Wilderness Medicine and Survival Tips

by July 8, 2010 07/8/10

Have you ever spent the weekend enjoying a camping trip or went for a hike off the beaten path to a less traveled trail?

Perhaps you live near a state park or national forest and enjoy your off time out in areas far away from the modern world.

Let’s hope that while enjoying the great outdoors nothing serious ever happens but if it does, here are some tips to do the best you can when you have next to nothing.

Tips for your next Adventure

Wilderness medicine is very much an art form. You don’t have to have a PhD in medicine, or years of experience growing up in the outdoors.

First, know your limitations and match them to the location, duration of your outing and weather. Also consider whether you should take someone more experienced than yourself with.

Second, use your environment and be creative. Educate yourself about the vegetation, wildlife, and resources in the area you are about to explore. Varieties of plants are edible and have medicinal properties. If you don’t know which ones, be careful as some can be quite toxic.

Third, time can be your friend and your enemy. If you happen to get injured or someone else in your party becomes ill, do the best you can to keep time on your side. This means make maximum use of your resources and remain aware that the food and water you carry may be irreplaceable.

When someone becomes sick or injured out in a remote location everything becomes significantly more challenging. Food and water get used up more frequently. Certain paths or routes become too difficult to negotiate. Backpacks and supplies become harder to carry and manage. Survival, evacuation or transport of the sick and wounded becomes the number one goal.

No matter what, do the best you can to remain calm and keep those that are with you calm. Now is not the time to panic.

Improvised Care

Splints and bandages can be quickly improvised out of spare clothing, gauze in compressed packaging, and a good selection of sticks and tree limbs. In a pinch, safety pins can be used to wrap a t-shirt over an injured arm to make a hasty sling (while the person is wearing the shirt), or used to pin the tongue to the lower lip to keep an airway open.

Honey, either found in your surroundings or packed with you can be used both as a snack and for wound care. Some fast food restaurants will have honey in small, easily transportable packages. You can purchase commercially manufactured tubes and containers that will allow you to pack along a manageable amount in a backpack or pocket.

If you run out of antibiotic ointment, apply honey to reduce infection and aid in wound healing. Candle wax can be used as a temporary tooth filling. Tea bags can be used for quick relief of dental pain and bleeding. Just place the moistened tea bag on to the bleeding site or into the socket that is bleeding.

Drops of tea squeezed from a cool, non-herbal tea bag may help to soothe an irritated eye and relieve pain as well. Afrin or Neo-Synephrine nasal spray contain potent blood vessel constrictors and can be used to stop bleeding. Simply moisten some gauze or clean material and pack into the wound.

Transportation

Transportation out of the area also becomes an art form. Using sturdy tree limbs and a blanket or long sleeve shirt and pants can make for a hasty litter. Belts and nylon webbing can aid in making an improvised harness to assist you in carrying your buddy.

An improvised raft with tree limbs and some rope, lashing or other material may help you down a river or stream. Do not think for a second that if you can’t make it to your vehicle all is lost. The goal for most evacuations is to get to the closest clearing or road.

Roads do not have to be main, paved roads. Forrest service roads are often used by travelers and rescuers. Clearings can be used to remain visible from the air or allow for helicopters to land or hover for evacuation. Most important is to have a plan and let someone know your plan so in the event you do not return a search can be started.

Navigation

GPS devices and cell phones are nice but batteries die and in some locations tower or satellite connections may be weak or lost. Get familiar with a map to easily identify known land marks and pack a compass for directions to major features such as rivers and roads.

A whistle or sports horn can be easily packed and aid in alerting search teams. A mirror can also help reflect light to draw attention to your area. Bright clothing will also help to make you more visible.

Packing List

When considering what to pack in a simple wilderness first aid kit here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Your medical expertise
  • Location and environmental extremes
  • Diseases particular to the area
  • Duration of travel
  • Distance away from definitive care and professional rescue
  • Number of people getting support from the kit
  • Pre-existing illnesses that you or those with you have
  • Weight and space limitations in your gear
  • Pack items in sturdy, doubled up Ziploc bags. This will aid in keeping your supplies protected from the elements and the outer bag can double as a container to irrigate a wound or collect water.

Simple items to pack in your backpack, camelbak or waist pack include:

  • Honey, goo or gels (homemade or commercially acquired products endurance fitness enthusiasts and marathoners frequently use)
  • Gauze
  • Sam splint (easily packed, multiple uses)
  • Bandage scissors
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Duct tape
  • Dermabond or superglue
  • Forceps or tweezers
  • Antiseptic towelettes
  • Ace bandage
  • Molefoam or moleskin
  • Triangular bandage or bandana
  • Safety pins
  • Dental floss
  • Emergency shelter or emergency blanket.

Some common over-the-counter (OTC) medications include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Ibuprofen (Motrin)
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Mylanta or similar tablet
  • Neosporin or polysporin antibiotic ointment

Collecting Water

If you find yourself lost, injured or delayed for any reason out in a desolate spot one way to keep your water cool is to use a sock or similar material (the color doesn’t matter although dark colors may shorten the time needed). Wet the sock and slip the sock or material over/around your water container.

Leave it out in the sunlight to begin the evaporation process (this will also work in the shade it just might take longer). As the moisture in the material dries (evaporates) it will have a cooling effect on your water. Now this won’t give you something ice cold to drink but it will make it cool enough for you to notice a difference and make it easier to keep up your fluid intake.

