep or over a joint, consider immobilizing the area to prevent further damage.
  6. Monitor for Infection: Watch for signs of infection, such as increased redness, swelling, warmth, or discharge.
  7. Keep it Dry and Clean: Protect the wound from dirt and moisture.
  8. Seek Medical Attention: If the wound is deep, doesn’t stop bleeding, or shows signs of infection, seek professional medical care.
basic wilderness first aid
wilderness first aid basics

How to Treat Sprains & Fractures

Breaks and fractures are commonplace in the hiking world; even the most experienced hikers can lose their footing and become injured miles from civilization. Here are the wilderness first aid basics you need to know:

  1. Do Not Move or Straighten: If you suspect a fracture, do not try to realign or straighten the injury.
  2. Immobilize the Injury: Stabilize the injured area using splints, bandages, or even clothing. For sprains, immobilization can help reduce pain and prevent further damage.
  3. Elevate: If possible, raise the injured area above the level of the heart to reduce swelling.
  4. Cold Compress: Apply cold (ice pack, cold stream water in a cloth) to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, if available, to minimize swelling.
  5. Avoid Putting Weight on It: Encourage the person not to walk on a sprained or possibly fractured leg or foot.
  6. Administer Pain Relief: If you have over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen, and there are no contraindications, it can help with pain and swelling.
  7. Monitor Circulation: Ensure that splints or bandages aren’t too tight by checking for swelling, tingling, or discoloration beyond the injured area.
  8. Seek Medical Attention: While you can manage initial care in the wilderness, it’s essential to get to a medical facility for proper diagnosis and treatment, especially if a fracture is suspected.

How to Make a Splint

  1. Create a simple splint out of two pieces of wood on either side of the injured arm or leg to immobilize it.
  2. Wrap the two pieces of wood tightly with paracord to finish the splint.

How to Stop Bleeding

When administering first aid in the wilderness, “trail stitches” are sometimes necessary if you’re cut to such an extent that pressure and a bandage simply will not suffice.

Temporary Closure Options:

Super Glue:
– Suitable for minor cuts.
– Burns during application and can be difficult to apply, but effective.
– Ensure careful application to avoid sealing in debris.

Staple Gun:
– Useful for more severe cuts that cannot be managed by super glue.
– Not a typical camping tool but could be beneficial in emergencies.

Tape or Duct Tape:
– Can help keep the wound closed and further minimize blood loss.

Improvised Tourniquet:
– Use a shirt or similar material to tie above the cut tightly, reducing blood flow.
– Always monitor the tightness and duration to avoid complications.

Always be careful about how tight you tie a tourniquet and how long it is left on.

Although a tourniquet can stop blood loss, it can also stop blood flow to areas that need blood. In extreme instances, tying a tourniquet too tight and leaving it on too long can result in amputation.

Once the bleeding stops, remove the tourniquet.

How to Deal With Hypothermia and Shock in the Wilderness

wilderness first aid basics

Hypothermia and shock are two common problems that every outdoorsman should be equipped to deal with. These can be serious conditions and knowledge of wilderness first aid basics will better equip you to handle such a situation.

Dealing With Hypothermia

In the event of hypothermia, the victim’s core body temperature has dropped dangerously low. This is can be a killer if not treated quickly. You will need to act fast to save yourself or the person you are treating.

Here’s what to do:

  • Get them out of the elements as quickly as possible.
  • Get them near a fire or other heat source.
  • If the victim is wet remove all wet clothing.
  • Cover them with a cloth, emergency blanket or another type of dry insulated material.

Dealing With Shock

After the body experiences a severe injury or several injuries, it can oftentimes go into shock. The symptoms are cold clammy skin, rapid pulse, and rapid breathing.

Here’s what to do:

  • Lay the person down.
  • Elevate the feet of the victim.
  • Do not elevate the head.
  • Keep the person warm and comfortable.
  • Treat any other injuries.
  • Give fluids.

Create a Basic Wilderness First-Aid Kit

wilderness first aid basics

It’s super important to know wilderness first aid basics, but it’s equally as important to have a first aid kit.

You can purchase a basic wilderness first aid kit or you can make one yourself. Here’s what I recommend you include in your kit:

1. Wound Management:

  • Adhesive bandages: Various sizes for minor cuts and scrapes.
  • Sterile gauze pads: For covering larger wounds.
  • Adhesive tape: To secure gauze and dressings.
  • Moleskin or blister treatment patches: For blister prevention and care.
  • Antiseptic wipes or solution: For cleaning wounds.
  • Antibiotic ointment: To prevent infection in wounds.
  • Butterfly closures or steri-strips: For closing wound edges.
  • Tweezers: For splinter or tick removal.
  • Safety pins: Useful for securing bandages or slings.
  • Nitrile gloves: To protect both the first aider and the injured person.
  • Scissors or trauma shears: For cutting tape, gauze, or clothing.

2. Fracture and Sprain Management:

  • Elastic bandage (Ace wrap): For wrapping sprains or providing support.
  • Triangular bandages: Can be used as slings, tourniquets, or for tying splints.
  • Malleable splint: Like a SAM splint, for immobilizing fractures or joint injuries.

3. Medications:

  • Pain relievers: Such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Antihistamines: For allergic reactions.
  • Anti-diarrheal medication: Such as loperamide.
  • Rehydration salts: For treating dehydration from diarrhea or excessive sweating.
  • Any personal medications: Especially if one has known allergies or conditions.

4. Environmental Protection:

  • Space blanket or emergency bivvy: For retaining body heat in cold emergencies.
  • Sunscreen: To prevent sunburn.
  • Lip balm with sunblock: To protect lips from sun and wind.
  • Insect repellent: To prevent insect bites and potential diseases they may carry.

5. Miscellaneous:

  • Whistle: For signaling help.
  • CPR face shield or mask: For safe mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
  • Irrigation syringe: For cleaning out wounds.
  • Thermometer: To check for fever or hypothermia.
  • First aid manual or guide: For reference in emergencies.
  • Notepad and pen: To document injuries, treatments, and vital signs.
  • Waterproof container or bag: To keep the kit dry.
  • Activated Charcoal: draws out bacteria and can be used if you inget something toxic-can also absorb venom from snake bites.

You’ll want to tailor your wilderness first aid kit to the specific needs of your trip, considering factors like the environment, duration, and the number of people.

Regularly inspect and replenish your kit to ensure all items are present and in good condition. Also, knowledge and training are just as crucial as the tools themselves, so consider taking a basic wilderness first aid course to be well-prepared.

Be Prepared: Know Your Wilderness First Aid Basics

No one wants to think about injuries while planning an outdoor adventure, but even the most seasoned outdoorsman may experience an accident or two. It’s better to be safe rather than sorry, and that includes being prepared to give first aid in the wilderness.

It’s good practice to never go into the woods without a basic wilderness first-aid kit on hand. To take that to another level, we strongly recommend you check out our wilderness survival kit checklist to make sure you have all the essentials (not just basic wilderness first aid supplies) for traveling into the backcountry or off the beaten path.

Another incredibly useful wilderness survival tool is a satellite communicator, like the Garmin inReach Mini, with a built-in SOS function that uses GPS to guide rescuers to your exact location.

Remember, even just a little knowledge of wilderness first aid basics can make all the difference in the world if you’re injured away from civilization.

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