WILDERNESS FIRST AID
By George E. Dvorchak, Jr., M.D.
I began work on this presentation after receiving a call from
Pennsylvania Hunter Education Instructor Ed Soyke who asked if I
would be interested in presenting basic first aid information to
his class at the White Oak Rod and Gun Club, Inc.
This request came from the same group of dedicated instructors
who volunteered their time and talents when I took this course
two years earlier. Although I have been a hunter for nearly 30
years and was a one-time certified handgun instructor when a
cadet at Valley Forge Military Academy, I learned a lot I proba
bly would have missed without Hunter Education.
Besides, this would be an opportunity for me to "give a little
back" which hopefully would help someone else.
I was soon to learn that much of what I took for granted would
be hard to put into a presentation that would only touch on
basics but would challenge students to enroll in an accredited
first aid course. Wilderness first aid also meant that basic
medical equipment found in many homes would be non-existent when
and where an emergency would be likely to occur.
Pennsylvania's well written manual for this 10-hour course
recommends that students should enroll for additional information
in an accredited first aid course as offered by the American Red
Cross. These are available through local rescue/ambulance and
fire-fighting organizations. This is the proper approach, but as
human nature has it, I felt that few would enroll due to time,
interest and the common feeling that an accident can not happen
Knowing this, the instructors wanted some added information
presented that would review what was covered as well as to possi
bly put a different perspective on a topic that should be famil
iar to all. In my opinion, first aid should be a part of every
schools elementary and high school curriculum. I believe that the
school boards and educational planners are sleeping on this one.
The following is what I feel is important and basic knowledge a
hunter should have concerning the Disorder, Prevention, Signs &
Symptoms, Field Treatment & Concerns.
HEAD INJURIES - Any injury to this part of the body should be
considered serious because of the delicate structure within,
meaning the brain and its blood supply.
SKULL FRACTURE: By its name this is a break in a bone of the
head. Because the skull bones are strong and fairly protective
of the structures under them, most fractures as from a fall are
usually simple ones.
Since the bone is only cracked and not punched through the skin,
bacteria and dirt from the outer layer of skin does not enter in
the picture An open or depressed fracture is much more dangerous
since the broken bones can cut blood vessels which then leak
blood. The result is increased pressure on the brain from the
leaking blood which is now called an epidural or subdural hemor
Concerning PREVENTION, there is not a lot one can do except to
be sure of the surface to be walked-on and to walk slowly when in
unfamiliar territory or where there are logs, vines and stones to
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS: This is tricky since an injury that may
appear only as a bump on the head may be serious where one that
looks bad due to blood loss may not have caused damage to the
brain. Any signs of a skull fracture could be a deformity of a
bone at or around the injury site, black eyes caused by torn ves
sels and therefore blood collecting in an area under the skin or
blood and/or clear watery fluid better known as cerebrospinal
fluid leaking from the nose, mouth and/or ears. The pupils or the
black center of the eyes can be of different sizes.
These signs as well as being knocked unconscious are serious and
the victim should be taken to a physician immediately. This could
be the start of a deadly hemorrhage! There is nothing a first
aider can do here except to keep the victim quiet and keep the
head flat and slightly turned away from the injured side. This is
done to possibly relieve some pressure to that area. It is impor
tant to get the injured person to a medical facility as soon as
CONCUSSION: This is a condition associated with brief uncon
sciousness following an injury with the head or neck involved.
Even though there was a disturbance in the electrical activity to
the brain which resulted in the loss of consciousness, there is
usually no other damage. Yet, due to the dangers of head in
juries, call you doctor for advice.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS: lack of memory, confusion, blurred vision and
vomiting. Even though the victim comes out of it without any
apparent problems, for the first 24 hours bed rest and constant
observation for drowsiness and other symptoms as above are impor
BROKEN NOSE: The only sure way to know if the nose is broken
besides an obvious deformity is with an X-ray. Get to your
doctor and during transportation, put cold packs or snow on the
injury to decrease the swelling.
EYE - Injuries are common here, especially when in the woods or
thick brush when it is dark.
PREVENTION: Wear yellow or clear shooting glasses in low light
for protection. When there is a lot of snow in conjunction with
bright sunlight, wear sunglasses to cut down on glare and to pro
tect the eyes from wind burn or snow blindness.
FOREIGN BODY IN THE EYE: Do not rub the eye since rubbing may
push the fragment of whatever into the soft tissue or cause it to
scratch the eye's surface or cornea. To remove a foreign body,
have someone use the top of a wet handkerchief to gently remove
SURFACE OR CORNEA OF THE EYE SCRATCHED: Get to your doctor. If
something is still in the eye, hold a handkerchief lightly over
the injured eye to prevent movement. Your doctor will probably
give you antibiotic eye drops to prevent the possibility of a
bacterial infection during the healing process.
An infection could lead to a corneal ulceration which could
progress to blindness. When in the field, you will know when and
if your eye has been scratched. Walking into a twig is a good way
to cause this injury. I did that once an hour before day light on
the one day I forgot my glasses.
BLEEDING WOUNDS - REMEMBER, USE PRESSURE AND DO NOT PANIC.
LACERATIONS (CUTS): To stop bleeding, apply constant pressure
over the wound. This will prevent blood loss and help stop the
bleeding or slow it down if a minor cut. If a major one, again
apply pressure until you get to a doctor.
You probably will not have bandages with you so if you have a
handkerchief, use that even if it is not the cleanest. The
immediate concern is to stop the bleeding, worry about infection
later. If you have nothing with you, then use your open hand to
apply pressure over the wound. How do you know if an artery or
vein has been cut: Blood from a vein is bluish red and will
simply flow or ooze out. That from an artery will be bright red
and will spurt out since its pressure is from a pump, the beating
heart. It takes about seven minutes for blood to clot which will
slow or stop the bleeding, depending on what was cut and how
severe. With a bad laceration you are going to need to be su
BULLET WOUNDS: This is serious trouble! TREATMENT: Again, apply
pressure over the wound if possible. If there is a big hole in
the arm or leg, you may have to use a tourniquet to stop the
bleeding. This could be a bandage, shirt, belt or deer drag
tightened above the wound. Get help! If pressure or a tourniquet
will stop the bleeding, stay with the person and yell for help
since blood loss can push the victim into another bad and poten
tially deadly situation known as shock. The only PREVENTATIVE
measure for hunting accidents is not to have them happen in the
first place. Hunter Education Classes combined with common sense
could take care of this category.
PENETRATING WOUNDS: These are also common injures that are
unfortunately accidentally self inflicted by being careless with
an arrow, pointed stick or knife. The thing to remember here is
that you usually should not remove the penetrating object in the
field. Use a bulky dressing as from materials to stabilize the
object and watch for shock. at to do here is a judgment call in
the field with considerations as what is injured and by what, how
severe and where is the victim, etc. Again, a first aid class
will give you the knowledge to make a correct call on this one.
As with any severe wound, you need medical assistance.
SHOCK - There are various types and causes of shock. I will only
present information on the type you will most likely encounter in
the outdoors, HEMORRHAGIC SHOCK. This is induced by a reduction
in blood to the body's tissues. It can be caused by cuts or blunt
trauma that results in internal bleeding as from a ruptured liver
or fractured bone which severed an artery or whatever: blood loss
-> collapse -> coma -> death.
PREVENTION: USE pressure to stop or slow the loss of blood from
a wound SYMPTOMS: Cold clammy skin; rapid, shallow breathing;
weakness; sweating; pupils of the eye become large or dilate;
pulse is weak and rapid; the victim may be very thirsty and could
faint. What you can not check without equipment is the blood
pressure which becomes very low due to the loss of blood
TREATMENT: As with prevention, stop the bleeding! Make sure the
mouth is clear of anything that could interfere with breathing.
Let him lay down, keep him warm and get help.
SPRAINS - These are caused by a partial tearing of a ligament
around a joint or injury to the joint's capsule. This is usually
from a sudden and not anticipated movement.
SYMPTOMS: There is usually immediate pain and then swelling in
the area injured.
TREATMENT: To the injured area, apply snow or put it in cold
water. It is also important to rest the area and try not to apply
weight. NEVER USE HEAT! Its use would be similar to putting fire
to fire! Get to your doctor if there could be any chance of the
sprain really being a fracture. If in doubt, treat it as a frac
ture. The only sure way to distinguish between the two is with an
X-Ray In both, the area above the injury will usually become
black and blue, bruised. This discoloration is caused from blood
leaking into the tissue after the injury.
Careful with bandages! If too tight it will act like a tourni
quet by compressing the blood vessels which will greatly restrict
the blood flow. If the ankle was sprained, you should not put an
ace bandage completely over the toes because they should be visi
ble so that changes in the color of the tips of these could be
easily observed for indications that the bandages are too tight.
FRACTURES - Usually a bone is broken across its width. Types;
OPEN (compound): Here a piece of bone sticks through the skin.
CLOSED (simple):The broken bones are kept within the skin and
due to less movement of the broken part, less tissue is damaged.
A chance of infection has been greatly reduced since the skin is
TREATMENT: Do not to put the bone back if a compound fracture.
Immobilize the extremity of a fracture to present further injury
and get the victim to the hospital. It is important that you do
NOT move or put pressure on an injured area since you could cause
nerve and tissue damage. If it is a spinal injury which is usual
ly in the neck area, DO NOT MOVE the victim. Keep him warm and
get help since he should be moved only by professionals. You do
not want to do more damage when trying to help.
MYOCARDIAL INFARCTION (HEART ATTACK) - PREVENTION: This is the
smart way to present a possible disaster when in the outdoors.
Risk factors to consider are some of the following: smoking,
overweight, diabetes, hyperlipidemia or a cholesterol problem,
high blood pressure, stress, family history of heart disease,
lack of physical activity, exertion and cold weather (associated
with hunting seasons), being under medical care for a heart
condition and not taking the medicine.
What usually causes the death of someone with a heart attack is
a type of heart beat called VENTRICULAR FIBRILLATION. Its uncoor
dinated beating and therefore pumping action does not allow the
heart, which is a muscular pump, to circulate blood. This can be
controlled in a hospital with drugs and electrical defibrilla
tion. Therefore, you have to get the person to the hospital
without scaring him to death if conscious.
Stay calm! If the heart has stopped beating, then I hope you
know CPR. Now is the time to learn cardiopulmonary resuscita
tion. Being prepared and not having to use something is a lot
better than having to do something to possibly save a life and
not knowing what to do.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS: General findings in someone with a heart
attack could be the following; severe pain in the chest, can not
get your breath, a feeling of apprehension or simply being
afraid, could be sick to your stomach and even vomit, in a sweat
or even become unconscious.
HYPOTHERMIA OR DANGERS FROM THE COLD - Hypothermia simply means a
fall in the temperature of the body from the normal oral range of
between 96.8 to 99.3 degrees Fahrenheit. When the body tempera
ture falls below 95 degrees F., this is a potentially fatal
condition known as hypothermia.
Careful, since the belief that to get caught in this situation,
you have to be lost in a wilderness area where the temperature is
below zero, is false. This condition is possible in about any
state where hunting or outdoor activities take place.
PREVENTION: Dress in layers when in the cold outdoors so when
stalking, a layer can be removed to prevent overheating which
will cause the body to perspire and therefore wet the clothing.
When sitting for long periods you want to apply an extra layer of
clothing for added protection against the elements. Therefore, if
you get lost, do not panic, run around, sweat and eventually
Instead, stay calm and if it looks as though you are stuck for
the night, use the remaining light to build a shelter and dig in
for the night.
Also, be particularly careful around water since when wet, the
body looses heat fast. Even if in water that does not appear to
be that cold as 65 degrees, it will draw heat from that 98.6
degree body and therefore, overtime lower the temperature.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS: Shivering, an attempt of the body to warm
itself; fatigued, due to the body using energy to stay warm;
slurred speech; apathy; you may stumble and fall a lot which is
also a good way to get ahead injury; have hallucinations and
become disoriented. Later on you want to sleep which due to
freezing may be one rest you will not awaken from.
TREATMENT: Find or make a shelter so you can get out of wet
clothes and warm up. Give the person some hot water as from
melted snow to drink. Rest in bed and you will usually recover.
FROSTBITE - This common injury affects skin parts insufficiently
covered as the ears, nose, fingers and toes.
PREVENTION obviously consists of covering exposed areas when in
very cold temperatures.
SYMPTOMS AND SIGNS: white and glossy skin caused by the blood
vessels constricting to save heat, if pain is present it happens
before the skin is numbed by the cold, the fingers get stiff due
to a lack of elasticity in the tissue, blisters form. Later on
from the vessels constricting and therefore reducing the amount
of blood to the tissue, gangrene is a possibility.
TREATMENT: Warm the tissue in warm water. Do not soak the af
fected area in cold water, rub the tissue in snow or rub the
affected parts hard or you will cause tissue damage. Taking a
shot of alcohol only conveys a false sense of warmth. Leave that
myth with the movies.
COMMERCIAL FIRST AID KITS- Recently Jon Becker who is the presi
dent of AARDVARK Enterprises at 133 Naomi Ave., Unit I Suite
201G, Arcadia, California 91007, (818) 577611; sent me their
best medical kit to evaluate. This kit, called the COMPREHENSIVE,
is specifically designed to meet the needs of someone traveling
or hunting in a wilderness area.
This kit comes with supplies such as A SAM SPLINT, a light
weight splint of dense foam padding that can be bent in any
direction to secure any fracture; HYPOTHERMIA THERMOMETER that
can record the lower body temperatures of this deadly disorder; A
SAWYER EXTRACTOR for removing venom from snake or insect bites.
Other supplies are oral hydration salts, iodine tablets to disin
fect water, various non prescription medications, wound manage
ment items and best of all, a handbook and manual well written to
guide someone in the use of the items provided. This bag retails
for About $120.
Next in line is one retailing for $80 and called the BACKCOUN
TRY with the FUNDAMENTALS for $45. And the most compact and
lightest called the DAY TRIPPER which sells for $22. If you
still have some reservations about first aid in the outdoors,
then there is an AARDVARK video for $30 called Medicine in the
All those who spend time away from medical care should have such
a kit available and obviously know how to use it in the event of
These kits from AARDVARK are sold at discount to recognized
public organizations and outdoor professional as licensed outfit
ters and guides. It is about time Someone cuts a break to these
COMPASS AND MAPS To avoid getting lost it pays to know how to use
a compass so you can get back to base camp or your car. By being
properly prepared for low temperatures, you can avoid deadly
situations as hypothermia. One of the best video courses I have
reviewed on this topic is available from Brunton, 610 E. Monroe
Ave., Riverton, WY 81501; (307) 856-6559.
This 25-minute video presents actual outdoor situations as John
Street shares his expertise on how to read maps and use a com
pass. Although originally produced to be used in conjunction with
Hunter Safety Instruction courses, it is now available for anyone
to use. The video also comes with a compass and workbook that
includes instruction and sample questions.
Reprinted with permission from: