If you are ever stuck in a survival situation or major disaster, you are going to want to have an understanding of basic first aid skills. Knowing just a few techniques for treating a some basic forms of trauma is a great skill to have and can easily save someone’s life. These techniques are easy to understand, easy to perform in the field, and highly effective!
Without Googling it, do you know how to treat: a gunshot wound, a stab wound, broken bones, or head trauma? It’s not as difficult as you may believe. Here are some situations and first aid needs that may arise, and step-by-step guidelines for how to handle them.
Basic First Aid Skills for Preppers
Gunshot wounds are puncture or penetration wounds, so many can be treated in the same manner that stab wounds are treated.
- Stop the bleeding. If the wound is in a limb, apply direct pressure, elevate the limb above heart level, and apply a pressure bandage over the wound. You can also apply an emergency tourniquet to the the affected limb. If bleeding still doesn’t stop or is in an area where a tourniquet cannot be used, such as the torso area, consider packing the wound to stop the bleeding (see the section below).
- Calm and reassure the patient. Keep the victim covered and calm to avoid shock. The more relaxed the victim is, the slower the heartbeat, which directly results in less blood loss.
- Assess the patient for additional wounds. Check other parts of the body for additional wounds. Any obvious places that are excessively bleeding should be dealt with first, of course. The entry hole will be minimal, but the exit wound (if there is one) will be much more significant. Don’t forget to check for that if at all possible.
- Monitor the wound. Once all bleeding has been dealt with, and the wounds are dressed, monitor the wound for infection as it heals. Severe injuries that involve the head or vital organs need professional medical treatment as soon as possible.
Packing the Wound to Control Bleeding
If you are unable to control the bleeding using the prior techniques, you can tightly pack the bullet hole with gauze. In some situations, this may be the only way to stop the bleeding and save the person’s life.
To do this, perform the following steps:
- Insert sterile gauze in the wound cavity. Using one finger, insert sterile gauze directly into the bullet wound, pushing the dressing as deep into the hole as possible.
- Tightly pack the wound cavity. Densely pack this hole with gauze until the hole is stuffed tightly full, leaving one end of the bandage hanging out so it can be easily removed later by medical personnel.
- Wrap the wound (and gauze) tightly in place. Wrap a bandage over top of this wound. This will hold the gauze tightly in the hole that was created from the bullet wound.
Note: This will be very painful for the victim, but could be the only way to stop bleeding and prevent death.
In any case where bleeding from an extremity such as an arm or leg is a concern, consider applying a quality emergency tourniquet directly above the wound to assist in controlling bleeding. Tourniquets were used extensively in the Vietnam war and their use is credited with saving countless lives.
Even if a stab wound hits a major artery or vital organ, you can still save the person if you react quickly. In first aid in situations with a critical organ injury, it is key to limit the bleeding until professional help is available.
- Ensure sanitary conditions during treatment. Wash your hands thoroughly or use latex gloves before touching an open wound to prevent infection.
- Prioritize the treatment. If there are multiple stab wounds, treat from most to least severe.
- Assess the Injury. Assess the extent of the injury. If the cut is minor, apply direct pressure for about 10 minutes; clean and dress the wound.
- Calm and reassure the patient. Talk to the victim to keep them calm while you’re addressing their injury if they’re conscious.
- Apply direct pressure. If blood is spurting from the wound, apply a compression bandage directly over it.
- Keep any objects in the wound from moving. If there is still an object (like a knife) in the wound, do not attempt to remove it. Instead, bandage the wound tightly around the object taking care not to move it. IMPORTANT: Bandage the object securely in place, and then seek medical attention as soon as possible. If the object is loosely bandaged and allowed to move around, it may cause additional damage.
- Pack wounds as necessary. Vast or gaping wounds should not be closed once the bleeding stops. Pack them with sterile gauze and tape over them.
- Provide after care. As the wound is healing cleaning, applying an antibiotic ointment, and changing dressings is highly important.
To help determine if a fracture exists, ask the patient to move their limb or area that you suspect is broken. If there is a fracture, this movement will cause significant pain, and they may be unable to complete the task.
The definitive way to determine if there is a broken bone is to use an x-ray. Since you probably won’t have access to an X-ray, assume that any bone that appears to be fractured or broken is, and treat it accordingly.
- Immobilize the break. It is important to keep the limb still. Movement in a broken bone will cause extreme pain and may additionally damage the tissue around the break. Consider keeping a combat splint in your first aid kit. They pack flat, are very easy to carry, and are great at immobilizing a broken limb.
- Legs, arms, or wrists: If the injury is to the leg or arm, you can splint it using anything available that’s rigid, like a stick, signpost, or even heavy cardboard. Wrap tape or a bandage around the splint to hold it firmly in place. A magazine folded lengthwise into a U shape makes a great rigid splint for an arm. Broken arms or wrists can be further immobilized by making a triangle sling with any large piece of cloth, or even a belt in an emergency.
