DON’T PANIC! A Layperson’s Guide to Surviving Common Wilderness First Aid Emergencies


By Kathleen Starmer,

As a rule, I don’t take life guidance from a work of science fiction. But when it comes to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I make an exception. Whether you’re dealing with the sudden onset of a blizzard or an alien invasion, you won’t be of use to anyone if you allow yourself to be seized by the sinister tentacles of panic. Take a breath. Get all zen. Channel your inner monk. NOW you’re in the proper mindset to handle an emergency situation. Let’s proceed!

DISCLAIMER: Before we get into the meat of this article, let me say this loud and clear: I am not a medical professional. In fact, let’s all say that together, shall we? “Kathleen is not a medical professional.” The author accepts no liability for anything that happens to anyone who follows the advice in this article. The information supplied herein is strictly for informational purposes, and will hopefully serve to incite you to sign up for a Wilderness First Aid course so that you can enjoy The Great Outdoors in the safest manner possible. Glad we got that squared away.

Presenting (drum roll, please) three—count ‘em: THREE!—of the most common emergencies you’re likely to confront in a wilderness situation, as well as some suggestions on how best to handle said emergencies with only a basic level of training.

Oh, My Aching Back…or Foot…or…: Muscle Strains and Sprains


“Hold still! I’m trying to help!”

Ah, the disappointment of a twisted ankle one day into your week-long backpacking trip! Not surprisingly, the treatment for strains and sprains in exactly the same on the trail as it is on the soccer field: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE).

The “rest” part is fairly easy. If your schedule allows, take a day or two to chill out and give the injured muscle, tendon, or ligament a break. Ice can be a bit trickier. I, for one, have never hauled frozen blocks of water into the woods, but you can improvise by immersing the sore area in a cold stream for short intervals, filling a plastic bag with cold water and securing it to the injury, or even by wrapping a wet bandana around the injury and letting the breeze perform some evaporative cooling. That wet bandana can also do double-duty as a compression bandage, or you could break open the first aid kit and use an elastic wrap. Lastly, if the injury is to one of the person’s limbs, prop the offending limb on a backpack, a fallen log, or whatever handy item you can find to decrease swelling and speed recovery.

You can also offer anti-inflammatories to the patient if they wish to self-administer, and there are some fancy-schmancy taping techniques you can learn about in a Wilderness First Aid Course. Taping is especially useful if the patient needs to keep moving before they’ve fully recovered. Plus, it looks bad-ass.

“It’s Just a Flesh Wound”: Abrasions and Lacerations


Boo boos aren’t only for the wee ones when you’re on the trail

Boo-boos just seem to be a way of life in the outdoors. In fact, lots of folks don’t consider it a successful outing if they don’t come home with at least one “war wound.” But just because skin injuries are common doesn’t mean you should get all devil-may-care about them. You can minimize the risk of complications down the line by following these simple tips.

First of all, if there is significant blood loss, staunch the flow. Just a little bit of blood is fine—in fact, it can even be good, as it will clean out the wound. Otherwise, apply pressure to the wound with a clean bandage. You can learn proper technique in any basic first aid class. Major blood loss, it goes without saying, is beyond the scope of this article.

The second thing you want to do is prevent infection. Since we’re addressing injuries in the boonies, chances are, an open wound is contaminated with nasties. You can use the alcohol wipes found in your first aid kit to clean around the wound, but it’s best not to use those wipes on broken skin because their harsh nature might actually further damage tissue. Your best bet is to irrigate the wound with clean water. Either use copious amounts of flowing, potable water, or if you’re super-prepared, use a special irrigation syringe. In the unfortunate incident of embedded debris, you can use sterilized (read: toasted in your campfire) tweezers to carefully remove it. Now, if we’re talking outright impalement, that’s a whole other issue…again, best addressed by taking a Wilderness First Aid course. Gee, you knew I was gonna say that, didn’t you?

Lastly, you want to promote wound healing. This is simply a matter of applying a proper dressing. Bonus points for elevating the injured area to decrease swelling.

You’re Giving Me a Heart Attack: Cardiac Issues


Could be a heart attack; could be a bad cheeseburger. Play it safe and treat as a cardiac event.

You might be surprised to learn that heart attacks are among the top three causes of wilderness fatalities. It’s certainly not as “sexy” as a dramatic fall from a canyon wall, but a cardiac event has the potential to be just as deadly. So do yourself a favor: get in shape before you head out for that three-day backpacking adventure. Step away from the deep fried, gravy drenched chocolate cheesecake. Have a doctor give you the all-clear before you embark on that 14,000 ft summit hike. Do everything you can to stack the deck in your favor.

However, even the best-laid preparations can go awry, so it behooves you to know the signs of a cardiac emergency. While it’s true that less-serious conditions can cause some of these symptoms, when you’re in the wilderness, treat any patient with the following signs as though they are experiencing a heart attack until proven otherwise by a medical professional. Better safe than sorry. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the most common symptoms of heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort, typically in the center of the chest and lasting for several minutes. It may feel like painful pressure, squeezing, or a sense of “fullness.”
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or even the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath that is not due to exertion, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs could include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness/dizziness, or an impending sense of doom.

(Although the most common symptom of a heart attack for women is the classic chest pain shown in the movies, females are also more likely to experience the symptoms I’ve indicated in italics above.)

If you have any reason to suspect someone is your wilderness party is experiencing a cardiac emergency, sit them down, give them 325 mg of uncoated aspirin to chew for about 30 seconds and swallow, and make them comfortable. Ask if they are carrying nitroglycerin tablets. If they are, give the tablet container to them so that they can self-administer one dose. Keep them calm and quiet. If you have cell reception, call for emergency rescue by qualified professionals. If you are out of communication range, pick the fittest person in your party to hoof it back to civilization and bring help ASAP. A heart attack is serious business, and there are all sorts of special situations and qualifiers for this dilemma; your best bet is to get your Wilderness First Aid certification before your next outing so that you’ll know the proper course of action for your particular scenario.

So there you have it! A quick-n-dirty layperson’s guide for dealing with common wilderness emergencies. And I know I’ve said it 127 times already, but once again, with feeling: sign up for a Wilderness First Aid course today! Your life—or at least your comfort—may depend on it!

Author Bio:


After over a decade of working as an academic ecologist and another 13 years at NASA, Kathleen Starmer created with the intent of bringing practical emergency preparedness to The Every(wo)man. She is particularly concerned with helping people who live in urban areas deal with the fallout from climate change-related disasters. You can follow Kathleen on Facebook (, Twitter (, Instagram (, and Pinterest ( You can also amuse yourselves with her amateur video production skills on YouTube (; encouraging emails may be sent to ( 


P.S. Don’t forget to register to win a $75 gift certificate from Trayer Wilderness. The giveaway ends November 3rd! Click here to enter.

Categories: Camping, First Aid, Medical, Preparedness | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “DON’T PANIC! A Layperson’s Guide to Surviving Common Wilderness First Aid Emergencies

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