Statistically, playing in the backcountry is pretty safe; life-threatening injuries and illnesses are rare. Most traumatic injuries are simple cuts, scrapes, and blisters. Environmental injuries, like dehydration, heat exhaustion, sunburn, and cold, are common, uncomfortable, and typically easily treated (and preventable). Since wilderness travelers are healthy, medical problems are minimal and tend to focus on headaches and general aches & pains. Problems in longer trips tend to be related to poor hygiene.
Yet, no matter where you go, it always seems that someone gets a cut or blister. And if bees, wasps, hornets, or fire ants are around, you need to be prepared to treat a life-threatening allergic reaction. Finally, everyone has aches and pains. These are the basics and what I recommend carrying to treat them.
Cuts & Wounds
You need materials to clean, dress, and bandage a wound to prevent it from becoming infected and to promote healing. Use clean drinkable water to flush the wound free of dirt and bacteria before covering it. Dressings are applied directly to the wound after cleaning and bandages are applied over the dressing to hold it in place. In some cases, a dressing and bandage are one and the same.
Blisters are the bane of hikers and sportsmen and women everywhere. Fortunately, with a little attention, they are relatively easy to prevent and treat. The BEST prevention, by far, is ENGO Blister Patches. ENGO patches adhere to your footwear, NOT your foot and will last for weeks before needing replacement. If you regularly get blisters in a specific spot, put a ENGO patch on your hiking boot under that spot and PRESTO, no more blisters. No kidding. If you get a hot spot, stop and apply an ENGO patch to your boot and you won't get a blister.
If you get a hot spot and fail to treat it, you will likely get a blister. The simplest solution at this point is to drain the blister, drain it (or remove the lid) and cover it with a hydro-gel dressing from Second Skin®.
Life-threatening Allergic Reactions
Life-threatening allergic reactions, also know as anaphylaxis, are unpredictable and, while rare, can quickly lead to death. Bee, wasp, fire ant, hornet, and other types of stings are common causes, as are food and drug allergies. The ONLY treatment is an intramuscular shot of epinephrine; epinephrine reverses the signs and symptoms. Administer an oral antihistamine if you treat someone with epinephrine.
General Aches & Pains
Most general aches and pains from muscle soreness to headaches can be treated with ibuprofen or naproxen, which ever you prefer. Both are over-the-counter medications available from most grocery and drug stores.
Basic Wilderness First Aid Kit
In summary, at the very least you should consider carrying a basic wilderness first aid kit to treat the problems listed above. If this is all you carry, you can fit everything listed below (except where noted) into our Minimalist First Aid Pack. If you want to carry more medications and supplies, consider our Guide or Expedition Pack.
Make decisions about what drugs to carry in conjunction with a physician; not all those listed below will fit into our Minimalist Pack.
In addition to selling first aid packs and supplies, we build custom first aid kits based on our packs and experience. Check them out here.
Want more information on this and other wilderness medicine topics? Take one of our wilderness medicine courses. Guides and expedition leaders should consider taking our Wilderness First Responder course.
Looking for a reliable field reference? Consider consider purchasing one of our print or digital handbooks; our digital handbook apps are available in English, Spanish, and Japanese. Updates are free for life. A digital SOAP note app is also available.
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