Of course make sure if you are gathering your water from a local water supply and that you go through a purification process to minimize the potential for other survival/medical hazards. Hydration becomes important and increases the likelihood for survival.

Homemade Rehydration Solutions

Rehydration solutions can be made simply by adding one teaspoon of table salt, four teaspoons of cream of tartar, one-half teaspoon baking soda and four tablespoons of sugar to one liter (quart) of drinking water.

An alternate option is to add one-half teaspoon of honey or corn syrup and a pinch of salt to eight ounces of fruit juice and consume and alternate by adding one-fourth teaspoon baking soda with eight ounces of water. You can also pack Gatorade or Powerade at half strength (by mixing half the powder recommended, or dilute the bottles to a 50/50 mix of water and drink)

Notes

Several community colleges offer wilderness first responder classes, rural EMS Agencies and Fire Departments are also a great resource for community classes. Some websites for classes, courses and information include:

A great pocket reference that you can pack with you and review anywhere is A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine by Eric A. Weiss, MD. Some of the things described in this article are pulled right from that fantastic book.

Before your next adventure invest some time in preparation, have a plan and share it. Also, know your limitations and if you are inexperienced take someone with experience. Don’t forget to take a camera and have fun. Enjoy the adventure and if something happens you will be better prepared to deal with it.

~ Cory L. Heimark

Editor’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Cory Heimark as an ITS Contributor. Cory has been an U.S. Army Medic for 18 years with multiple deployments overseas. Cory grew up hunting and fishing in the outdoors of North Dakota and enjoys outdoor sports as well as teaching wilderness medicine and First Responder courses for Medical Boot Camp, LLC. based out of Colorado Springs, CO. Cory is also a Plank Owner of ITS Tactical.


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Bradley
Bradley

Let us not forget that ever useful wilderness medical tool, the tampon! Sterile, sealed and ready to be used as a bandage, a blood stopper, a particulate filter, tinder, etc. etc! Cheap too.

Matthew
Matthew

Tea bags can also safe to be used to reduce swelling of the eyes and eye irritations due to injury or allergy.

john
john

Good to see another sKull mask in Colorado.

WayKno
WayKno

While not likely you'll need it--if you take meds, take a 3-5 day supply of your Rx. Takes up practically no space and you'll have it for a time that you should get back or be rescued. This is the type of subject that if one took all recommended items, you could take 2 suitcases and still not have it all. Be wise.

Mudflap
Mudflap

I was able to attend Wilderness Medical Associates WEMT course a few years ago. In addition to being very informative, the course's practical exercises were very good at developing patient assessment skills.

Here is another wilderness/remote medicine course. I have wanted to take a course from them but haven't had the opportunity yet.

http://www.gmrsltd.com/index.html

Mudflap
Mudflap

I was able to attend Wilderness Medical Associates WEMT course a few years ago. In addition to being very informative, the course's practical exercises were very good at developing patient assessment skills. Here is another wilderness/remote medicine course. I have wanted to take a course from them but haven't had the opportunity yet. http://www.gmrsltd.com/index.html

Boxer
Boxer

I think I would have to add straight up extra-strength Immodium, along with learning perhaps some natural colon-stoppers. If having to live off the land, consuming foreign foods, water, etc., one might risk the issue of getting something really bad in the gut, and the extreme fluid loss could really hamper progress. I wasn't in a survival situation...but I am one of those foreign food horror stories.

Alan
Alan

Great stuff. The honey thing is dead on. Also, don't forget sugar as well. And if you're trying to manage a wound on someone you don't like use salt, hehe! Sugar and salt kills bacteria through osmotic pressure.

The great thing about honey is bees use an enzyme called glucose oxidase to break down glucose. The result of that break down is hydrogen peroxide, a great antiseptic. So now you have the benefits of an environment to sweet for bacteria to live in and an antiseptic to boot.

Great article!

Alan
Alan

Great stuff. The honey thing is dead on. Also, don't forget sugar as well. And if you're trying to manage a wound on someone you don't like use salt, hehe! Sugar and salt kills bacteria through osmotic pressure. The great thing about honey is bees use an enzyme called glucose oxidase to break down glucose. The result of that break down is hydrogen peroxide, a great antiseptic. So now you have the benefits of an environment to sweet for bacteria to live in and an antiseptic to boot. Great article!

Pig Monkey
Pig Monkey

Nice writeup. I think the most important first aid-specific item to carry is an irrigation syringe.

I also strongly recommend anyone whose able to take a Wilderness First Responder course. They're not cheap, usually running around $500, but in my opinion WFR training is on par with Wilderness EMT training, which costs a couple thousand dollars, so it's not a bad deal. The knowledge is definitely worthwhile!

Pig Monkey
Pig Monkey

Nice writeup. I think the most important first aid-specific item to carry is an irrigation syringe. I also strongly recommend anyone whose able to take a Wilderness First Responder course. They're not cheap, usually running around $500, but in my opinion WFR training is on par with Wilderness EMT training, which costs a couple thousand dollars, so it's not a bad deal. The knowledge is definitely worthwhile!

Benjamin Fasseel
Benjamin Fasseel

Nice article. I have a state park that I live by with some hiking trails. This info will be very helpful. Just moved there and looking forward to hitting some of those trails.

Josh
Josh

Great write up and welcome!

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