- Knees: Immobilize the knee so that the leg is straight. If straightening the leg causes extreme pain, bandage and imobilize the leg in the position it’s currently in. Ice and a bandage would also be used to treat knee injuries.
- Feet or Ankles: A broken foot or ankle can be bandaged and elevated. Apply ice or a cold pack to the ankle after to reduce swelling. See the section below for additional information on bandaging a broken foot or ankle.
- Ribs: Breaks to the ribs can be immobilized by wrapping an Ace bandage around the chest. Make it tight enough to keep the broken bone in place, but not so tight that they can’t breathe. The bandaged area should extend above and below the broken rib. If the victim is having difficulty breathing, their ribs may have punctured a lung. Seek professional help as soon as you’re able to do so.
- Back or neck: If the break is to the back or neck, lay the victim flat and try to keep their head immobile.
- Check for protruding bone. If the bone has broken the skin, don’t try to push it back in. Apply direct pressure to stop any bleeding and rinse the wound. Don’t scrub it or remove any grit. Try to determine if there is any nerve or blood vessel damage by feeling for a pulse on an area of the body below the wound. If that isn’t possible, check that they still have sensation below where the injury is.
- Final wrap. Once the area has been cleaned and assessed, splint and wrap the injury as you would a less severe break.
To Bandage a Broken Foot or Ankle
Bandaging a broken foot or ankle can be a little tricky. Here are the basics on how you can get this done in the field.
- Start just below the toes, wrapping the bandage around the foot taut, but not tight enough to cut off circulation.
- Just before you reach the heel, wrap the bandage over, under, and around the ankle in a figure-eight three or four times to better secure it.
- Complete the bandaging by wrapping the remainder around the lower calf and fasten securely.
Head injuries are tricky. The victim might look okay but have internal bleeding. A minor head wound that isn’t bleeding can usually be treated with an ice pack and careful monitoring of the victim for any changes. If the head injury is more severe, the victim may lose consciousness, have blurred vision, vomit, go into a seizure, or if have one or both pupils fixed and not responding to light.
- Assess the patient. If the person is unconscious, check for a pulse and heartbeat, and try to determine if their airway is open. Carefully turn them on their side to prevent choking. Keep their head and neck immobilized until they regain consciousness.
- Deal with any bleeding. If the wound is bleeding, apply direct pressure until the bleeding stops. Dress the wound and use ice or a cold pack over the dressing. The only time you should avoid that is if the injury is deep or you think there’s a skull fracture. Just wrap it with a gauze pad and a clean dressing.
- Keep the patient still and calm. Check the pupils for a reaction to light. This will help you address the severity of the head injury. Serious head injuries may cause one pupil to be a different size than the other or the two pupils to react differently to light. Another method for assessing the severity of a head trauma is to ask the patient basic questions (such as: How many quarters in a dollar? What year is it? Where are you now?). If they are unable to answer or provide answers that don’t make sense, the head injury should be considered severe.
- Use a pain reliever as necessary. Mild pain can be treated with an over-the-counter pain reliever.
Note: They used to say not to let the victim go to sleep; however recent medical advice states it’s okay for the patient to sleep as long as you check them for responsiveness every half hour or so.
Flu or Other Contagious Illnesses
Treating someone who is violently sick or contagious can be extremely dangerous for the person giving the care. The risk or transmission of the sickness is always present. When caring for someone in this condition, take precautions to ensure that you remain safe.
- Sequester the patient. Keep the contagious person confined to a room or area away from others, if possible.
- Keep the patient hydrated. Make sure they stay hydrated, even if it’s only with small sips of water. A person can go without food for a long time, but not fluids.
- Feed the patient if possible. When they have been able to go a few hours without any vomiting, try feeding them something easy to digest such as dry crackers or unbuttered toast.
- Keep the patient (and yourself) clean. Practice good hygiene, including frequent hand washing, to prevent the spread of any contagious illnesses to yourself or others. Use protective gear such as gloves and face masks as appropriate.
- Properly dispose of soiled linens. Dispose of all used tissues and other paper items in a ziplock bag.
- Sterilize clothes, linens, and the area of care. When the contagious period has passed (usually within a week for the flu), sterilize the area with a disinfectant. Wash all clothes and bed linens in hot water with soap. Add a little bleach to prevent re-contamination.
Use of Medications: Refrain from giving your patient anti-diarrhea or anti-nausea medications unless they are in severe danger of dehydration or it continues for more than a day or two. If the problem is a virus, that’s the body’s way of getting rid of it. Only give medication for fever if it goes over 103 degrees and they can keep medicine down without a problem; the pain reliever should be something that won’t upset their stomach, like acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Hypothermia doesn’t just occur from being trapped in an icy or snowy area. It can happen from being out in a cold rain for an extended period or from being submerged in cold water too long. The goal is to prevent further heat loss while slowly warming the body. Any level of hypothermia means you should take it easy with the victim. Their heart can fail if they’re moved around too much.
