During one of my survival challenges last year I found myself in a dilemma. I thought I had trimmed the ridge pole of my shelter smooth. However, I had missed one small knot and smacked my head. It left a pretty large gash. I had to decide if I wanted to bail on my challenge for medical attention or stick it out and treat it myself. I was worried about blood loss, but more so about infection. In a survival situation everything gets dirty. Thankfully I know a decent amount about first aid and was able to treat it and finish the challenge. This brought an interesting topic to mind. If you are alone in a survival situation, what first aid techniques would you need to know to get by? There are hundreds of first aid topics I could cover, but I am only going to discuss the issues that would most likely occur in a survival situation.
First, I will discuss open wounds since it is the issue that spawned this article. Any time you consume minimal food and water for several days, your coordination will decrease. After just the first day of this challenge, I felt downright clumsy. Once I cut my head, my first priority was cleaning the wound. Luckily there was clean water on hand that I had previously boiled. I ripped off the sleeve of my t-shirt and washed the cloth thoroughly before cleaning the wound with the water. I then held the cloth in place with my hat to keep pressure applied to the wound. I would have preferred peroxide or rubbing alcohol, but didn’t have any with me. If it had been a deeper cut I could have separated my 550 paracord and used a barbless fish hook to sew the wound shut. If the gash would have been on one of my limbs and I could not get the bleeding stopped, I would have needed a tourniquet. I could have wrapped cordage or cloth above the wound, tied it tight, placed a stick inside the loop, and twisted to tighten it down. In this case the wound would need to be elevated above the heart until the bleeding stopped. Be aware, tourniquets are for life threatening situations only. In some cases patients lose the limb on which a tourniquet is tied, so think carefully before applying one. There is still a strong possibility of infection with any open wound. If you have the option, seek medical care as soon as possible.
Two other common issues in survival situations are hypothermia and frostbite. Hypothermia occurs when a person’s internal body temperature drops to 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and it can be fatal. In fact, hypothermia is largely regarded as the most common reason for death in survival situations. It can occur in air temperatures as high as 60 degrees Fahrenheit if your clothes are wet. This condition progresses 25 times faster when clothes are wet than when clothes are dry. This is an urgent situation, and you need to get a fire built immediately. Strip off the wet clothes and dry them as best you can, or change into dry clothes. If you cannot build a fire and you are with somebody else, you can use body heat to warm up. This can be done by stripping wet clothes and climbing into a sleeping bag. For any hypothermia situation you have to think of anything you can to warm up, preferably from the inside out.
Some examples would be eating hot food, drinking warm fluids, doing squats or pushups to get your blood pumping, sitting by a fire, or getting out of the wind preferably in dry clothes or a sleeping bag. Do not take a hot bath or put your hands or feet in hot water. Warming your skin too fast is very painful and can cause cardiac arrest. You can help prevent hypothermia by dressing properly. Always wear a warm hat, and keep your core warm by dressing in loose fitting layers. If you start getting disoriented, have hot flashes, or shiver uncontrollably for a long period of time, then try to get medical help immediately. These are signs that extreme hypothermia has set in. Frostbite is the permanent damage of flesh cause by freezing and lack of blood flow. It is most likely to attack your extremities as your body draws blood to the vital organs at your core. You can treat frostbite in largely the same way as hypothermia. Pay close attention to your fingers, toes, and nose. Keep them covered and dry if at all possible. Also try to keep moving your fingers and toes to keep the blood flowing. In one of my challenges from last winter, I had hypothermia and frostbite symptoms start to set in. It had recently snowed, but I was so disoriented that I got lost while following my own footprints. That was a scary moment. I also lost the feeling in my fingers and toes for a few weeks due to the initial phases of frostbite. Thankfully I regained full function after a while. This all happened despite keeping my clothes dry and wearing proper cold weather attire. I built a shelter, built a fire, performed squats, stayed hydrated, and still had these issues due to sub-zero temperatures. Sometimes it is so cold that you just need to find a way to get indoors.
