15 Basic Wilderness Medical Tips and Tricks

Often, the deeper we head into the wilderness, the finer the hunting, fishing, and hiking opportunities become. These wild places, however, pose risks that most people don’t encounter in everyday life. Accidents can—and do—happen, and oftentimes help is a long way away. Fortunately, a few basic medical tricks will make wilderness accidents more manageable and help you get home in one piece.

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KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE
When out in nature for any period of time, sunburn can be both a danger and a discomfort. If commercial sunscreens are unavailable, look for a grove of aspen trees. The bark found on the sun-facing side of an aspen, or similar trees, will exude a white powder, or "bloom," which indigenous Americans used as sunscreen. Covering exposed skin with ash, charcoal, leaves, woven grasses, or caked mud will work, as well.
Reid Bryant
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HAIRY SITUATION
Scalp wounds, especially lacerations, have a tendency to bleed profusely. Often these wounds can be challenging to inspect, clean, and close because of the surrounding hair. In a wilderness situation, a scalp wound can be held closed by tying together strands of hair from each side of the open wound, thereby pulling it shut. Square or surgeon's knots are preferred, since hair, being slick, will fail to hold most other knots.
Reid Bryant
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**UMBLING AROUND **
Each year, more than a thousand people on average in the U.S. die from exposure to the cold. Prolonged time in cold, wet weather when ill-equipped can result in life-threatening hypothermia. But hypothermia doesn't just occur in extreme cold—a wet, breezy 55-degree day can be just as deadly. Check yourself and your friends for signs of hypothermia by looking for the “umbles.” 1. Is a loss of fine motor coordination resulting in stumbling or fumbling? 2. Is the individual becoming increasingly irritable, or grumbling? 3. Is the individual exhibiting a decreased level of consciousness and mumbling? If so, it may be time to make a thermal burrito (see next slide).
Reid Bryant
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WRAP IT UP
If hypothermia is identified, give the individual a warm, sugary drink, for readily accessible calories, and then wrap him or her in what is known as a thermal burrito, or a hypo-wrap. To make the burrito, first spread out a waterproof tarp. Place a foam or inflatable sleeping pad (or two, if possible) on the tarp. Add three zippered sleeping bags on top of the pads, and put the victim, with wet clothes removed, in the middle bag. Add warm (but not hot) water bottles or fire-heated stones to the armpit and crotch regions, and then enclose the bags in the tarp. Make certain there is a breathing hole. Monitor the victim’s consciousness and body temperature until help comes or until conditions change. Do not, however, put the victim in hot water, such as a bath, to raise his or her body temperature, as this can cause shock.
Reid Bryant
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DON'T PASS GAS
When refueling an internal combustion engine or cook stove in cold temperatures, take great caution: Gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and white stove gas are all highly volatile substances, which readily move from liquid to gas. This phase change is an endothermic reaction, which requires energy and sucks heat. In freezing temperatures, gas spilled on bare skin may quickly evaporate, robbing the skin of heat. The result can be almost immediate frostbite and, likely, some tissue damage.
Reid Bryant
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JELLO (ENERGY) SHOTS
Always travel in the backcountry with a few packets of flavored instant Jello mix. When morale gets low on a cold, hard trek, a mug of hot jello mix can be a lifesaver. Not only is Jello a quick, efficient source of sugar for a jolt of energy, but it's also caffeine-free, and, unlike coffee or cocoa, it won't dehydrate an already depleted body.
Reid Bryant
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FISH HOOK FIASCO
Barbed fish hooks can be painful and destructive to remove from the skin. The most common techniques for getting one out is either to push the hook through the skin past the barb, de-barb it, and then remove, or to pull it backward at the hook's bend and back it out (the more bloody and painful of the two). If you have ice on hand, apply some to the skin to numb the area before removing the hook, which will relieve some pain. After freeing the hook, rinse the spot with sterile water or saline, dress the wound, and monitor for infection.
