Wilderness First Aid - Staying Safe Outdoors

Wilderness first aid

Whether you're camping, climbing, hiking or just going for a quick stroll outdoors, staying safe and knowing what to do in an emergency is essential. If you or someone you're with hurts themselves, or is bitten or stung, it's important you act quickly in the appropriate way.

Read more: How To Survive In The Desert - A Guide That Could Save Your Life

We spoke with St John Ambulance about wilderness first aid and staying safe outdoors. Here's what they had to say...

What items should people make sure they have in a first aid kit if they're going camping, hiking or on an expedition?

The items you would find in a standard small first aid kit will suffice along with a foil blanket and ice packs as useful additions. Kits usually contain things such as cleansing wipes, plasters, non sterile bandages, dressings and plastic gloves.

What are some of the most common injuries or problems people face when they spend time in the outdoors?

We find the most common injuries from those taking part in outdoor activities tend to be minor ones such as strains and sprains, small cuts and bruises. However, the seasons can also play a role with some injuries due to the effects of the cold or heat. Frostbite, sunburn and heatstroke are good examples of this.

What can people do to help someone suffering from the cold, such as hypothermia?

There are four key things to look out for if you think someone’s suffering from hypothermia:

  • Shivering, cold, pale, and dry skin
  • Tiredness, confusion, and irrational behaviour
  • Slow and shallow breathing
  • Slow and weakening pulse

If you notice any of these symptoms, you need to warm the person up.

  • If they are outside, you should try and get them indoors as soon as you can. Cover them with layers, such as blankets, and warm the room to around 25°C. If you can, give them something warm to drink, like soup, and high energy food, like chocolate.
  • Once they have warmed up, they should go and see a doctor to get checked out as soon as they can.
  • If they become unconsciousness at any point, open their airway, check their breathing, put them into the recovery position and get help.
  • If they are outdoors and you can’t move them indoors, find something for them to lie on to protect them from the cold ground, like heather or pine branches.
  • If their clothes are wet, this can make the problem even worse, so change them into dry clothes if possible. Put them in a sleeping bag and cover them with blankets, if available. Make sure their head is covered too. Be aware that a foil blanket does not warm someone up, rather it stops them losing more heat. Therefore, you still need additional clothing or blankets to rewarm the casualty - if you have them.
  • Then call 999/112 for an ambulance. If possible, don’t leave them by themselves but stay with them until help arrives.
  • While you wait for help to arrive, keep checking their breathing, pulse and level of response.

A boy giving first aid when camping

What should someone do if they or someone they're with suffers a break or sprain when out in the wild?

Remember 'RICE' for the four steps to deal with strains and sprains:

Rest: Help the person to sit or lie down. Then support the injured part of the body in a raised, comfortable position.

Ice: It's important to cool the area to reduce swelling, bruising and pain. Apply a cold compress, like an ice pack or cold pad. However, do not leave on for more than ten minutes.

Comfortable support: Leave the cold compress in place or wrap a layer of padding around the area, such as cotton wool, before tying a support bandage around it to hold it in place. This support should go up as far as the next joint. For example, for an ankle injury, the bandages should go from the toes all the way to the knee.

Elevation: Keep the injury elevated and supported with something soft, such as cushions or pillows if you have them. If outside, use a rucksack or even bracken or other foliage.

If the pain is severe, or they can’t use their limb at all, they need to go to hospital as soon as possible. Otherwise, just tell them to rest it and go to a doctor just to get it checked out.

Read more: The Hiking Gear You Need To Survive The UK Weather

Fractures and breaks are the same thing and can be dealt with in the following way:

  • If it is an open fracture (where the bone breaks through the skin), you need to cover the wound with a sterile dressing and secure it with a bandage. This will help to reduce the chances of infection. Then apply pressure around the wound to slow any bleeding.
  • Movement of the injured body part must be limited to ease pain and prevent any further damage.
  • You then need to call 999 or 112 for medical help. You shouldn't move the person unless they’re in immediate danger.

