Be a happy camper: Plan your emergency response in advance

Dr. Wes Wallace, an Emergency Department physician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains how a little preparation can help you deal with both minor and serious injuries that can happen during a camping trip.


Written by Margot Carmichael Lester for UNC Health Care

It’s every camper’s nightmare. The turned ankle. The gash. The snake bite. Some cavalier adventurers set off with nothing more than some adhesive bandages in their packs. Others hike in an array of first aid items “just in case.” While the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” is a good one, the key, says Wes Wallace, M.D., is being correctly prepared.

“Things just happen when you’re camping, especially if people are drinking,” says Wallace, associate professor of emergency medicine in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and an emergency physician at UNC Hospitals. “If you’re doing something that poses risk – and camping does fall in that category -- then prepare to deal with consequences.”

Once you’ve planned your trip, plan your emergency response. Wallace suggests simply asking yourself:

  1. What are common illnesses and injuries that occur in these activities?

  2. What are life-threatening injuries I can do something about?

Having a plan will help you stay calm should something happen, and will guide you in choosing first-aid supplies. 

“You don’t want to carry pounds of plaster just to make a splint,” Wallace notes, “so you don’t need to pack something for every possible injury. But if you’ve got someone in your party who’s allergic to bee and wasp stings, for instance, you might want to take along a few epi-pens.”

Common Injuries

Here are some tips and supplies for dealing with a few common injuries:

Snake Bites: Let's settle this once and for all: you should NEVER suck venom out of a snake bite. “It doesn’t work, and it wastes time,” Wallace notes. “Instead, get out car keys and drive to the emergency room quickly, but safely. If someone’s got a dangerous envenomation, the only effective treatment is the anti-venom.”

Ankle/Knee Sprains: Do your best to compress the area and stay off it when possible. “For ankles, if you’re wearing a higher boot, leave it on to provide support and lace it tighter to provide compression,” he counsels. “If you can keep it elevated above your heart and put something cool on it, that’s great.”

Blisters: Prevention is always the best medicine.  As soon as you develop a hot spot use tape or moleskin to over the area. If you do develop a blister, use one of the special blister treating products available at most drugstores. “If you have a blister and it’s clear that it’s going to burst anyway,” Wallace says, “stick a clean needle in lowest side so it drains. If it’s ripped off, definitely cover the sensitive skin up with a blister treatment product.”

Broken Bones: “The best thing you can do is try to splint the injury to immobilize it,” he asserts. Light-weight, compact aluminum splints are available at outdoor stores. If you didn’t pack a splint, lash together whatever you can find that’s rigid. “If sticks are what you’ve got that’s what you use.” 

Cuts and Punctures: The most important thing to do is wash the wound out well with the cleanest water you have under pressure. If you don’t have a syringe, don’t worry. Says Wallace: “Use a clean zip-top bag, fill it with water, poke a hole in it and squeeze.”

Poison Ivy: “Unless it’s a longer trip, you’re at home when poison ivy gets you,” he laughs. “The best stuff to treat it is a steroid cream like 1- to 2-percent hydrocortisone.”

Sending Out an SOS

One of the biggest mistakes campers make is assuming they can use their cell phones to call for help should something horrible happen. “In some areas, your phone may be able to get you out of trouble,” Wallace allows. “But in the mountains or the remote back-country, there’s no access.”

While your cell may not help, your vehicle can. “Many times – especially with a snake bite or a serious injury – your car keys are the most important item in your first-aid kit,” Wallace says.

The bottom line, Wallace notes, is pretty simple. “You got yourself into this, you can get yourself out,” Wallace says. “Stay calm and do your best.”

Don’t Leave Home Without It

You can buy pre-packaged wilderness first-aid kits, but it’s easy to make up one of your own. Here is a bare-minimum list of supplies:

General: ace wrap, adhesive bandages, aloe vera gel, antibiotic ointment, antihistamines, aspirin/ibuprofen, athletic tape, gauze (rolled or pads), hydrocortisone cream, oral rehydration salts or electrolytes, pocket knife with scissors and tweezers, zip-top bags

Blisters: benzoin tincture, moleskin

Trauma: chemical hot and cold packs, latex gloves

Wounds: antibiotic ointment, surgical strips, irrigation syringe

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