Posts Tagged With: common wilderness injuries

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away

by Todd Walker

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

More and more people are getting back to nature to enjoy its beauty and benefits. The list of outdoor activities seems endless. With these pursuits comes risk of injury. Common injuries like scrapes, sprains, burns, bites, and blisters can turn serious in remote locations. I’ve had my share of bumps, bruises, stings, and close calls. Thankfully, none were life threatening… but could have turned sideways quickly.

Note: All injuries depicted look real but are not. If you’re queasy about blood and guts, you may want to reconsider reading the rest of this article.

A skill set I’ve neglected for years is wilderness first aid. Teaching students outdoor self-reliance skills at RISE spurred me on to train with one of the best Wilderness Emergency Care instructors available, Mark DeJong, owner of Off Grid Medic. We were also fortunate to have Michelle Pugh, an accomplished long distance hiker, author of two books of her adventures, and Off Grid Medic staff instructor teaching our class. Their style of teaching fits perfectly in my “Doing the Stuff” wheelhouse. You won’t sit and watch boring power points in a sterile environment. Courses are held where outdoor enthusiasts roam – the woods. Our class was hosted by Georgia Bushcraft, LLC.

Besides imparting real-world knowledge, Mark works his magical moulage abilities by transforming last night’s rib eye bone into a patient’s open fracture. These realistic injuries aren’t for shock value but to help students “train like you fight.” Discovering a bone protruding from the skin or an impalement in a training exercise will give you a clue as to how you’d respond in a real wilderness emergency.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

See what I mean? Some of Mark’s handiwork on “Dutch Oven” Bill.

Wilderness First Aid

Urban first responders are equipped with tools and reinforcements to get patients to definitive care within minutes typically. For wilderness rescuers, hospitals and doctors might be hours or days away. Environmental stressors, evacuation over rugged terrain, limited medical resources, and other unknown variables present unique challenges for patient care and treatment.

If you interested in professional training in wilderness emergencies, contact Off Grid Medic. Below are a few things to consider if you’re ever in the role of wilderness rescuer.

You’re Number One

You can’t rescue a victim if you step into a dangerous situation and become one yourself. Before rushing in, assess the situation, location of patient, and possible hazards; dead tree limbs overhead, steep/loose ground, freezing water, etc., etc. Take care of yourself and team before providing care.

As an example, use the Reach, Throw, Row, Go steps to protect yourself in an open water rescue.

  • Reach: Use when victim is close to shore line and can be reached with by hand, pole, paddle, etc. without having to enter the water.
  • Throw: Victim is too far away to be reached, throw a line, rope, PFD attached to rope, if the victim is conscious and able to grab the rope.
  • Row: Rescuers will use a boat/canoe/kayak if Reach and Throw isn’t an option. Get close enough to use Reach, Throw, or lift the victim into the craft.
  • Go: This is the last and least safe option for rescuers. It may be necessary due to the victim being unconscious or unable to grab a rope.

McGyver Mentality

Even if you are a medical professional, the wilderness changes the game. After your initial patient assessment, a typical first aid kit may not contain every item you’ll need in remote emergencies. Be prepared to improvise… a lot.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Space blankets come in many styles. Buy good quality, sturdy blankets.

For a few more ideas on outside-the-box first aid items, this article of ours may help.

Besides a first aid kit, I’ll wager that you probably have the following items in your supplies. If not, consider adding them.

  • Emergency Shelter: Start with proper clothing for the rescuer, space blanket (not the cheap mylar sheets), control body temperature, body wrap for victim, shield from elements, signaling device (orange), etc.
  • Duct Tape: Wound closure (butterfly stitches), splints/wraps, slings, neck/head immobilization, fire starter, and uses too long to list here.
  • Ziplock Baggies: Exam gloves, wound irrigation, occlusive dressing for large burns, sucking chest wound taped on three sides, and more.
  • Rope/String: Splinting, litter bed, lashing a litter together, emergency shelter, etc.
  • Bandana/Cotton Material: Bandages, sling, splint padding, dressing, wet dressing, etc.
  • Metal Container: Disinfect water for hydration via boiling, cooking, warm liquids, hot/cold pack, etc.
  • Fire Kit: Emergency tinder, lighter, road flare (not joking), signaling, warm patient and rescuers, comfort, cooking (unexpected stay), water disinfection, etc.
  • Knife/Saw/Ax:  Tools to make other items for rescue (litter, fire, etc.), remove insect stinger, collecting firewood, etc.
  • Head Lamp: You’ll need your hands free to attend to a patient in dark conditions.
  • Compass: Preferable one with a mirror and magnifying lens – all kinds of uses beside navigation.

To Splint or Not to Splint

Sprains, strains, and closed fractures are not always distinguishable. Open fractures are easier to diagnose since the bone protrudes from the skin. A closed fracture may not show deformity in a limb. The rule of thumb is to splint if a limb is painful, swollen, or deformed – this applies to sprains and strains. Immobilize the limb(s) before the patient is evacuated.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Makeshift splint by Mike and Jessica. Interesting note: I taught Mike middle school P.E. in 1985. Man, I’m old!

We learned to splint limbs with resources on hand and materials from the wilderness. Without a modern SAM Splint, you’ll have to get creative. Two sticks, cordage, and a shirt stuffed with leaves will pad and immobilize an arm or leg.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

SAM Splints are great to have in your pack.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Mark demonstrating the B.U.F.F. splint – Big, Ugly, Fat, Fluffy – on Michelle.

Slings for an arm/shoulder/collar-bone injure have to offer support and keep the limb secured to the body. Through hands-on experimentation, my partner and I found that zipping her arm inside her light jacket created a snug fitting sling which was comfortable and warm. There’s more than one way to sling a limb.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Another diy sling.

Transporting the Victim

Depending on location and terrain, rescue reinforcements may be far way or unable to respond in remote areas. You’re injured friend will have to be carried out. A makeshift litter can be made from poles and string.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Happy people carrying a litter full of Casey.

Two Litter Options: 

  1. Large group of 6-8 people
  2. Small group with as few as 3 people with backpacks

Large Group: Cut two saplings about 8 feet long and sturdy enough to carry weight. Cut 5-6 sturdy cross pieces about 5 feet long. Position the two long poles parallel next to the victim. Place the cross poles under the long poles at intervals which support the head, mid back, hips, knees, and feet. Lash the poles together using square lashing or any knots to secure them in place. If time is an issue, or cordage is sparse, use a jam knot with two short pieces of bank line or paracord.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Demonstrating square lashing and jam knot techniques.

Transfer the patient to the litter. Team members lift at the extended cross poles and walk.

Small Group: Use two saplings as above. If sturdy rope is available, wrap the rope around the poles to create a bed. The pole ends are tucked into the lower part of the shoulder straps of two backpacks. This allows two people, with proper fitted backpacks, to transport a victim.

Off Grid Medic: Surviving Wilderness Emergencies When Definitive Care is Miles Away ~

Two poles inserted in the backpacks straps to carry our patient on a rope litter. Obviously, they wouldn’t be facing each other if not in the class.

The culmination of our three-day, 20 hour training was a nighttime rescue. I mentioned that Off Grid Medic likes to keep it real for “train like you fight” scenarios. Mark and Michelle didn’t let up and provided excellent, realistic, hands-on training the entire weekend!

If you’re a camper, hiker, woodsman, or Scout leader, consider learning wilderness first aid. This is an entry-level course into the world of wilderness emergency care. Contact Mark for next-level courses and continuing education. I offer my highest recommendation to the Off Grid Medic team for their professionalism, knowledge, and real-world training.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, First Aid, Medical, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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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