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Basic Survival First Aid

by Ryan Dotson

Red first aid bag and some boots in the woods

The subject of first aid can be intimidating to say the least. There are people who study for decades to perfect first aid techniques for normal, everyday scenarios.

Survival scenarios bring about all kinds of additional complications. I know this first hand from several of the different survival challenges I have completed. As I go over some of the most important first aid methods, you will find that I have used my knowledge on almost every challenge.

My first aid experience started with my very first survival challenge. It was the third day, and I had managed to build a shelter, purify water, start a fire, and catch some fish.

I was in good shape, or so I thought. Once these tasks were completed complacency started to set in. Lack of sleep and calories along with the added confidence of gathered resources can make you careless. I thought I had cleanly trimmed all of the overhead branches from around my shelter, but I stood up too quickly and struck my head. Blood started to gush down my forehead.

Unfortunately I had been sleeping in the dirt, and my clothes were filthy. I had no medical supplies, and while I had purified water it was still risky to use for cleaning a wound.

Infection and even blood loss were a serious concern. I decided to cut out the back pocket from my pants since the cloth had not been exposed to dirt. I used a signal mirror to ensure there was no debris in the cut, applied the cloth to stop the bleeding, and used my ball cap to hold it in place.

Once the bleeding had stopped, I used the purified water to clean blood and surface debris. Thankfully there was no infection, and I was able to finish my challenge.

In this article, I will focus specifically on first aid methods most likely to save a life whether in or out of a survival scenario.

This will limit the number topics with which you need to become familiar. We hope this will make the subject matter less daunting, and hopefully give you the ability to save your own life or the life of somebody else.

Performing CPR

There are several scenarios in which a person’s heart might stop. CPR is simply the process of compressing the heart to either start it again or to keep blood moving to the brain. There are both online and classroom courses that you can take to become CPR certified. I suggest you take this step, as recertification can ensure that you keep the latest information fresh in your mind.

Here is the basic principle.

First, you should shake the person to verify that they are unconscious. Check to see if they have a pulse on the wrist or neck, and check their chest for breathing.

Always try to have somebody else call 911 while you start CPR.

Woman doing CPR on a person alongside the beach

(image via WiseGeek)

Place one hand over the other on the sternum, and use the weight of your body to apply checst compressions at a rate of two per second. To help you keep track of the rhythm, you can use the beat from the song “Stayin Alive.”

Apply 30 chest compressions and then check for a pulse. Then, continue chest compressions if there is no pulse. It is advised that you do not perform mouth-to-mouth unless you are CPR certified.

Heimlich Maneuver

Choking is another major first aid priority…I was actually able to save my wife from choking with this technique. Start with a finger sweep of the back of the mouth in an effort to dislodge the object.

Person using the heimlich maneuver on another person

(image via MSDManuals.com)

If you have no success, move around behind the standing victim and wrap your arms around their abdomen. Create a fist with one hand and grab the wrist with the other.

Place the fist between the sternum and the naval, and then thrust it inwards and upwards several times until the food becomes dislodged. You can also perform the Heimlich maneuver on yourself by bending over the back of a chair.

Hypothermia

In survival scenarios, hypothermia is the number one cause of death. This is the process of the body shutting down as your internal temperature drops below 95°F.

It is very common in winter weather, but can happen any time of year. When wet, the human body drops in temperature 20 times faster than when it is dry. This means that people can get hypothermia in temperatures as high as 60°F.

Symptoms include dizziness, confusion, and uncontrollable shivering. It has also been noted that victims sometimes feel incredibly hot and strip off their clothing just before death.

Diagram about the signs and symptoms of hypothermia

To treat hypothermia, you must warm the body from the inside out. Remove any wet clothing and dry the skin. Wrap the victim in a blanket and put them near a fire if possible. Warm fluids should be consumed as well.

If you cannot start a fire, you can strip naked and climb into a sleeping bag using your body heat to warm their body. To prevent hypothermia, you can do squats or walk in circles to keep blood flowing.

Be aware that hypothermia is more likely if you are dehydrated or starving. You might also notice frostbite on extremities such as fingers, toes, ears, and the nose. The skin will be discolored and frozen.

This issue could lead to having to amputate the problem area, and cannot be easily treated. You should never dip frostbite in warm water, instead always allow the skin to warm slowly.

During my first winter survival challenge, my body temperature was dropping. The air temperature was -1°F and the winds were clocking in at 20 MPH. I was unable to start a fire or finish building my shelter.

Despite a trail of tracks I had clearly left in the snow, I became confused and forgot that I was headed to collect some water. I had to perform squats every 30 minutes, and my hands and feet were in extreme pain. I verified that my body temperature was approaching 95°F, so I decided to tap out and warm up.

It took three days to get warm, and took two weeks to get the numbness to leave my hands and feet. I attempted the challenge again a week later  in similar conditions and was successful this time.

Treating Open Wounds

If you get any kind of an open wound in the wild, you have two concerns:

  • Risk of blood loss
  • Rick of infection

If a person is impaled with an object, you must not remove it. Often that object is limiting the blood loss.

For deep wounds, you should stop the blood loss first. Apply a clean cloth to the wound, apply pressure, and elevate the wound above the heart if possible.

For injuries on limbs, you can wrap cordage or cloth above the wound to slow the blood flow. This is different than a tourniquet, which completely stops the blood flow.

For small wounds, you can clean them immediately with clean water. Then apply a bandage for pressure, tie it in place, and clean the wound regularly.

Man with butterfly bandages over a cut

For deeper wounds, you can use butterfly bandages or apply stitches to keep the wound closed prior to applying the bandage. If this does not stop the bleeding and the life of the victim is at risk, you can use a tourniquet.

As with the pressure wrap, you will tie cloth or cordage above the wound. Then place a stick inside the wrap and twist it until it is as tight as possible. Tuck the stick inside the wrap to hold it in place.

Keep in mind that leaving a tourniquet in place for a long period of time is likely to require the amputation of that limb, so only use it if absolutely needed.

Hyperthermia

This ailment is the opposite of hypothermia, and is also quite common. There was a time I was working outdoors and the air temperature reached 103°F with 90% humidity. I started to feel light headed, dizzy, and noticed a rapid heartbeat.

I also noticed that I had stopped sweating, and a coworker said I had turned white. In this case we had no air conditioning and limited water, so we headed to the emergency room. They diagnosed me and pumped two liters of fluid into me before sending me home.

The technical definition of hyperthermia is having an internal temperature above 104°F. If you notice the above symptoms in a survival scenario, you must get out of the sun.

Direct sun exposure to the skin can complicate this condition. Always try to wear a hat, long pants, and long sleeves with sunscreen protecting any exposed skin. Get into a shady, breezy spot and sip lots of water.

Woman drinking water from a water bladder while hiking

Often hydration is the key to recovery. Try not to eat much as processing food requires additional hydration. Rest in the shade as long as you possibly can before resuming any work. You can also wrap a cool, wet cloth around the neck of the victim to help cool their blood.

Broken Limbs

Unfortunately, broken limbs are quite common in survival scenarios. If it is a compound fracture, you should always treat the cut and bleeding before worrying about the bone.

Once bleeding has been treated, you should set the bone by straightening it and then splinting it. To splint a limb you will need three sticks or boards.

Person using an arm splint made with sticks and tape

(image from theprepperjournal.com)

Once you have placed the sticks or boards along the straitened limb, use cordage or cloth to tie them tightly in place. You may need to tighten the splint periodically to ensure that it is completely immobilized.

Foot Care

While it may not seem like it, foot care is absolutely essential to survival. Without the ability to walk, you have a limited chance of finding the supplies you need. You also limit your odds of rescue.

There are two primary issues that can happen to your feet, and I have experienced both of them. Blisters can greatly slow your pace or can keep you from walking at all. It is important that you have well-fitting boots and dry, wool socks. If you feel a blister coming on, you should try to stop and tape the area. This could prevent it from getting worse.

When you make camp at the end of the day, you need to relieve the fluid from the blister. Use a sterilized knife to cut a slit in the blister so it does not close, and squeeze out the fluid. Then try to cover it and stay off of your feet for at least an hour or two. In many cases you will be back to hiking the next morning.

Foot wearing green Darn Tough hiking socks

Merino wool socks like Darn Tough can help prevent foot problems before they happen.

The other major issue is trench foot. This is where moisture builds inside of your boots causing the skin to soften and fall apart. It can eventually lead to infections that can make it impossible to walk.

As stated before, you should have good boots with dry, wool socks. More than one pair of socks is always suggested. In addition, you should dry your boots and socks over the fire every night.

As often as possible you should expose your feet to dry air so that they can again toughen.

Final Thoughts

We never really think that it will happen. We never expect to have to save a loved one, a stranger, or even ourselves. However, it is a simple fact of life.

Whether that life is saved or lost depends on a few things.

It depends on your knowledge. It depends on your bravery. It depends on your ability to act quickly.

However, there is no need to overwhelm yourself. Start with one first aid method, learn what you need to know, practice the technique, and then add another one.

Remember than any training is better than none, so take your time and learn as much as you can.

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