- Move the victim to a warm area. Do this slowly and carefully making sure to avoid any jerky motions.
- Remove wet clothing. If their clothing is wet, remove it and cover them with any dry clothing, towels, thermal blankets, or even body heat. If nothing is available and they are outdoors, shelter the area as much as possible.
- Provide warm liquids. Conscious patients can be given sips of any drink that is hot and sweet. This provides fuel to help the body warm internally.
- Apply warmth to key areas of the body. If the patient is unable to move, apply hot packs or a hot water bottle to the armpits and groin area.
A Note About Severe Hypothermia: When the hypothermia is advanced to the point where the person is unconscious, check for breathing and a pulse. Proceed with the warming procedures until they become responsive. During the final stage of hypothermia before death (hypothermia stage four – or “HT IV”) the victim may appear dead, but still, have a faint pulse. Proceed with all previous actions and monitor for a heartbeat frequently.
If someone has suffered any serious injury, assume they are in shock and treat them accordingly. This will help prevent further damage or trauma in addition to treating or preventing shock.
- Position the patient. If the victim is conscious, raise their legs above heart level, about 16 inches. When the person is unconscious, make sure to turn their head to the side to prevent choking on saliva or vomit. Do not elevate the legs if they are bleeding, have a broken leg, or a head wound with bleeding.
- Loosen any restrictive clothing. This will help the patient relax and ensure good blood flow.
- Maintain body temperature. Try to maintain a stable body temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold.
- Keep them (or yourself) still and calm. This is the most important part of treating shock.
- Provide first aid if necessary. Proceed with first aid as needed to treat the injury itself.
What’s in Your Emergency First Aid Kit?
To take care of medical emergencies, you’re going to need some first aid supplies. The basic kit you picked up at Walmart isn’t going to cut it for a gunshot wound. These are the things you should stock up on to make sure you’re ready for anything.
You should keep everything in a large, compartmentalized container, like a fishing tackle or craft supply box, that’s easy to carry.
Make one kit for your home and one to keep in your vehicle, and if you have bug-out locations, stock kits in those locations as well. It doesn’t hurt to put together a smaller emergency kit that you can cart around in your purse or backpack. You never know when you might need it, or where you’ll be when you do.
Necessary Medical Supplies
- ACE bandages, in a variety of sizes
- Band-aids, in various sizes
- Compression bandages and pressure bandages (these are for use with gunshot or stab wounds)
- Medical or adhesive tape
- Antibiotic ointment
- Rubbing alcohol
- Hand sanitizer and/or antibacterial soap
- Finger Splints
- Small, sharp knife with a pointed tip
- Anti-itch ointment
- Bulb syringe for flushing/suctioning out wounds
- Instant ice packs
- Thermal blanket (the foil blankets they give to marathon runners are ideal; they’re small, lightweight, and highly portable)
- Cotton balls and swabs
- Butterfly bandages to close wounds, in various sizes
- Safety pins, in multiple sizes
- Gauze pads and rolls of gauze
- Ziplock bags, in numerous capacities, for disposal of biohazards
- Duct tape (you should ALWAYS have a few rolls of duct tape; it does so many things, and it’s waterproof).
- Sterile eyewash
- Sterile wound dressing
- Small LED light or flashlight
- Wooden matches (if you dip them in melted wax, they’ll still be usable even if they get wet)
- Disposable latex or synthetic gloves (always use these when handling body fluids or treating wounds)
- Personal prescription medications
- Pain relievers, for children and adults
- Ipecac syrup, to induce vomiting
- Honey (it’s a natural antibiotic, antifungal, and antiseptic, and it never goes bad)
- Activated charcoal (great for absorbing toxins that may have been ingested)
- Anti-diarrhea medication
- Antihistamines, such as Benadryl
- Aloe gel and/or burn ointment
Note: for liquids like rubbing alcohol and peroxide, you can purchase large bottles and divide the contents among smaller plastic travel bottles.
Expand Your Medical Skills
Almost all communities offer free first aid certification courses through schools or local health departments. If you haven’t already taken one, I strongly recommend it. Sign your family members up too, don’t make them rely solely on your knowledge. You can pick up some good information such as:
- How to do CPR
- How to perform the Heimlich Maneuver
- Basic bandaging techniques
- How to recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke
Video: Basic Emergency First Aid Skills
Dealing with serious injuries in real life isn’t like how it’s portrayed in the movies.
You need some beyond-basic knowledge and a cool head under pressure to survive. If you can pick up the basics of emergency wound care, you can even improvise things like bandages, splints, and tourniquets on the fly.
Remember to keep working through the problem and don’t get overwhelmed. This is easier said than done when your loved one is panicking, scared, or in pain, but it is essential you stay focused.
Now it’s time to hear from you! What medical issues do you fear running into the most during a major disaster or survival situation? Have you ever had to improvise on medical care because you were far away from help?
Share your stories in the comments below so that others can benefit from your experience. Even if it’s just what NOT to do!