If you’re waiting for medical help to arrive:

  • Using bandages, secure the area to an uninjured part of the body to reduce movement if possible. For instance, arm fractures can be supported with a sling, and a leg fracture can supported by tying that leg to the uninjured leg.
  • If they become unconsciousness, open their airway and check their breathing. Check this regularly - if their breathing stops, you will need to perform CPR.

woman giving first aid outside

How should someone deal with a burn from a campfire or scald?

  • The first thing you need to do is move away from the source of heat. If the person is unconscious, you'll need to do this for them.
  • You then need to cool the burn as quickly as possible. Run it under cold water for at least ten minutes or until the pain starts to ease. Although it may be tempting, don't use ice, cream or gels as these can actually damage the tissue and increase the risk of infection.
  • Assess how bad the burn is. It is classed as serious if it is: larger than hand-sized; on the hands, feet or face; a burn that goes deep into the skin.
  • If it is a serious burn, call 999 or 112 for emergency medical help.
  • Remove jewellery or clothing close to the burn. Don't remove anything stuck to the burn as this could permanently damage the area.
  • Once the burn has been cooled, cover the area with a clean, non-fluffy material, like cling film or a clean plastic bag to protect from infection.
  • Burns can cause someone to go into shock, so be prepared to treat for this - lie the person down and elevate their legs.
  • Unless only a minor burn, the person should go and see a doctor to get it checked out.

What should someone do if they're bitten by an animal or stung by an insect?

For animal bites:

  • Infections can develop quickly from an animal bite, so you need to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and warm water as soon as you can.
  • Rabies is also a risk with wild animal bites in particular. It can be incredibly serious, so get to the hospital as soon as possible if you think there is any risk.
  • Dry the wound by patting it carefully If you have a first aid kit, you should have some gauze in there which is good for this. Raise and support it and then cover with a sterile wound dressing.
  • If the wound is large or deep, keep pressure on it to reduce bleeding and go to a hospital.
  • It's best to see a doctor as the wound may be dirty and they may not have had a tetanus jab.

Treat insect bites by:

  • Brushing or scraping the sting off sideways if it’s visible. Don’t try and pull it out with tweezers or you could squeeze poison into the body.
  • Reduce the swelling by using an ice pack or something cold and raise the affected part of the body. If the sting or bite is in the mouth or throat, suck an ice cube or sip cold water.
  • Keep checking the casualty's breathing, pulse and that they're responsive.
  • If you notice any signs of an allergic reaction such as breathing difficulties or reddened, swollen itchy skin, particularly to the face or neck call 999 or 112 for emergency medical help.

First aid using survival blanket

How important is it that people have at least a basic knowledge of first aid?

Put simply, first aid can be the difference between life and death. Just knowing the most basic skills will give you the confidence to help someone when they need it most. In a serious emergency situation, especially in remote locations, first aid can buy you time before medical help arrives.

Read more: Interview With Ordnance Survey - History & Future of OS Maps

For instance, if someone has a cardiac arrest, for every minute that passes without CPR and defibrillation, the chances of survival can decrease by 10%. If you’re unable to help in this situation, it’s highly likely to end tragically but if you know how to do CPR you’re giving someone a possible second chance to live.

There are lots of free resources available to help people learn first aid.  For instance, St John Ambulance has a mobile app as well as a whole suite of how-to videos available.

Do you have any other general safety or first aid tips for those spending time outdoors?

Be prepared. You don’t need a huge amount to keep yourself safe. With a bit of forethought and some everyday items you can minimise the risks of any accidents becoming serious. Alongside your first aid kit, pack extra clothing and some high energy foods such as nuts and/or chocolate. Make sure you have access to fresh water and some form of waterproof covering (we live in Great Britain after all).

If you’re walking, ensure your footwear is sturdy, you have spare socks and a good map. Use good quality sunglasses and a high factor sun cream to minimise sun burn. Ensure your mobile phone is fully charged (and you have access to a top up power pack). Even if you don’t have signal exactly where you are, you want to know that you can call for help once you have found a network.

Whatever you are doing outdoors this spring don’t let an accident ruin your day - enjoy yourselves in the knowledge you are prepared should the worst happen.

Check out the rest of our first aid and survival supplies. However, it's always a good idea to attend a first aid course. You can find details of courses near you on the St John Ambulance website.

Leave a Reply