Basic Backcountry First Aid Skills

Basic Backcountry First Aid Skills

To continue with our series on Camping First Aid, let’s move onto the basic skills you should learn to prepare for backcountry emergencies.

These skills are the bare minimum; we highly recommend you take a proper First Aid course if possible. We'll cover the main types of health-related emergencies that you may encounter. Hopefully, you will not need to practice them on your next hike, but it's always good to be prepared. Let’s get started.

In this article, we'll cover the five most common health issues when hiking. These are Hypothermia, Heat Exhaustion, Wounds and Burns, Sprains and Broken Bones, and Shock or Unconsciousness.


First off, Hypothermia. It is when someone is exposed to extreme cold. If this happens for an extended period, the body will not be able to function well and shut down. A common sign of hypothermia is excessive shivering. Excessive shivering may be coupled with discoloration of the fingers and lips. If the cause of the cold is wet clothes, get the person out of them right away and dress them in dry clothes. Get them indoors or in a tent and cover them with a blanket. A space blanket would work well with this but if none are available you could use a large dry trash bag instead. If possible, start a fire to help warm the patient up. Another way to keep the patient warm is through skin-to-skin contact. Make sure to warm up the patient’s core first instead of focusing on their extremities.


Heat Exhaustion

The direct opposite of this is Heat Exhaustion. This is caused by extreme heat, humidity, and dehydration. Symptoms may be profuse sweating, paleness, nausea, vomiting, weakness, and cramps. On its own, heat exhaustion is not life-threatening, but may lead to heat stroke which could be fatal. If someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, take them into a shady area and lay them down with their legs slightly elevated. Give the patient some cool water or electrolyte solution (Gatorade) if available. Placing a wet towel on the patient’s forehead will help cool them down. Remember not to force the patient to drink or eat anything to avoid choking. If the patient’s skin turns red and becomes hot to the touch, he may be moving into heat stroke territory. It is best to get them to a clinic or medical facility as soon as possible. If this is not possible, take off the patient’s clothes and wipe him down with cool water, focusing on their head, neck, armpits and groin area.


Wounds and Burns

Let’s now move on to Wounds and Burns. Clean small scratches or wounds with soap and water, dry with cotton balls or gauze then treat with an Iodine solution or Antibiotic cream. Then dress the wound in gauze and tape, or a Band-Aid. If the cut bleeds a lot, use a gauze to cover the wound and apply pressure for 10 minutes. This will usually stop the bleeding. Then proceed to clean and dress the wound. For deep wounds, remove any dirt or small objects from the wound when you clean it. If there are objects embedded deeply in the wound, do not remove them because it may cause further bleeding. Have the patient lie down with the wound slightly above heart level. Cover it with gauze and apply pressure for 20 minutes. If the gauze becomes soaked in blood, do not remove it but cover it with another piece of gauze instead. If the bleeding does not stop, locate the nearest artery and put pressure on it. They are located behind the knees, groin, elbows, and armpits.


For minor Burns, immerse the burnt area under cold water or pour cold water over it immediately. Do not put any ointments or creams on the burn. Cool the area down until the pain is gone, then cover it with a gauze pad. For larger burns, elevate the burnt area and do not immerse in cold water because it could induce shock. Instead, cover the burnt area with a cool damp cloth. Do not pop any blisters or remove any burnt clothing. Get the patient medical attention as soon as possible.


Sprains and Broken Bones

Another common health issue when hiking are Sprains and Broken Bones. For Sprains just remember RICE, Rest - Ice - Compression - Elevate. Rest the sprained body part and ice intermittently for 20 minutes intervals. Using a bandage or elastic material, compress the area and elevate. This should usually alleviate minor sprains. If you have anti-inflammatory medicine handy, have the patient take one and if you need to get going, use a trekking pole or makeshift crutch to keep the weight off a sprained leg.


In some cases, what may seem like a sprain could already be a Broken Bone. If the pain and swelling does not subside after following the RICE procedure, treat it as a broken bone instead. This means that you will have to put a splint on the affected area to prevent it from moving. Bring out your inner MacGyver and find things around you to use. Sticks, trekking poles, sleeping bags or extra clothing could be used if bandages are not available. If help is coming, it would be best to leave the fracture as it is to minimize moving it. If you need to head back to camp or the nearest health facility, you may need to reset the bones before putting a splint. If the bone is protruding from a wound, you need to reset the bone, stop the bleeding and dress the wound before putting on a splint.

Should you suspect that the victim has a head or spinal cord injury, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE THEM. Moving the patient could cause further harm and permanent damage. Keep the patient calm and still while you wait for help to arrive. If the patient is bleeding from the mouth or is vomiting and you have to set him on his side to prevent choking, have another person assist so that you can keep the head and spine aligned at all times.

Shock and Unconciousness

If the victim is disoriented, has cold skin and has a weak or rapid pulse with irregular or shallow breathing, or may be vomiting and nauseous, he/she could be in Shock. This could lead to loss of consciousness and permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen flowing to the brain. It is important that you immediately call for help at this point. Have the patient lay on their back and raise their legs about a foot above the ground to stimulate blood flow to the head and vital organs (brain, heart, and lungs). Make sure that the patient is comfortable before treating any other injury. DO NOT MAKE THE PATIENT EAT OR DRINK ANYTHING.

A skill that will be very helpful in trying to save lives is CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation). We highly recommend that you take a professional course to learn this, but in case you may need it; here are the basics of CPR. First, make sure the patient is on their back and check the mouth and throat for any blockages. Once the airway is cleared, raise the patient’s chin to maximize airflow. Check for a pulse, if there is none; start Chest Compression. Put the heel of one hand in the center of the patient’s chest and place your other hand on top of it while interlacing your fingers. Pump down on the chest about two inches deep at a rate of 100 beats per minute. Think of the chorus to the Bee Gees song “Stayin’ Alive”, specifically the,” Ha ha ha ha stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive” part. Do this 4 times or 30 pumps.


If necessary, you may need to breathe into the patient’s mouth. To do this, open the patient’s mouth and pinch his nose. Then place your open mouth covering the patient’s mouth and breath 2 quick breaths until the patient’s chest rises. After this check for a pulse again. Repeat until the patient has a pulse and starts breathing on his own.


Prevention and awareness is still your best tool against danger and harm. Learn as much as you can about the area you are planning to hike and prepare for what is expected. Wear clothing appropriate for the weather and always pack a First Aid Kit that is easily accessible in case of emergencies. Clean your hands and tools before handling wounds and food, and never leave an injured person alone if possible, and STAY CALM. Hopefully, you would not have the need to use any of these skills but it is always best to be prepared.

Do you have any questions or suggestions? Leave a comment below and check out our blog for other tips and resources.

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