First Aid and Outdoor Recreation

Written by Steve Belcher

It's healthy to get outside and enjoy hobbies like hiking, biking, climbing, riding horses, and camping. However, all of these outdoor activities come with potential risks and challenges, so it's essential for anyone who plans to spend plenty of time outside to understand the basics of outdoor first aid. The principles of first aid are the same no matter where you are, but outdoors, the practical application can look very different. You'll need to be resourceful enough to both bring what you might need and use what you have at hand in order to stabilize someone's condition in an emergency.

Wilderness First Aid Basics

Being well-versed in wilderness first aid is an important life skill if you plan to go on outdoor adventures. Not only does it help you become more self-sufficient and capable, but it can be a life-saving skill in certain situations. The majority of outdoor injuries are minor and easily treatable with a first aid kit, but that isn't always the case. In some situations, knowing first aid can make a world of difference, especially since there aren't any emergency responders close by in the wilderness. You don't need to be a professional doctor or nurse, but you do need to have the equipment and the knowledge to be able to keep someone's condition from worsening until you can get help.

First Aid Kits

No matter where you go, you should always have a first aid kit handy. Stock your kit with your trip in mind, thinking about the types of situations you could encounter as well as how long you'll be gone. The longer your trip will be, the bigger your kit should be. The kit should be well-organized so that everything you need is easy to find; you don't want to waste precious time rummaging around for what you need in an emergency situation. Consider using different-colored containers and clear labels to organize your supplies. You should also make sure that everything is packed to withstand the elements.


Wounds can range in severity from minor scrapes to serious injuries. Without proper care, there's a risk of infection or even death. When someone is wounded, the basic steps of wound care are to get the bleeding under control, do what you can to prevent infection, and take measures to promote proper healing. You'll want to bring along supplies such as bandages of different sizes, gauze, antiseptic, and antibiotic ointment.

Dehydration and Heat Exhaustion

When you're out on the trail, it's not always easy to remember to keep drinking water like you should, and overexposure to the sun is a real possibility. When someone gets overheated, dehydration and heat stroke are real possibilities, and both of these conditions can endanger your health. Heat stroke occurs when people don't sweat enough to lower their body temperature, and it's incredibly common in people who are outdoors a lot. It can often come on rapidly, and it requires immediate medical attention. Always bring more water than you think you'll need on your trip. If someone becomes overheated, find or create a shady spot where the person can rest, give them water, and use some of the water you have on hand on their skin to help cool them down. Then, head back to civilization so the person can get professional medical treatment.


If someone gets burned in the wilderness, remember the four C's: Cool it, clean it, cover it, and call for help. Cool the burn using cool water; the longer heat stays in the body tissue, the deeper the burn becomes. Then, clean the burn with soap and water. Cover the burned area with antibacterial ointment, then apply a non-stick bandage to protect the burn. If you don't have a bandage, cover the burn with a makeshift bandage using whatever you have, such as a clean shirt or a sock; it's crucial to keep more bacteria in the environment from getting into the wound. Once the burn is covered, get help from a professional as soon as you can.

Strains, Sprains, and Broken Bones

Almost three-quarters of all non-fatal wilderness injuries are broken bones or sprains. It's incredibly common to sprain an ankle on a steep trail or trip and fall on a limb, causing a broken bone. It can be hard to diagnose these injuries in the wilderness, but often, you can help to reduce greater injury by using the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Reduce the swelling by icing the area with anything you have on hand, whether that's water from a stream, water from a bottle, or even snow. Compress the injured area with a bandage, bandanna, or clean clothes, but make sure you don't tie it too tightly; you don't want to cut off circulation. If you suspect a broken bone, apply a splint to immobilize the area. Elevate the injury above the heart, even if that requires you to sit down on a trail and let people pass you by. This should be done for at least 20 minutes before attempting to have the injured person move again. It may be necessary to use a hiking pole or big stick to help with balance or bear some weight while you make your way back to civilization. RICE should be repeated every two hours on the walk back to help reduce the seriousness of the injury.


In the event of cardiac arrest in the wilderness, chest compressions should be initiated right away. However, it's important to be realistic about the situation, given the circumstances you may be in. For instance, usually, you should keep going with CPR until help arrives or until you're too exhausted to continue. But if you're hours or even days away from civilization, you should know that the effectiveness of CPR decreases rapidly after 20 to 30 minutes.


Hypothermia due to environmental exposure is common in wilderness settings. Any temperature below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit can be linked to hypothermia, but it's especially common in below-freezing temperatures. It's also possible to get hypothermia in temperatures around 40 degrees if you're exposed to heavy wind and rain. It's easy to lose body heat, especially for people who aren't dressed correctly, people who get wet by accident, people who are dehydrated or have poor food intake, and people who are fatigued. The severity of hypothermia (mild, moderate, or severe) can be assessed by asking the person questions that require higher reasoning; seeing if their shivering can be stopped voluntarily; checking to see whether or not you can get a pulse on their wrist (if you can't, that may indicate a core body temperature lower than 86 degrees); and seeing whether the person can be taken out of the fetal position. Hypothermia can be treated by reducing heat loss by adding clothes or changing into dry clothes; adding fuel and fluids like hot liquids, carbs, and proteins; and getting the person warmth from a fire or another external heat source.

What to Do in an Outdoor Emergency

Knowing what can be done to help nurse somebody back to health using first aid is essential in an emergency, but it's not the only thing you can do. Before you go on your trip, make sure that you'll be able to summon help if you need it. For short trips close to civilization, bringing a fully charged phone may be sufficient. But if you're heading farther afield, get a personal locator beacon. These devices can be activated in an emergency to send out a distress call by satellite. While you wait for help to arrive, do your best to stay calm and administer first aid as best as you can.