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Improvised Emergency Medicine in the Wilderness


November 5, 2019
Categories: Safety, Health, Travel Tips

If you’re injured in the wilderness, channel your inner MacGyver by making use of whatever is at hand. Orvis Fly Fishing specialist Dan Davala asked the Global Rescue in-house operations team how adventurers can think outside of their common gear. Here are five improvised emergency medicine techniques for wilderness injuries.

Improvised Emergency Splints

Extremity injuries are going to need a splint. Global Rescue recommends carrying a SAM splint in your first aid kit but, in some instances, you are going to have to use what you have on hand.

“An improvised splint to an extremity fracture or injury is not going to be pretty, but do not walk on a fractured extremity unless it is splinted. That is a really good way to turn a fracture into a life-threatening emergency,” said Jeff Weinstein, Medical Operations Supervisor at Global Rescue.

Weinstein suggested looking for rigid items to support the injury.

“Hiking poles make a great structure for a leg splint. Sticks, if they are straight and hard, can be good,” said Weinstein, who is a critical care paramedic with an Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS) certification. “You need a rigid, structured support for the injury, and you can make it out of whatever materials you have around you.”

Dave Keaveny, Medical Operations Specialist with AWLS certification, agreed.

“Improvisations are the name of the game with emergency medicine in the wilderness, whether I am out on my own and come across someone needing help or responding to someone in a medical capacity,” he said. “The first thing I do is work out of the patient’s bag. No matter the backpack, even my 19-liter office backpack, has a foam soft frame in it. Anything larger than 30-liters has some sort of foam plus a rigid frame inside. I’ve done numerous splints from backpacks.”

If you need a fast solution for an arm injury or shoulder dislocation, Weinstein recommended this improvisational sling: “If you are wearing a t-shirt, pull the arm into your body, grab the bottom of the t-shirt and pull it up over your arm and put a safety pin in it.”

Splint Padding

A splint needs padding. One made with sticks or hiking poles will require some improvised emergency techniques.

“You don’t want the rigid materials of the splint to rub against the injury and create a problem,” said Weinstein. “You can take the fluff out of a pillow, or use leaves, or tear apart a shirt. Anything to pad the structure supports from making contact with the body.”

Keaveny checks the backpack for padding materials.

“Take their extra clothes to pad a splint. If they have a puffy in there, use that puffy for splints. There are a lot of commercial products out there, but use what you have,” said Keaveny, an advanced wilderness EMT.

All-Purpose Duct Tape

Duct tape is handy for any wilderness situation from boot repairs to splints to tent patches. If you don’t want to carry the whole roll in your backpack, Weinstein suggested unrolling the duct tape, then folding it in on itself to make a smaller rectangle. You could also wrap a length of duct tape around your water bottle or a pencil and peel off what you need later. Some folks even cut the cardboard roll out of the center and step on it, making the duct tape flat and easier to pack and store.

“Duct tape is huge in improvised emergency medicine,” Weinstein said. “I always carry duct tape in my kit.”

Quick Heat Source

You’re afraid, you’re stuck in a remote area, you’re cold, you’re not quite hypothermic yet – or maybe you are – and you’re trying to survive the night. Weinstein adds two items to his backpack gear for just that situation: trash bags and tea candles.

“I carry big, commercial, kitchen trash bags with me,” he said. “Rip a hole at the bottom of the trash bag and put your head through it. I carry a bunch of tea light candles, those small little candles. You light the candle, you put it between your legs, and you crouch down with the trash bag over you. It provides an enormous amount of heat for two or three hours. Repeat with another candle and you’ll stay warm all night.”

Keaveny also recommended sitting on that backpack.

“The foam and rigid frame will protection from conduction and losing heat that way,” he said.

These two suggestions are not improvised emergency medical treatments, but they may prevent two life-threatening injuries: hypothermia and frostbite.

Practice Makes Perfect

Improvised emergency medicine looks so easy in the movies, but what you see on the silver screen doesn’t always happen in real life. Keaveny and Weinstein recommended practicing your splint, padding and other improvised medicine techniques at home.

“I practice with my family all the time. I’ll walk into the room, I’ll throw that tourniquet down and I’ll say, ‘Tourniquet training! You’re shot! Go!’ and my daughter and wife have to apply a tourniquet to their leg,” Weinstein said. “It is important to make sure you are familiar with the skills in that emergency situation.”

“It all comes down to practice,” Keaveny said.

If you have an illness or injury in the wilderness and improvised emergency medical techniques aren’t enough, help is just a phone call away. Click here to learn more about Global Rescue’s travel memberships.


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