Reid Bryant
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CRAZY, I KNOW
Lacerations that might otherwise require stitches can often be closed with crazy glue. Though hardware-store variety crazy glue may work, medical glues, such as Dermabond, are better. Control bleeding with direct pressure and flush the wound liberally with sterile water or saline before closing it. In a pinch, however, spruce or pine pitch can serve a similar purpose. Glue should not be used on puncture wounds, however, since sufficiently cleaning such wounds in the wilderness is difficult, and puss cannot drain, both of which can lead to infection.
Reid Bryant
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DEEP-WOODS DENTIST
A plumber's candle is an invaluable component of a wilderness first-aid kit. These inexpensive paraffin candles can serve multiple functions: Not only do they allow for a steady source of flame if you're trying to ignite moist tinder, but melted paraffin also makes a great emergency filling if you crack a tooth. In a pinch, it will also help secure loose teeth. If you fracture or crack a tooth but it doesn’t bleed, then the pulp—the tooth’s center connective issue—is still alive and doesn’t warrant emergency dental attention. If there is blood coming from the center of the tooth, however, then the pulp is exposed, and the tooth will die without dental attention within a couple of days.
Reid Bryant
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SOAK IT UP
Tampons can serve multiple purposes in backcountry medical and survival situations, and they should be included in every wilderness first-aide kit. Highly absorbent and individually wrapped in waterproof, sterile packaging, tampons can be used as sterile dressings for wound care, and their cotton filler makes for good emergency tinder. And the use of tampons to plug bullet holes goes back nearly 100 years.
Reid Bryant
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STAY OUT OF THE TRENCHES
Trench foot, or immersion foot, is a condition caused by prolonged exposure (typically of the foot, hence the name) to cold, moist conditions. Foot vessels constrict to keep the extremity warm, but over time this can cause a lack of circulation, killing feet and toe tissue. To prevent trench foot, warm and dry your feet and footwear regularly—and change your socks. Damp socks can be swapped out and hung inside the waistband of synthetic long underwear to speed up drying. This, along with breathable footwear and socks, can also prevent athletes' foot.
Reid Bryant
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DON'T CUT YOUR LOSSES
The old cowboy cut-and-suck method of snakebite treatment is a thing of the past. If stricken by a venomous snake, treat it as you would any puncture wound. Allow the fang wounds to bleed freely, and clean superficially and dress with a loose, sterile bandage. Keep the stricken appendage below heart-level, if possible. Evacuate the victim immediately, but keep him or her quiet and calm: The less stress on the victim, the less likelihood of a widespread systemic reaction to the venom. Also, if you're able to kill the snake, bring it along to the hospital for identification.
Greg Hutson
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THAT'S GOTTA STING
Bees and stinging insects can make for an uncomfortable day afield. Fortunately, a wild remedy for insect stings grows naturally across much of the U.S. Plantago, known as plantain, is a common yard weed in grassy areas. It's been used for eons in herbal remedies and possesses unique anti-inflammatory and extractive properties. When an insect stings, a poultice of mashed or chewed up plantain leaf can work wonders. Also, ice or cold packs can reduce swelling and relieve pain to buy you time to seek further treatment, if needed.
Reid Bryant
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USE PROTECTION
A latex condom can be a lifesaver in emergency situations. One can serve as an emergency water bladder, a waterproof tinder pouch, a slingshot band, a pressure-irrigation source for wound cleaning, or as part of a compression wound dressing.
Reid Bryant
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ONCE BITTEN
There is a significant difference between frostnip and frostbite. Frostnip is the superficial freezing of tissue, usually on the exposed skin of the face. It often appears as white, waxy patches, and it can be thawed by warm breath or, simply, a warm hand. Frostbite, however, is deeper tissue freezing, and is marked by significant numbness and a wooden feeling. At this point, muscle and bone may be frozen, and medical attention is required. If possible, do not rewarm the area until under medical supervision, since tissue loss is likely and significant pain is to be expected upon rewarming. If forced to treat frostbite on your own, ensure that once you start the warming process, the body part isn't at risk to refreeze. Then submerge the part in hot (but not scalding) water between 104 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and keep adding hot water to maintain that temperature. Let the frostbitten area thaw and soften, which will take 15 to 30 minutes at least, and then dry with a clean towel and treat with antibiotic ointment or aloe vera.
Courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr