When you think of dangerous activities, camping is definitely not the first one to spring to mind. However, mishaps do happen and it’s better to be prepared for the worst, so you can deal with any situation that may arise. In this ultimate guide to camping first aid, we will discuss how to treat common outdoor injuries and provide you with a checklist to help build your own camping first aid kit.
We love the outdoors. But we’ve probably all experienced at least one adventure that has ended in a someone getting hurt. As much as we like to head outdoors in a positive frame of mind, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware and prepared for treating a range of injuries.
To get a better insight into the subject, we caught up with our friends at St John Ambulance, Martin and Anthony, and got their expert advice on treating a variety of common camping injuries. They also helped us build a great list of things to include in your camping first aid kit.
Preparing for the Unknown
No one knows what the future holds. Some may go a whole lifetime never having to use their first aid knowledge, while others may need to frequently put their skills to the test. Either way, it is always better to be prepared.
So what do you do?
When a first aid situation arises, the two things you are going to need are the tools to provide assistance and the knowledge on how to use them. You may have the best first aid supplies in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them, you may end up doing more harm than good. Having the right tools and knowledge go hand in hand for administering first aid.
The Right Tools for the Job
If you are a beginner to first aid and are looking to build your first ‘kit’, it may be best to start with a pre-made camping first aid kit and add extra items as you go along whereas someone more experienced person in first aid may wish to create their’s from scratch.
Your first aid kit will change depending on what type of camping you will be doing. If you are hiking to your campsite, you’ll want to keep your kit as light as possible while still keeping all the essentials on hand. Those who are camping out of their car or 4WD may be able to keep a more comprehensive kit with them. Regardless, these items should be in every camping first aid kit.
A compact first aid kit like this will have everything you need to perform basic treatments.
Essential Camping First Aid Checklist
There are four main categories your first aid kit will be broken up into; cleaning, sterilising and disinfecting; covering, wrapping and protecting; medicating and pain-killing, and first aid accessories.
Cleaning, sterilising and disinfecting
Even minor scratches and scrapes should be treated when you’re out camping. There is always a risk of infection, especially if you’re in the bush or near water.
Medical disinfectants: such as Dettol, to clean and prepare wounds for treatment.
Anti-bacterial ointment or wipes: to remove bacteria from a wound. Especially useful if the wound has been in a potentially hazardous water source.
Antiseptic wipes: that are preferably alcohol-free in single, sealed packs.
Spare clean water: to wash out wounds and hydrate the patient.
Saline solution: which can be bought pre-made or created yourself by combining hot water with salt, which you then let cool and put into a bottle.
Eye pads and drops: designed to be sterile and safe to clean eyes with.
Hand sanitiser: either alcohol or non-alcohol based used to disinfect and remove bacteria from your hands.
For shallow cuts and washing your eyes, the saline solution is suitable, while a medical disinfectant should be used on more serious injuries when more debris is in the wound. After any skin injury, it is important to make sure there is no dirt left in the wound so it doesn’t become infected.
Covering, wrapping and protecting
Wrapping your exposed wounds allows them to heal faster and avoid infection. However, it is hard to know what size cut you may receive, making it all the more important to bring a range of bandages and gauzes in many different sizes.
Band-aids: in a variety of materials and sizes including cloth and waterproof, in wide, circular, long and short strip versions. This allows you to cover all small to medium cuts.
Gauze pads and bandages: in a variety of sizes for sealing small to medium-sized cuts and abrasions. Pressure bandages are also useful for keeping wounds closed for longer.
Gauze and sports tape: to wrap larger wounds and provide stability to injured joints (eg. sprained ankles).
Liquid bandages: to cover wounds in difficult to reach or sensitive places.
Adhesive tape, bobby pins and clips: to hold tapes and other dressings tight over the injury. Duct tape can also be used to keep bandages together, but should not be applied directly to the skin due to its sticking strength.
Medicating and painkilling
Every safety kit should contain a few basic items for pain and discomfort relief.
Sunscreen: with a rating of at least SPF 30+, with SPF 50+ being more ideal.
Sun exposure relief ointment: to take the heat out of the burn and reduce redness.
Aloe Vera lotion: Helpful in relieving rashes, itches and burns.
Pain relief tablets: Choose what works best for you and your family with your doctor’s advice. Panadol and Nurofen are the two most common brands.
Diarrhoea and constipation medicine: A change in diet while camping or consuming contaminated food can affect your digestive tract.
Insect-sting treatments: Stingose and other insect-sting treatments relieve itchiness and pain from the bite.
Ice and heat packs: used to focus cooling or warmth onto an area. Great for pulled muscles and pain relief while out on in the bush.
Antifungal cream: to stop fungal infections. Especially useful on feet if they tend to get sweaty easily.
Antihistamines: to combat allergic reactions such as hayfever.
Mishaps can happen at any time while your out in the wilderness.
First Aid Accessories
These accessories are useful tools that you will be thankful for in an emergency.
Personal medications: although it may seem like common sense, many people forget their personal medications. If you are on any antibiotics, prescription drugs or require certain regular supplements, it is crucial you take them with you. It may also be worth bringing extra medication, just in case your trip is extended due to unforeseen circumstances.
Cutting instruments: such as a scalpel, scissors, knife or razor blade can be used to cut bandages and dressings to size.
Plastic gloves: non-latex preferred just in-case of an allergic reaction. These prevent infection and contact with hazardous bodily fluids.
Tweezers: to remove small bits of debris from a wound. Nail clippers or needle-nose pliers could also be used but are not ideal.
Sewing needle and thread: to patch up clothing and to stitch wounds as a last resort.
Basic cold and flu medication: such as Codral and Strepsils to combat a slight cold or sore throat until it can be properly treated at home.
Fire-source: including waterproof matches or a lighter.
Light-source: such as a rechargeable head torch so you can see what you are doing in the dark.
Notepad and pencil: to creating markings and write things down you may otherwise forget.
First-aid training manuals: emergencies tend to be extremely hectic situations and even the most experienced first-aid practitioners need a quick refresh in the heat of the moment. A short first-aid manual with pictures can jog your memory and explain the procedures to others who are not as prepared
Long-life food: placing a couple energy bars with long expiry dates in the kit can give you that much-needed burst of energy to make it to safety and begin the healing process.
What to put it all in?
If you have followed our suggestion above and started off with a pre-made first-aid kit, it is likely bursting at the seams by now. So what container should you use to house it all securely? Pretty much anything that is waterproof, durable, has compartments and is relatively lightweight can be used. Common first aid containers include:
Fishing tackle boxes: are extremely common, due to their many adjustable shelves and strong shell.
Toolboxes: are also common and offer a similar structure to a tackle box. However, their metal case makes them far heavier.
Laptop bags: is a slightly more unorthodox container. They generally feature large pouches and feature a wide, yet thin design making them easy to pack into a car.
If you do choose to use a non-standard container, be sure to label it so yourself and others know not to confuse it with its other purpose. The last thing you want is to take your ‘first-aid tackle box’ rather than your real one with your lures in it on your fishing holiday. You can also purchase empty first-aid kit cases to put your equipment in.
The Right Knowledge for the Job
Knowing how to use every piece of first-aid equipment in your arsenal is crucial to your success when in an emergency situation. When we caught up with St. John, we had them explain how to treat a variety of common outdoor injuries.
“The main thing with a broken bone is to immobilise it. So as minimal movement as possible and it's triple 0 straight away,” says Anthony from St John.
This means stopping where you are or in a place nearby that is safe to do so when the break occurs. Administering painkillers should be your next priority and making sure the patient, whether that is yourself or another person, is hydrated and fed. A splint or a sling are the two most common ways to immobilise a limb in an emergency.
Making a sling is a fairly straightforward procedure.
How do I make a sling?
Slings are generally used with broken arms, though they have been used with broken legs, just far less common. They are used to support the extremity by holding it up without any effort from the patient.
Anthony says, “Generally, any garment can be made into a sling. So for example, I am wearing a vest. What I would do is grab the vest, and pull it up. Or if it's pointing up at a 90-degree angle, I would put the hand inside the shirt, near the collar, which will give it support. It needs to be also as comfortable as possible for the patient.”
You can save this diagram and keep it in your first aid kit!
How do I make a splint?
Splints are more common on broken legs that require complete immobilisation. A splint is made from a rigid item like a stick or metal pole which is then tied to the broken limb to stop the break from moving.
However, a splint is only a temporary solution and requires attention to keep it tight. Seeking medical attention and resting the limb as much as possible is highly suggested.
What to do if the patient is breathing while still unconscious?
“The first aid response is 'DRSABCD'. So we have to check for our dangers. If there is no danger, you can approach the casualty. You then check for a response. If there is no response you need to know that help is on the way – so you send for help. You then check their airways and make sure they stay open. To do this, you need to put them into the recovery position by rolling them onto their back and tilting their head back to make sure the airway is open.”
D for danger – ensure the scene is safe.
R for response – look for a response, ask basic questions (eg. name, date/year, etc.)
S for send – call for emergency services
A for airway – open the mouth and unblock the airway if needed
B for breathing – look, listen and feel for breathing
C for CPR – 30 compressions followed by two breaths until completed
D for defibrillation – apply the unit and follow voice prompts
By following this acronym, you will be able to assist in keeping the patient safe and secure.
What to do if the patient is unconscious and not breathing?
“Immediately they need CPR, but you still have to make sure you send for help, regardless of how long the person has been there. Then you immediately start your CPR. You go for as long as you can, or as long as it takes for medical aid to arrive.”
Follow the same acronym ‘DRSABCD’ as you would for a breathing, while still unconscious, patient. However, attempting CPR or using a defibrillator unit should be a priority.
How do I treat a snake bite?
When the weather gets warmer, it’s not just people who come out of hiding from the winter. Flora and fauna begin to make an appearance. However, alongside all the beautiful flowers comes other more deadly creatures including snakes. Snake bites do happen in the colder months, albeit less frequently.
So what to do if you or another person is bitten by a snake?
“You will never know, unless you are a snake expert, if a snake is poisonous or not, so always presume it is a poisonous snake,” says Anthony.
Similar to aiding an unconscious person, you should follow the ‘DRSABCD’ acronym procedure. The first step is to check for danger and see if the snake has left the area. The last thing you need is two people suffering from snake bites.
After that, checking for a response and sending for help should be immediate actions, along with checking their airways and breathing. CPR may be necessary if they have fallen unconscious. It is unlikely you will be able to follow the final step, ‘defibrillate’ as not many people are known to carry one while adventuring.
“Snake venom, when it goes into your system, travels through your lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system travels close to the surface of your skin – and it's your muscles that move that move the lymphatic system up the limb.”
This is how you use the ‘pressure immobilisation technique’.
Therefore, the number one priority to ensure the casualty’s survival is stopping them from moving. To do this you need to use the ‘pressure immobilisation technique’. This is done by first putting a gauze or band-aid over the bite and wrapping around that area.
After that, if you have additional bandages, begin at the end of a limb (like the hand or foot) and tightly wrap up towards the torso. After that, it is important to keep the person still, even if that means carrying them to safety. The longer you are able to immobilise them, the longer the poison will take to spread around the body, therefore increasing their chance of survival.
How to treat heat stroke?
“Management is the key. You need to stop the affected person doing any activity. Get them into the shade, loosen any tight clothing and fan them. If they have stopped sweating, which is where they have become flushed and the skin is dry to the touch, then you should call emergency services immediately. This is because this person has now moved from heat exhaustion into heat stroke.
With heat stroke, your body temperature is rising and what you need to do is get cold packs, if you have them, and put them in the armpits and groin area. The reason why we do those areas is because that’s where the major blood vessels are. If you cool those blood vessels down, the blood will go to the core and cool the body down. However, that person definitely needs to go to a hospital.”
It is important to reduce the effects slowly. Dropping someone into a cold bath may send them into shock which can significantly damage their nerves and blood vessels. Cool water, ice packs or clothing dunked in water works effectively too, so as long as it isn’t freezing cold.
How to treat hypothermia?
“You need to take the person away from the cold source if you can, and if you can't we need to protect them from the elements. So you can put a barrier around them, like a wind break. If you can get them inside, if they are wet, you have to remove wet clothing as wet clothing draws the heat out and you replace with dry clothing.
Do not put them in a hot bath, as that pulls the blood away from the core and we need to heat the person slowly. So to heat them slowly, you need to wrap them, put clothes on them, so that their own body can generate the heat to warm them.”
Similar to heat stroke, you need to change their body temperature slowly. Any quick changes, like putting them in a hot bath will lead to damage to blood vessels and nerve endings.
How to treat frostbite?
“Frostbite is blood being pulled away from your extremities. Symptoms of this are the extremities going a white, waxy-looking colour. In this situation, place your hands underneath your armpits, as that's where the major blood vessels are – it's warm. You do not submerge the extremities in hot water, because that can cause damage,” says Anthony from St John.
Frostbite is what hypothermia will evolve into if not treated quickly. If you leave frostbite untreated, loss of limbs and death may occur. Contact emergency authorities as soon as you see any symptoms.
Cuts, bruises, abrasions, blisters and scrapes – other common outdoor injuries
You can follow a similar procedure for most common outdoor injuries. The first thing you should do is use a saline solution or medical disinfectant to clean the area and remove any debris or dirt from the wound. After that, putting some antiseptic ointment on it will help it heal. It then needs to be covered by a bandage or gauze, depending on the size and location of the wound.
Depending on the severity of the wound you may need to get it looked at by a doctor or let it heal itself. Don’t forget to periodically clean and cover the wound with fresh bandages.
Sprains and strains are common injuries for people who walk on uneven ground, such as hikers and climbers. They are typically non-life threatening injuries but can end an enjoyable camping holiday very quickly. For more information about how to treat them, check out the video below.
Prevention and Common Sense
Although it is crucial to know what to do in a first-aid emergency, we sincerely hope that no one has to use the items and procedures we have outlined above. The easiest way to avoid having to use these techniques is early prevention and using common sense.
Pushing your limits and stepping outside your comfort zone is what many of us strive to do. However, just because you went on a 10km hike doesn’t mean you are up to tackling Mt Everest. In regards to camping, begin with a few overnight stays at a popular campsite before you head deep into the wilderness for a week-long, off the grid adventure.
Being vigilant and looking for signs of danger before you encounter them can prevent most injuries. If you see a sign while on the trail that says there are snakes in the area, pay extra attention to the path in front of you, as well as any nearby rocks, crevices and tall grassy areas. If it has been wet recently and your track takes you over some slippery looking rocks, perhaps it’s worth assessing whether your footwear is up to the challenge or find another route.
Some general rules of thumb for camping first aid include:
Don’t go unknown: always tell someone where you are travelling and for how long, so they can send help if they haven’t heard back from you in a certain period of time.
Bring communication: bringing a mobile phone at minimum is recommended. If you are going to be off the grid longer than two days or the weather is looking bad, a satellite phone is a better option. They can be rented fairly cheaply or if you're looking to buy one, have a look at our buyers guide.
Bring a buddy: in survival situations, people who are in a pair survive far longer than those by themselves. If possible, never travel alone and bring a friend or family member with you. Besides, you’ll need someone to share all those awesome memories with!
The right gear: it’s not just important to bring the right first-aid equipment, but also the right outdoor gear with you. High-quality hats, footwear, clothing, shelter and more is required to protect you from the elements and keep you healthy while out in the wilderness.
Common sense: it can’t be stressed enough how much common sense comes into first aid prevention. Don’t take unnecessary risks, think before you act, be aware of your surroundings. Treat camping like any other dangerous activity and you will lead a long life full of exploration, adventuring and amazing memories many others will never experience!
*We would like to thank Martin and Anthony from St. John Ambulance for all their help in creating this ultimate guide to camping first aid.
This article is a guide and not meant to replace first aid training from an accredited organisation. First aid practices are constantly updated based on new research and scientific discoveries, therefore we can’t always guarantee the information in this guide will be accurate. It is best to contact your local St. John or doctor for the most up-to-date information.*
Got an amazing camping first aid story you are dying to share? Maybe you have some knowledge you would like to impart on us? Drop us a comment below to join the discussion!