Another potential health issue is the opposite of hypothermia, when your core body temperature gets too high. It is called hyperthermia or sometimes heat stress/stroke and occurs when your body temperature reaches 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you have been working in the sun or in high temperatures, this can set in pretty fast. If you start feeling dizzy, have heart palpitations, contract a severe sunburn, or cease to sweat then you need to act fast. Get in the shade if possible and drink as much cool water as you can. Like hypothermia, dehydration and malnutrition can compound the issues. Exerting yourself physically can escalate the process as well. Hyperthermia and dehydration go hand in hand and often have to be treated simultaneously. A cold compress wrapped around your neck can cool your body temperature as blood runs through your jugular veins. I have actually had to visit the ER for these symptoms, and medical personnel had to pump two Liters of fluid into me through an IV. It was not a good feeling. I have also had a sunburn so severe that I lost consciousness in a restaurant, and they had to call an ambulance. As expected, I was also dehydrated. Heat can be a serious issue, and is not to be taken lightly.
Falling accidents are fairly common in survival situations, especially once you have gone a few days without food or water. As you lose coordination and focus, it becomes easy to step on loose rocks, wet leaves, or even just lose your balance. The result of this can be a broken bone or a head injury. If you have a broken bone, you need to try to immobilize the limb with a splint. You can accomplish this by using two sticks and some cordage. However, if it is a compound fracture where the bone protrudes from the flesh you must stop the bleeding before worrying about a splint. You would do this as detailed in the section on open wounds. You may have to make crutches to keep your weight off of a broken leg. As for concussions, I have had several. There isn’t much you can do other than to drink lots of water, get some food, get some rest, and seek medical attention as soon as you can. Most people think that you cannot go to sleep with a concussion for fear that you will not wake up. This is really only common in children. If you are a full grown adult, rest is a good thing. Make sure you do not hit your head again. Once you’ve had one concussion, you are then more prone to future concussions for the rest of your life. Many athletes have learned this the hard way.
I feel that foot care is every bit as important as these other concerns in a survival situation. Just think about it… if you develop trench foot or bad blisters then you cannot hike to safety. The more you prolong a survival situation, the more likely things are to go wrong. In many cases I feel that hiking to safety is a better option than staying put, so your feet matter. To start, everybody should own at least one pair of high quality insulated boots. If they do not fit right, are poorly made, or are not waterproof then you could end up in a jam. I personally spent more money on my boots than any other single piece of survival gear I own. You need to air dry your boots and socks every night. You can do this out in the open on a warm day or next to a fire. This will prevent many of the foot issues you may face. I know going barefoot in a cold weather while drying your boots sounds horrible, but it is absolutely needed to avoid further foot issues. If you do this you should not develop trench foot or fungus, but you may have still get bad blisters. Inspect your feet every night, tend to any infection, keep your nails trimmed, and drain the fluid from any blisters. The best way to do this is to sterilize your knife in fire or alcohol and cut a small slit in the skin. This will be less likely to fill with fluid again versus poking a hole with a pin or letting it burst on its own. It is great to wrap medical tape over the blister at this point, but in most cases you would not be lucky enough to have any. If your boots fill with water from stepping in a creek or other water source, you typically want to stop walking immediately and get them as dry as possible. I suggest wearing either wool socks or some type of synthetic blend socks to protect your feet. They both insulate better and dry faster than cotton. Wool is one of the few substances known to man that will still keep you warm when wet. Remember, you do not know how far you will have to hike and you only have one pair of feet. I have a few long distance challenges planned for later this year. I know from previous experience that I can hike dozens of miles with proper footwear and foot care. However, without these priorities I can only make it about six miles and I am finished. I plan to cover much more distance than that.
