How to Treat Cuts & Wounds on the Trail
We’ve all been there: You’re opening a can of baked beans when—bam—you cut your finger. Fortunately, a good backcountry first-aid kit comes stocked with the necessary supplies to treat a small cut or abrasion: adhesive bandages, occlusive dressing, gauze, adhesive tape, antibiotic ointment or petroleum jelly, tweezers, a syringe, and nonlatex gloves.
By knowing how to use these essentials, you can properly treat a cut or a scrape. It’s important to take all soft-tissue injuries seriously due to the potential risk of infection: Even a small, seemingly harmless wound can snowball into a larger issue that might warrant an unplanned trip to the hospital. For immediate treatment, when professional care is more than 24 hours away, follow these steps:
- No matter if you are treating yourself or someone else, it’s best to wear nonlatex gloves throughout the procedure.
- To control bleeding, apply direct pressure on the wound using a gauze pad or a clean bandana. Elevate the wound and monitor it for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Once bleeding has stopped, remove any foreign material in the wound (e.g., sand, grass, etc.) with a pair of sterilized tweezers.
- Use a syringe filled with potable water to pressure-wash and clean the wound. If a syringe isn’t available, you can force water out of a hydration pack by holding the bladder at shoulder height or higher then pinching the mouthpiece attached to the end of the hose.
- Dry the wound with sterile gauze. Keep the wound moist with petroleum jelly or antibiotic ointment then covering with more sterile gauze or adhesive dressing. (Recent studies have shown that wounds kept moist have a greater chance of fighting infection than wounds kept dry.)
- Bandage the dressing in place with adhesive tape and occlusive dressing, checking the wound 30 minutes later and redressing if necessary.
- Change the dressing at least every 12 hours. Depending on the severity of the cut, the dressing might need to be replaced more often. Make sure the wound remains moist and monitor for signs of infection.
- Check circulation, sensation, and motion (CSM) of body parts located far from the injury. If CSMs are impaired, splint the injured body part and evacuate the patient.