The 15 Backcountry First-Aid Skills Every Hiker Should Know

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Every single time you step out into the great outdoors, you’re accepting the potential for danger to befall you. No, that’s not meant to turn you off of hiking, camping, and the like. Rather, it’s a simple fact that you would be smart to consider, as unpredictable things sometimes happen. All it takes is one misstep and you could be dealing with something as small as a scrape or as serious as a compound fracture. And while we certainly wouldn’t wish either fate on anyone, we know better than to pretend like it isn’t always a possibility.

That’s why we’re staunch believers in preparedness. You can’t stop accidents from happening, but you can be ready to deal with them as they befall you. And that’s what this guide is all about: informing any would-be explorers of the backcountry first-aid skills we believe every outdoorsman should have in their repertoire. You might know some of these skills; you could learn some of them with some easy reading; other skills may require professional education. In any case, these are the outdoor first-aid skills everyone should know.

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Checking Vital Signs

Whenever you come upon an emergency medical situation, being able to read vital signs is of the utmost importance. that way, you can gauge just how desperate a situation might be and that will better enable you to make the right call. There are a few basic vital signs one should be aware of. In no particular order, they include body temperature, breathing rate (or lack thereof), pulse, and (depending on who you ask) a few more. And each can indicate numerous potential issues. For instance, a lack of breathing might be the result of an obstruction in the throat, a cardiac event, or even an allergic reaction. However, regardless of the cause, it’s bad news for someone to have stopped breathing. There are similar indications with the other vital signs, so we suggest familiarizing yourself with what they are and what they might mean.

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Cleaning & Sanitizing a Wound

Obviously, with minor-to-serious injuries, it’s very important to get any debris, dirt, or anything else out of the wound, as leaving these things in an injury could lead to a bacterial infection. However, knowing how to clean and sanitize a wound is also a function of knowing when not to or knowing what to do if you don’t have the proper tools handy. For instance, a cut that won’t stop bleeding, especially when far from civilization, could be a very big problem, as profuse blood loss is a highway to your demise. In rare cases, it might actually be better to pack a wound with, say, mud to keep it from bleeding. This might increase the risk of infection, but that’s the tradeoff for survival. Bottom line: clean any wound you can and keep it covered if possible, but keep a few tricks handy in the case that this is not an option.

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CPR & Removing Obstructions

The first thing you should know about CPR is that, under no circumstances, should you attempt to do it without proper, certifiable training. Yes, we’ve all seen it in popular media, but knowing what it is and knowing how to properly do it are two different things. However, if you do get certified (there are local classes where you can do this through organizations like the Red Cross all over the world), this lifesaving tool is of tremendous value. You’ll also learn to look for obstructions in someone’s throat that might be keeping them from breathing, which can be cleared either with your fingers or by performing the Heimlich maneuver. More than most other possible injuries, being unable to breathe is one of the more time-sensitive issues you may come upon.

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Crafting a Splint/Sling

Sometimes, injuries are unavoidable — even serious ones. But you can do a measure to help ensure that they’re not made worse by moving from the place of the injury to a location where you might be able to get help. As such, it can be quite useful to know how to craft a sling or splint. The idea with each of these is to immobilize the limb and prevent further injury — either by keeping it steady via a splint or by removing its ability to swing free via a sling. Both are useful, as (respectively) one is better for legs and the other for arms. Keep in mind, however, that knowing how to craft a splint/sling is not necessarily the exact same thing as knowing how to set a bone or brace a sprain.

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Dealing With Poisoning

There are numerous types of poisoning, each with its own treatment and severity, but the two that concern us the most for this article are foodborne/waterborne and animal/insect. Food poisoning and/or poisoning caused by unclean water might not seem that severe in your day-to-day life (usually requiring rest, liquids, and a lot of trips to the bathroom), but they can be extremely dangerous away from civilization and might cause severe dehydration, disorientation, and a litany of other issues — all of which will need to be recognized and treated as soon as possible. Animal/insect poisoning also runs the gamut of seriousness — a bee sting, for instance, is often not that big a deal to someone who isn’t allergic to bees, whereas a rattlesnake bite could be deadly to anyone and everyone — but they should all be treated seriously, as well. Knowing how to identify the wildlife in question is also important, as you’ll be able to better alert medical professionals as to the culprit, which makes treating the poisoning a simpler prospect. It’s also worth noting that “sucking out the poison” is a bad idea, likely won’t work at all, and could exacerbate the issue for you and the victim.