Fire in a survival situation can be a life saver for several reasons. However, it can take your life as easily as it can sustain it. Burns can be painful, can send you into shock, and can easily get infected. Many people think of minor burns as no big deal, but they can become a major issue. If you are burned, you have to keep the wound clean. Gently wash the wound with clean water as often as possible. Do not intentionally pop any blisters or remove any dead skin. Find clean cloth and loosely wrap the burns to keep them clean. You will need to replace the bandages periodically, which may require washing them if you are limited on clean fabric. Drink as much water as possible and get some rest. The larger the burn, the more it will take for you to heal. Burns are really tough to endure in the bush, so prevention is key. Do not fall asleep too close to your fire, and always be careful when cooking or boiling water. Pots and pans setting on top of a campfire are rarely as stable as you think they are.
Finally, I will mention negative reactions as a general ailment. These can come from bees, wasps, scorpions, spider bites, poison ivy, poison oak, snake bites, consuming poisonous plants or mushrooms, or drinking tainted water. I somehow got into some poison ivy last fall, and my reaction was so bad that I had to visit the ER. This happened a few years back with poison oak while visiting California. The exposure was worsened when the lesions became infected. If you have been stung, bitten, or have gotten poison ivy, you can use charcoal or mud to draw out the poison. Remove any stingers left behind so no further toxins are injected. Poisonous plants that affect your skin contain an oil called Urushiol.
You have about 15 minutes to scrub the affected areas before it is too late. I always scrub my arms, legs, and face with soap and then immediately wash my clothing. If you cannot wash your clothing, then be careful to handle it as little as possible. Coat the affected area with charcoal paste or wet mud and allow it to dry. If any major swelling occurs or if you have any swelling in your face or neck area, you will need medical help. If swelling affects your breathing or you think you have it in your eyes, it can be very dangerous. You can also inhale the toxins from these plants, so be careful of what you throw in your camp fire. To cover the remaining reactions, I will make a few important statements:
If you are bitten by a venomous snake, do not try to remove the venom with a kit, with a knife, or by sucking it from the wound. It will only make things worse. You MUST seek medical attention in this situation, even if it means hiking to help. You need anti-venom. Keep the bite below your heart and apply a loose tourniquet above the wound to restrict blood flow.
- If you are not 100% sure what a plant or mushroom is, do not eat it. Many poisonous plants will give you severe diarrhea and vomiting which leads to dehydration. Often times in nature there will be poisonous copycat plants growing right next to the ones that are safe to eat. This makes misidentification very easy, especially if you are hungry and not focused. It’s just not worth the risk considering some plants and mushrooms can kill you quickly.
- If you are not 100% sure your water is safe to drink, it is a bad idea. You can face similar consequences to consuming as poisonous plants. However, in some cases dehydration can kill you faster than the illnesses you may contract from the water. In this case, you may have no choice but to drink. Always pay attention to what you put in your body.On a closing note, there are a few things you can do to help with any of these maladies. Do the best you can to stay hydrated, fed, and rested. All of these medical issues can escalate quickly if you are not strong to begin with. The strength of your immune system plays a huge role in your recovery. Dehydration is especially dangerous and can kill most people in three days, so don’t take hydration lightly. Also, a good first aid kit is a no-brainer. You can put one together for yourself, and in most cases would already have most essential items in your home. Last but perhaps the most important rule is to stay calm. This applies to every survival situation, but medical emergencies in particular. Doctors suggest sitting down to assess the situation, decide if help can be reached, and write all your symptoms on your forearm with a permanent marker. If you lose consciousness, the EMT that responds would probably know enough from these notes to diagnose the issue. Whatever the situation, take a minute to develop a plan of action and then do what is needed to keep breathing. A cool head goes a long way when your life is on the line.
You might think “Oh these things will never happen.” If you had not noticed, most of these things have actually happened to me. It is easy to panic. You are already scared and alone, but now there is another issue threatening to take your life… as if Mother Nature alone isn’t enough. You may not be able to move, may be covered in blood, or may feel the doors of death closing in. Always remember that it is not over until it is over. You and you alone can utilize proper first aid techniques and facilitate your rescue. Know these methods and be ready to use them at a moment’s notice. When these situations happen, they happen fast and you need to respond faster. Do what needs to be done, and you may just walk out alive.