First-Aid 101: Tips from Hartley Nature Center


Before you grab your gear and head out on a fall excursion, take some time to familiarize yourself with some wilderness first-aid basics.This list was compiled with a lot of help from Hartley Nature Center’s own Tiffany Smith, who has been a certified Wilderness Responder for eight years through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Wyoming.We hope this information will help prepare you for the worst, while you enjoy the best of the Northwoods.

Remember, the two most important rules of safety to consider before setting out are:


Without someone to help you, something as simple as a sprain can lead to dire circumstances.


Bring a wilderness rst-aid kit, proper clothing, plenty of water, and a cell phone.




Prevention: When you and your pals are hiking, portaging, or paddling on a hot day, stay in the shade whenever possible. Even in the fall, days can be humid, and when mixed with strenuous exercise, can lead to exhaustion. Wear a sun-blocking hat to keep your head, face, and neck out of the sunlight.You can also be intentional about traveling during the cooler parts of the day. If that’s not an option, try wearing a bandana soaked in cool water around your head – it’ll help with evaporative cooling.

Signs & Symptoms: Fatigue Nausea and/or vomiting Loss of appetite Heat cramps Dizziness and/or fainting Elevated heart rate and respiration

Treatment: If you or any of your friends are experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion, have the group take a long rest in some shade and avoid any further heat stress. For those experiencing cramping, take some time to stretch. It’s also important to consider that you can be well-hydrated and still experience heat exhaustion. Left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke (when body temperature exceeds 104 degrees), which would require immediate evacuation.


Prevention: Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher to protect your skin from the sun, even if it’s overcast or cold outside.You can also wear a sun-blocking hat or simply choose to stay in the shade.

Signs & Symptoms: Red, hot skin Blistering

Treatment: Get yourself and your friends out of the sun and apply either aloe vera or a cold compress to the sunburnt skin. If the skin has started to blister, cover the area with loose, sterile bandages and refrain from popping the blisters. Protect the affected area from further sunburn by making sure it’s covered by either bandages or sun-blocking clothing. Seek medical attention if a blistered area covers more than 10 percent of the body.


Prevention: If there’s a bad storm brewing, seek shelter in buildings or vehicles.Whenever possible, plan your excursions wisely: avoid being exposed in dangerous places like rock outcroppings, ridge lines or lakes if you know there’s a chance for thunderstorms. If you’re caught in a storm, avoid large meadows, isolated tall trees, rock overhangs, caves, gullies, or anything metal. Seek uniform cover in areas where the trees are about the same height or amidst rolling hills. Once you’re in a safe location, assume the lightning position: sit with your knees bent on a foam sleeping pad or backpack, hug your knees, and keep your feet together. If you’re with a group, disperse people so that one lightning strike won’t take everyone out.

Treatment: Immediately evacuate anyone struck by lightning. Depending on the circumstance, a wide variety of treatments may be necessary, including CPR for cardiovascular or respiratory collapse and/or burn treatments.


Prevention: If you’re going to brave the cold, wear good clothes made with good, warm fabric (i.e. synthetics like wool or polyester – no cotton). Keep your skin protected with either clothing or a skin protectant such as Dermatone or Warm Skin. It’s also important to avoid tight clothes or boots because they can limit circulation. Lastly, do your best to stay dry!

Signs & Symptoms: Tingling & numbness White, waxy skin Warm, swollen, and painful after being thawed

Treatment: You can avoid full- thickness frostbite if you take measures to treat super cial (skin- deep) frostbite.To treat super cial frostbite, start by thawing the skin. Place the affected area on warm skin. For example, frostbitten hands can be tucked inside underarms. Never try to thaw frostbitten skin by rubbing it (for instance, rubbing your hands together). Also, don’t expose the skin to any extreme radiant heat, like a hot mug. Frostbitten skin can still be burnt! Lastly, take measures to ensure the thawed skin doesn’t get refrozen. Layer up and keep moving. Increased circulation will keep your body warm.


Prevention: It’s important to remember that hypothermia is a risk year-round.You can avoid it by staying warm and dry, and by wearing synthetic fabrics rather than cotton.Always travel with rain gear and/or dry, warm layers you can change into if you’re canoeing or kayaking. Keep those layers dry with either a dry bag or a regular ol’ garbage bag.

Signs & Symptoms: Feeling cold and/or shivering Loss of ne motor skill Confusion and/or slurred speech Stumbling

Treatment: If you or one of your friends are experiencing mild hypothermia, it’s important to rst nd shelter somewhere dry and warm, like in a tent or natural windbreak. Make sure to get the person out of any wet clothes and into dry ones. It’s especially important to warm the head, hands, and feet. Once dry, you can further insulate the individual with a wind- resistant layer. If possible, keep the person moving. Lastly, make sure the individual eats something. It’ll help warm them up. In the event of severe hypothermia (in which an individual stops shivering and becomes unresponsive), it’s necessary to take further measures: create a hypo- wrap inside your shelter by zipping the person into a sleeping bag and laying them down on a mat.Wrap the person up in a tarp and keep watch until help arrives. You can also keep the person warm through direct skin exposure. You and another friend would need to strip down and cuddle up with the person inside a sleeping bag.




First, familiarize yourself with what these plants look like so you can avoid them.When sojourning through the forest, be sure to wear long pants and socks. It’s also important to be conscious of where you squat when using a nature bathroom.

Signs & Symptoms: Red, itchy, blistering skin

Treatment: If you wash the skin with soap and water or clean the area with rubbing alcohol within an hour of contact, it’s possible you may avoid any side effects. Treat any infected skin with hydrocortisone or calamine lotion.Washing the rash in the evening with lye soap is another effective treatment. For immediate relief, apply a cold compress to the skin.


Prevention: Before you head out, consider the topography of the area and choose proper footwear. Rougher terrain may require a sturdy ankle boot.

Signs & Symptoms: Pain (can be speci c or broad) Swelling and/or bruising Deformity and/or changes in range of motion Sounds like snapping, popping, or grinding Alteration in feeling (numb ngers or toes)

Treatment: For sprains and fractures, it’s important to remember the acronym RICE – rest, ice, compression, and elevation.After wrapping the sprain or fracture, apply a cold compress and keep the area above the heart to help drain the swelling. Be sure to take some ibuprofen and a nice long rest. Sever or compound fractures require immediate evacuation.


Prevention: This might sound obvious, but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Be cautious when maneuvering over wet stones, ice, or snow.When you’re cooking, put your stove on a at, stable surface. Lastly, be smart around your camp re.

Treatment: For burns, apply a cold compress after rinsing the area with clean water. If the area blisters, apply clean bandages and don’t pop the blisters. For severe burns, evacuate the individual immediately. Clean an open wound with clean water. Use tweezers or cloth to remove any matter, and if you have a syringe, irrigate the wound.After it’s clean, you can dress it with antibiotic cream and clean bandages. For a gash or large wound, make sure you apply pressure, and change the bandages every 24 hours. Be sure to monitor wounds for infection (redness, warmth, puss, streaking, or fever).

If you want to learn more about Wilderness First- Aid, every year Hartley Nature Center and Duluth Experience co-host a three-day certi cation course on Memorial Day Weekend.The course is taught by Longleaf Wilderness Medicine and is a great opportunity for those who love to traverse the Northwoods to learn more about keeping safe while doing so.