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Identifying & Treating Heatstroke

Especially in the summer, heatstroke (an overheating of the body) is always a risk and can quickly become life-threatening. Recognizing the symptoms and taking immediate action could be lifesaving, however. This is also a health condition that’s often easier to recognize in others, as opposed to recognizing it in yourself. The symptoms include a high body temperature, labored breathing, flushed skin, nausea and/or vomiting, headaches, and even abnormal changes in sweating (including a stoppage altogether). The best way to immediately treat heatstroke is by getting the victim out of the heat and trying to cool them down by giving them cool water to drink, immersing them in cool or even icy water, etc. Of course, for something of this potential magnitude, seeking out immediate help from medical professionals is also a good idea.

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Identifying & Treating Hypothermia/Frostbite

When exposed to severe cold, like during winter hikes or camping trips, the possibility of falling victim to hypothermia and/or frostbite is always a risk. But knowing how to handle these conditions could be the difference between life and death. For reference, hypothermia (the over-cooling of the body) is something that happens across an entire body, whereas frostbite is more centralized to a single body part or extremity. However, immediate treatments can be quite similar. In essence, the best action to take is to ensure the victim is as dry and warm as possible — meaning you should remove any wet articles of clothing, remove them from the cold, use warm/dry compresses and/or blankets, and even give the victim warm liquids to drink. As with any serious affliction, seeking out medical attention is also paramount.

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Removing Debris/Shrapnel

With some of these first-aid skills, it’s just as much about knowing when not to treat a wound. That’s actually the case with removing debris and/or shrapnel. There are a few ways you can sustain injuries like this — from as small as getting a splinter by brushing against a tree branch to as unfortunate as taking a spill down a hillside — but the idea is mostly the same. With any superficial debris/shrapnel injuries, it can be as simple as pulling out the debris/shrapnel, cleaning the wound, and covering it. However, if the foreign particle(s) are deep enough and/or in a risky location (like close to your jugular vein), it might actually be more beneficial to leave it alone until you can find help. If you’re not sure, better to err on the side of caution.

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Setting a Bone & Bracing a Sprain

With any luck, you won’t have to deal with a rolled joint or bone fracture. But this isn’t about luck; it’s about preparedness. Sometimes ankles sprain and arms snap, but knowing how to set and brace them could be hugely beneficial to getting out of there and finding help. Bracing a broken bone or sprained joint will serve to stabilize the injury and help keep it from getting worse. It’s not going to heal it, but this is more about prevention than treatment. And stopping an injury from worsening is an extremely useful skill, especially when you might be far from help.

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Treating Allergic Reactions

Wide in scope and the seriousness of reactions, allergies are kind of a tricky subject. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re already aware of the allergies you (and those that are close to you) have. But knowing what to do in the case of an unexpected allergic reaction could be exceedingly important to survival. For minor allergies, like a sniffly nose in response to pollen, a simple antihistamine might be enough (or you could even just wait it out, as some are wont to do). Serious reactions, however, may necessitate immediate action — like an injection with epinephrine via an auto-injector — like bee stings, exposure to peanuts, and more. A good rule of thumb is to put together a list of known allergies and the supplies necessary to treat them before ever stepping foot on the trails.

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Treating Blisters

One of the most common types of injuries you can get in the great outdoors, blisters are a nuisance that can cause many more troubles if not properly treated. Typically, blisters (at least in an outdoors capacity) are the product of repeated friction and are typically found on your feet, usually your heels, ankles, or even bridges. When minor, these injuries will usually heal themselves. But if they are to pop, you’ll want to clean them, sterilize them, and cover them — perhaps even using some ointment. If you don’t do this, you could end up with an infection that will potentially require medical intervention like antibiotics. Burn-induced blisters are similar to friction blisters, but they’re often worse and may require more immediate attention and treatment from medical professionals.

