Whether you call it wilderness first aid, or hiking or backpacking or outdoor first aid, this article is about being prepared for potential injuries when you’re on the trail. Do you know what to do for a snake bite? Do you know how to identify if someone in your hiking group is going into hyperthermia? Do you carry some basic medical supplies for treatment of some of the more common trail maladies?
As a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I’m not a medical doctor, nor an expert in administering emergency first aid. Furthermore, no single web page can identify and detail treatment for everything you need to know about wilderness first aid. However, the first step to being prepared is to identify what you need to learn. From that starting point, you can take responsibility for educating yourself in how to respond to the more common backcountry injuries.
What kind of medical problems are are the focus of wilderness first aid? Blisters are probably the most likely issue. When you’re walking through the woods and under-brush, cuts and scapes are fairly common, too. Then you have the elements, combined with physical exertion. Hyperthermia and hypothermia are real possibilities in the outdoors. What about bug bites and stings, or even snake bites.
While I’ll touch on these problems, if you’re planning on spending time backpacking and hiking, prepare yourself by getting some training. You may be able to find wilderness first aid courses locally. In todays world of technology, there are even online first aid training courses. Another alternative is reading. There are lots of good books on first aid. However you choose to do it, just learn!
Foot Blisters:Probably the most common wilderness first aid procedure. Prevention starts with a good fitting hiking boot that keeps out dirt and pebbles. Keep your feet dry. Always bring a change of dry socks. If small stones get into your boots, take them out. Even with precautions, sometimes friction and heat builds up and you’ll get blisters. First aid for blistersinvolves popping the base of the blister with a sterile needle and draining it. Cut off any torn skin. Treat the blister with an antiseptic, and then cover it with moleskin or a specialty blister bandage.
Cuts and Scrapes: Be careful and alert. One small slip can leave you or someone in your group with a wound to bandage. First step is to stop the bleeding by applying pressure with a clean cloth for up to 20 minutes. Next, remove any debris from the wound, and then clean it with an antiseptic. Apply some first aid ointment and cover the wound with a bandage.
Hyperthermia: This is basically the body overheating, which is more likely, but not necessarily linked solely to hiking in warm and humid weather. If you’re not paying attention to the signals your body is sending you, the exertion of hiking can lead to anything from mild heat cramps to full fledged heat stroke. Catch it on the early warning signs of dry mouth and leg, arm, and stomach muscle cramps. Stop and rest. Drink plenty of cool liquids.
Untreated, you’ll advance through weakness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, disorientation, and finally passing out with a core body temperature of 108F (42C). Unless you catch it early in the heat cramp stage, you’ll need professional medical help. For wilderness first aid, taking off all of your clothes and getting into cool water will help, but don’t let it get this far. Know the warning signs. Stay well hydrated and well rested.
Hypothermia: This is a drop in the core body temperature. It doesn’t take much. A drop to 95F (35C) and the victim will be doing some serious shivering. As the body temperature gets below 90F (32C), coordination and speech will suffer greatly, as if drunk. Wet clothes will bring it on quicker. Stay hydrated and stay dry. A warm drink will help raise the body temperature. Catch it early, when the shivering starts. Both hyperthermia and hypothermia are life threatening and nothing to take lightly. Get professional medical help as soon as possible.
Snake Bites: The best way to avoid snake bites is to wear boots and long pants, and … make a little noise while you’re hiking. Snakes prefer to avoid people. If someone in your party does happen to get bit by a snake, assume it’s poisonous, unless someone can make a positive identification as non-poisonous species. If possible, kill the snake and save it for identification. If the bite is on a limb, remove jewelery from that limb. Learn snake bite first aid, which will include proper application of a band to restrict blood flow at the surface. For any snake bite, poisonous or non-poisonous, always seek professional medical help.
Insect Stings: In the woods, you need to watch out for bees and wasps, especially around flowering bushes and wildflowers. Bee sting and wasp sting first aid treatment is matter of removing the stinger if it’s still embedded. A cold compress is helpful to reduce swelling. Clean the area and apply an antibiotic ointment. One potential major issue is allergic reactions to stings. If a person has a history of allergic reactions to stings, an antihistamine usually helps. Medical attention should be sought immediately.
These are just a few of the potential medical problems. Wilderness first aid training will include altitude sickness, broken limbs and other trauma. How do you handle injuries from animal attacks? If you’re in an area known for bears, you should brush up on bear safety tips.
As you read through the sampling of potential medical issues, I hope you recognized the need for a hiking first aid kit as part of your wilderness first aid planning. so you have the medical supplies you need in your backpack. Learn hiking first aid before you’re faced with trail injuries. You and whomever you hike with may just be glad you did.