Introduction to Wilderness First Aid

first aid kitAnytime you plan to spend time in the backcountry, you need to be prepared with the proper equipment and knowledge. In addition to knowing CPR and carrying basic gear, like a folding knife or multi tool with you, you should also know first aid techniques specific to the wilderness. Special gear, like an LED headlamp, can also come in useful. When you know wilderness first aid, you can apply its basic principles under stress. The types of ailments and injuries that can happen in the wilderness are uncountable, but knowing the basics can help you deal with almost any situation.

Common Injuries in Wilderness Situations

Exposure to the Elements
You can tell if someone has hypothermia if they begin to shiver uncontrollably, feel stiff, become confused or drowsy, and has a stomach that feels cool to the touch. To help a person with hypothermia, remove any wet clothing the person is wearing and gradually begin to warm their body by wrapping them with a sleeping bag or other loose, dry layers.

If it’s hot outside, an individual can easily fall victim to heat stroke when she exercises heavily (like on a hike), the weather is humid or she does not drink enough water. In a situation like this, have the person sit (if standing), lie down (if already sitting) or lie with her feet elevated (if already lying down) in a cool area. Then, have her drink a sports beverage with electrolytes or water and oral rehydration salts. Fan the individual and place cool water on her body. Massage the limbs to encourage the flow of the cooled blood.

Whenever an individual receives an injury that causes loss of blood, take measures to control the bleeding immediately. To do this, elevate the injured area above the heart (if possible) and directly apply pressure to the wound or to the undamaged skin next to the wound. If you apply dressing to the wound, make sure you apply enough direct pressure to it or the bleeding will not stop. If you do not have scissors to cut the dressing, use a folding knife. Only use a tourniquet as a last resort if you cannot control the bleeding with direct pressure. You can make a tourniquet with sleeping bag straps or any item that you can tie around the affected area. Rinse the wound with water to clean it. While wearing an LED headlamp, remove any objects that could infect the wound, like rocks, with tweezers (like the ones found in a multi tool).

In the event of a fracture or sprain, use a splint on the affected body part that is long enough to reach the joints above and below the injured area. If you do not have a splint kit, use a folding knife or multi tool to cut strong branches from a tree. Place padding between the splint and the body, cover any open wounds with dressing and secure the splint with an elastic medical bandage, ropes or clothes torn into strips.

First Aid Equipment You Should Always Carry

Whenever you go hiking, backpacking or camping, take the following first aid equipment with you:


  • Protective gloves
  • Folding knife
  • Multi tool with tweezers
  • EMT shears
  • Safety pins
  • First aid booklet
  • LED headlamp
  • Irrigation syringe
  • Plastic bag for waste materials
  • Cell phone
  • Whistle

Medicines and Infection Prevention

  • Ibuprofen and acetaminophen
  • Antihistamines
  • Towelettes and anti-bacterial hand wipes
  • Iodine
  • Bacitracin/antibiotic and benzoin ointments


  • Sterile gauze pads
  • Surgical tape
  • Adhesive bandages
  • Moleskin
  • Trauma pads
  • Elastic sports bandage
  • Butterfly bandages
  • Pressure wrap

Wilderness First Aid Training

The following organizations offer basic wilderness first aid training and certifications: American Red Cross, American Heart Association, Emergency Care and Safety Institute (ECSI), American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons’ (AAOS), National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wilderness Medical Society. Some wilderness training courses may require you to possess a valid first aid and CPR card, which you can obtain by completing American Red Cross training. The Boy Scouts of America and Girls Scouts provide wilderness safety trainings for youth and children.

This guide is just an introduction to wilderness first aid. It is not a replacement for the comprehensive wilderness first aid and safety training courses offered by professional associations.

[ photo by: marvinxsteadfast ]

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