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Treating Burns

There are several different types of burns that are possible to get out in the outdoors, but you can treat them relatively the same — so long as they’re not too bad. For starters, the easiest kind of burn to deal with is probably that which is caused by the sun, which can be treated with a bit of aloe vera, some cool water (both for bathing and drinking), taking a pain killer that helps reduce swelling, and (most importantly) by staying out of the sun for a time. Of course, you’re also better off using preventative measures, like sunscreen. The second type is that which is caused by fire — be that a campfire, lighter, or contact with something else that’s hot (like a cast iron pan or embers). These are usually worse and may call for cool water (not ice cold), cleaning, ointment, bandages, etc.

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Using a Tourniquet

Let it be said that a tourniquet should only be used as a last resort and, if you’re considering it, you should be willing to lose whichever limb to which you’re applying a tourniquet. This is because, when applied properly, a tourniquet will cut off the entirety of the blood flow to a given part of the body and, thusly, could cause irreparable damage to the extremity. However, if a wound is serious enough, a tourniquet may be your only option and could very well be lifesaving in practice.

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Wrapping/Covering a Wound

One of the more basic skills, wrapping and covering a wound properly is no less dire. After all, do it improperly and you could be exposing a wound to dangerous bacteria, resulting in an infection and making the situation even worse. However, knowing how to wrap a wound also means knowing when to unwrap one. Your body sometimes needs to breathe and keeping a wound covered could cause it to heal slower or even fester, which would also make things worse. You should also know when to swap out bandages. It’s all a balancing act.

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Know Your Limits

This bit of knowledge could easily be considered as dire as any of the other skills on our list, as it’s actually quite possible to make things a lot worse for yourself or any unwitting patient of yours should you take action that’s beyond your own personal knowledge and abilities. This is especially true with head and neck injuries, which could be exacerbated simply by moving the injured party only slightly. If you’re not absolutely certain you’re equipped to deal with something, you might be better off waiting for professional help. Know your limits; your life could depend upon it.

FAKs For Hiking

First-Aid Kits

Even if you’re a Bear Grylls-level survivalist, you’d still do well to bring some useful medical supplies along on any adventure you take. Sure, you could probably use what’s out there in nature to treat wounds and craft useful supplies, but you’re going to manage that far simpler if you just bring a FAK along with you on your trips. We’ve outlined three fantastic ones, each suitable for a different budget and carry style, in the section below.

Coleman Personal Survival First-Aid Tin

Though small enough to stash in a pocket, this kit includes a whopping 74 different useful medical tools and devices ranging from simple bandaids to antiseptic wipes to a razor blade and everything in-between. If you only want the bare minimum for your hiking first-aid kit but you still want it to be useful, this is it.

Purchase: $11

VSSL Compact First-Aid Kit

Designed so that it can fit into your backpack’s water bottle pouch (or just inside the bag), the VSSL Compact First-Aid Kit is loaded to the gills with useful medical tools, as well as a few bonuses. The little extras include things like an emergency flashlight, whistle, and even an oil-filled compass.

Purchase: $88

My Medic MyFAK

If it were up to us, every hiker and adventurer would have the My Medic MyFAK in their must-bring outdoor kit, as it is one of the most comprehensive and useful FAKs we’ve ever seen, especially when it comes to packable and/or modular options. And when we say comprehensive, we mean it — this thing has over 100 different useful pieces packed inside not including its ultra-tough nylon carry case.

Purchase: $120

The 15 Handyman Skills Every Man Should Know

If you’re more of a homebody than an adventurer, there are still plenty of ways to bolster your knowledge base in a useful manner. The next time you want to start up a project, you’ll do well to dip your toes into our guide outlining the handyman skills every man should know.