I was excited as I prepared to tag my first public land bull elk. But as I began to fill in the tag, I had trouble seeing as I wrote. I thought it was because my sunglasses were foggy, so I removed them and kept working. But even without my glasses, my right eye could only make out a blurry outline of my hunting partner standing five feet away. I had noticed my eye was irritated for a day or two but had no sight issues until then.
We were able to seek advice from an eye doctor through our drop camp guide via sat phone, and my hunting partner (also a doctor) saw a stye that was scratching the outer part of my eye. I finished the hunt calling elk for my partner for the rest of that week, and my sight returned towards the end of the trip.
Being ready for first aid in the backcountry is important for preserving your health and the venture you've been waiting for. When you're miles away from rescue, having the right tools can make all the difference in a lifesaving or even a simple situation.
Base Camp Kit and Mobile Kit
On a backcountry hunt, you should always have some supplies in your pack, but some are ok to leave in camp. For example, you don't need to carry ointments or bottles of fluid with you in your hunting pack. Those items aren't urgent and can be left in camp for later use.
When making a first aid kit, think about what you will need to treat an immediate problem. Put those things in your pack and leave the rest in camp. A tourniquet, simple splint, or bandages; remember you're not performing surgery in the field.
Dealing with Scrapes and Cuts
Shallow cuts and scrapes are some of the most common injuries and are easy to take care of in the field. A few sizes and types of dressings will do for any of these. Bandaids would work for a small knife cut you gave yourself while slicing an apple, but you'll want something bigger if you cut your arm climbing down a jagged rock face.
In your pack, carry two gauze wraps, a few bandaids, and silk tape. Keep multiple wraps, gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, and a small sterile water or bottle of saline at your base camp.
Infection is the biggest concern, so clean the area well. For the next few days, keep the dressings clean. Check the wound daily for signs of infection; a hot, red, swollen wound with or without drainage.
Managing High Altitude Symptoms
If you're noticing altitude sickness, managing its symptoms is important. To learn more about high altitude, check out the article I shared in this link. For first aid, ibuprofen can help manage those symptoms. Always take it with food to avoid stomach upset. If you're having mild symptoms, taking ibuprofen with breakfast and again with a light snack before bedtime could be helpful.
To learn more about altitude, check out my article "6 Ways to Combat Altitude Sickness".
If you're careful, burns are less common on a backwoods hunt. But they still happen. Maybe your hunting partner tripped into a campfire or some how burned their arms, hands, and face. On my 2022 elk hunt, one of the guys pumped too much gas into the camp stove. The flames got pretty high, and someone had to run the stove to where it could burn itself out. Sometimes flukes like that happen.
Here is what you need to know for basic burn care. There are two main types major and minor. If your buddy was the guy that fell into the fire, that will likely be a major burn. It will require emergency care, so use your sat phone to call for help as soon as you check out the injuries. If this is serious enough, your buddy may go into shock. Watch out for decreased alertness, cold skin, and shallow breathing. Get anything tight off the victim (bino harness, belts, clothing, packs, etc.). Wrap affected areas with clean gauze loosely.
Cool the area as fast as possible for minor burns like those you might get from touching a hot pan. Cold water or a wet cloth works well here. Again remove anything tight to prevent loss of blood flow; rings, belts, or tight clothing. With minor burns, you'll notice blistering. Avoid breaking the blisters if possible, as they help keep infection out. Keep broken blisters clean and apply an over the counter antibiotic ointment. Lotion that contains aloe helps to soothe the burn area. Wrap burns with loose dressings to avoid pressure and allow for healing.
Don't take the chance of injury lightly when it comes to hunting. But don't let it stop you from having a great experience. Do your research and be mindful of the surrounding area's terrain and potential predators. By doing this, you'll better handle any challenges that may arise and can fully enjoy your hunting trip.
If you fall and hit your head or feel pain in your neck or back, seek help right away. Stay still if you have neck pain to avoid making injuries worse. Give your location and condition to anyone nearby in case you lose consciousness. Brain or spinal damage is a primary concern after a fall.
In the event of a suspected bone fracture, controlling bleeding and immobilizing the affected area is crucial. Avoid attempting to realign the bone or apply pressure to it. Instead, secure the break with a splint if you can and seek prompt medical attention. Medical attention might not be needed right away, but a broken bone is probably the end of your hunt.
Predator attacks are preventable; researching how to handle an encounter will help avoid panic. But you'll need to take fast action if you are in trouble. Radio for help first. After calling for help, get to work on the bleeding. Pressure, elevate wounded limbs, and use tourniquets! For snakes and insects, take pictures to correctly ID what bit you.
Packing for severe trauma should include plenty of dressings, sterile water or saline, tourniquets, and quick clot. Your goal is to stop the bleeding as soon as possible. As for tourniquets, your belt will never be enough to act as a replacement. You can buy affordable tourniquets online; if you need one, you won't regret the purchase. You will leave some of these items in camp, but a tourniquet and quick clot should always remain in your pack.
A scratch or penetrating injury to your eye is less than ideal. It can impede your vision and ability to shoot and mess up your balance. For eye care, lubricants are what you'll need to have in camp.
If you're struggling with vision in one eye, patching the affected eye is a good idea. You could make your own patch, but the proper tool is best and more comfortable.
Handling Skin Issues
Lip balm, sunscreen, and lotion; maybe you don't want to be a sissy, but carrying these will keep you going! Anything that can help keep your mind in the game is worth the jabs from your hunting buddies. You won't hunt to your full potential if you're thinking about your cracked, bleeding lips and hands or distracted by your burning face.
Travel insurance can give you and your family peace of mind. Not only do you not want to be stuck with a giant medical bill for a helicopter ride, you and your family want to know you will get home safely. There are plenty of agencies that offer insurance. Some include trip cancelation, but others you can purchase as little as medical rescue and evacuation.
Some hunting licenses, like Colorado's license, include a fee for search and rescue. But the coverage provided may only meet some of your needs.
You need some form of SOS communication to complete your first aid kit. A satellite GPS or Satellite communicator is what you'll need. There are many options on the market, but bluetooth devices that pair with your phone are budget friendly and work great! Personally, I use a Zoleo device to stay in touch with the outside world. If something happens to my cell phone, this device can still send SOS signals which is the most important thing you'll want from any device.
You might dream about "the glory" of wearing a scar like a badge of honor. A grizzly claw mark across your back or the fang marks from a rattlesnake make a great story. At least so long as you had a way to make it out on the other side.
Build that first aid list and make sure you and your family know you will come home safely.
Author: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Blackhats Team member.