The threat of infection and serious complications for wounds is often heightened in unclean outdoor environments. Whether or not you have a decent first aid kit or not, any injury must be dealt with appropriately. My goal in this article is to provide the basic info you need to clean and disinfect wounds, probably while in the wilderness, where your access to proper medical supplies may be limited.
To disinfect wounds in the wild:
- Sterilize your hands– When possible.
- Stop the bleeding– Elevate the wound and apply gentle, firm pressure.
- Cleanse the wound– Remove any dirt or debris.
- Apply a topical– When available.
- Dress the wound– Unless there are only minor scratches or scrapes.
For details on cleaning a wound correctly, here is a guide from WebMD.
When it comes to disinfecting wounds, there are many different ways to accomplish each step correctly. In the wilderness, you sometimes won’t have access to a decent first aid kit and will have to improvise. This article will cover everything you need to know to handle the situation like a pro.
1. Sterilize Your Hands
It’s important to sanitize your hands before administering first aid and cleaning a cut or scrape. You don’t want to introduce bacteria or viral agents into an open wound. This might be difficult when you are in the wild, but it certainly isn’t impossible.
First, assess your inventory. If you are prepared, you may have sanitizing supplies already that can properly sterilize your hands. Whenever you plan a backpacking trip, camping outing, or anticipate being in nature for extended periods, it’s best to be prepared by having a well-stocked first-aid kit. Just make sure it has a large number of disinfectant wipes, like this one found on Amazon.
The ideal way to sterilize your hands is through a gentle antimicrobial soap and warm water. Assuming that you have soap in your gear, make sure that you create a thick bubbly lather when washing and clean all dirt underneath your fingernails. Your fingernails trap quite a bit of bacteria. Use your knife, a toothpick, or pine needles to get as much dirt as you can.Source
However, I realize that you will not always have a first aid kit or soap. Sometimes you have to improvise. Here are a few options:
- Bleach- Alternatively, you can dilute bleach into a water bottle and sterilize your hands with it. Add 3 or 4 drops to a 16-ounce water bottle. There should be a slight bleach smell to the water, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Too much bleach can cause significant irritation to your exposed tissue. A little bleach goes a long way.
- Ethyl alcohol-containing products- Products like purell gel hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol can also be used to sterilize your hands. If all you have is an alcohol prep pad, that could be enough to disinfect your hands, but make sure that you thoroughly remove all dirt and debris and clean your entire hands. It pays to spend extra time being thorough.
- Natural Disinfectant- You might be in a situation where you are underprepared and have absolutely nothing in the way of sanitation products. In which case, your next best bet is ash. Ash has antimicrobial properties. Make a paste of ashes and clean stream water and thoroughly scrub your hands before completely washing all of the ashes away with clean water. Make your ash from burning hardwoods. Avoid pine that leaves behind a resinous residue.
2. Stop the Bleeding
Once your hands are sterile, it’s vital to stop the bleeding. To accomplish this, you will simply have to apply direct pressure to the wound and elevate it above your heart. It’s always crucial to be attentive to sanitation with every step of the first aid process. Letting your guard down can have disastrous effects.
The best thing you can use to apply pressure is a sterile bandage or gauze. This slows the blood flow to facilitate clotting.
If you don’t have one of these available, you can use a clean piece of fabric or clothing. If you’ve been out on the trail for quite some time and all of your fabrics are dirty, and you have no sterile bandage, the last resort is to use your hand.
Apply firm pressure directly to the wound for 10 to 15 minutes. Be consistent and persistent. Removing the pressure prematurely may cause the bleeding to start again. You want to give your body ample time to send platelets and coagulants to form a clot.
The best way to decrease blood loss is to elevate the wound above the heart. This is effective because it slows circulation to the affected area. If the injury is on your legs or foot, lie down and elevate your leg into the air. You might want to prop it up on a stomp or your backpack. If the wound is on your back or buttocks, you can lie face down on your stomach.
3. Cleanse the Wound and Remove Any Dirt or Debris
Cleaning a wound prevents potentially life-endangering infections. Your wound won’t heal unless you thoroughly remove all dirt and debris. You may want to cut away clothing if it is in the way.
Find a source of fresh running water and wash the wound for 5 to 10 minutes. Use an antiseptic ointment if you have one available. Otherwise, use a piece of gauze or clean fabric dipped in saline to scrub all potential debris and dirt from the injury.
Soap and water are great for cleaning around the wound. Don’t apply soap directly to an open wound. This can also cause irritation and slow the healing process. Putting soap in an open wound is also is quite uncomfortable.
Iodine or hydrogen peroxide can be used on severe wounds, but they should be avoided for minor scrapes and scratches. You want to avoid using these treatments regularly. They should be reserved for only large dirt-filled wounds.
You might have tweezers in your medkit. They can come in handy when you have to remove dirt lodged in a sensitive wound. Keeping your tweezers sterile is of equal importance to keep your hands sanitized. Wipe them down with alcohol, bleach, iodine, or boil them for ten minutes before you start digging around your wounds.
Alternative Way to Irrigate a Wound
Urine, regardless of how averse you may be to using it, can be utilized to clean or irrigate a wound, but it needs to be used immediately after it is passed. Urine is sterile only when it is fresh. Bacteria forms quickly when it is exposed to open air and heat. It can quickly turn septic. Avoid using urine unless there is no other source of sterile water.
4. Apply a Topical If Available
Topical ointments and creams can help prevent infections. If you have a first-aid kit, you probably have triple antibiotic cream or bacitracin. Apply this once a day, if possible.
Petroleum jelly also speeds up healing time quite dramatically. It keeps bacteria from infiltrating the wound while keeping it hydrated.
There are many natural alternatives to pharmaceutical topical antibiotics:
- Plantain leaf, garlic, oregano, or honey- are a few substitutes that you can use to care for a wound topically.
- Colloidal silver and silver ointments- Should only be used for burns.
Topical pain relievers can provide relief if you have any available. Lidocaine cream is an excellent addition to any first aid kit.
5. Dress the Wound (Unless There Are Minor Scratches or Scrapes Only)
Minor scrapes and abrasions are best to be left uncovered. Your body will form scabs that act as natural bandages to heal these smaller wounds. More significant wounds will eventually scab as well, but it’s best to dress them until they are no longer at risk for outside dirt, debris, and infection.
If you have bandages or gauze, make sure that you thoroughly cover the wound and secure it with tape or tie it on with string. Don’t dress the wound too tightly. You don’t want to cut off circulation, and you want a bit of airflow. Dry gauze tends to stick to wounds.
Clean fabric or clothing can be substituted for bandages, but only if they are very clean. Like gauze, clothing also has a tendency cling to wounds. This poses a risk of reopening the wound and exposing it to bacteria. Be careful when you change your bandages. Peel back the bandage slowly. If it sticks to the wound, moisten it with clean water.
- A piece of clothing or sock- If you don’t have any clean bandages or fabric, you can always wash a piece of a shirt or sock in a clean water source as completely as you can then boil it for 15 minutes. You should hang dry it, paying attention that it does not get contaminated with dirt.
- Super glue can be used in a pinch as a substitute for stitches. Apply a thin line and pinch the wound together. You want to continue pinching the wound together for a couple of minutes to make sure the glue holds. Take care not to glue your fingers together. Cyanoacrylate adhesives, like super glue, can be harmful to your skin tissue, so this shouldn’t be your first choice. This approach should be reserved only for emergencies with a wound that won’t stop bleeding.
Ongoing Wound Care
A key to promoting healthy healing after sustaining a wound is attentive and ongoing aftercare, especially when you’re in the wilderness. Change your bandages daily and look for signs of infection. Infection can lead to life-threatening complications. Staphylococcus bacteria are commonly found in soil, and a staph infection can quickly lead to MRSA.
Some symptoms indicative of infection include:
- Pus, oozing or weeping
- Increased tenderness
For chronic wounds, do not use antiseptics as they can damage healthy cells. Only debride the wound with hydrogen peroxide once for this same reason.
Keep the wound clean. Try to keep it dry for the first 48 hours after you initially treat it, then Irrigate the injury regularly. Severe wounds won’t heal without moisture. Wash with a mild soap or clean water. Apply a topical antibiotic daily if available.
You may need to seek medical attention when you leave the wilderness, depending on the severity of your wounds. When you have access to antibiotic ointments and clean bandages, swap out any make-shift substitutes you were using. Prioritize your health. You only get one body, so treat it well.
Dealing With Severe Wounds
All of the guidelines we have covered so far will apply to just about any wound. However, for injuries with severe bleeding, you may need to take an extra step to stem the blood flow when a bandage and pressure simply won’t work alone. Sometimes you need to apply a tourniquet.
A belt or any piece of rope of cloth that is long enough can be used. Sometime you will need two tourniquets for severe wounds.
- Tie the tourniquet about 2 to 3 inches above the top of the injury and then tighten it as much as you can.
- If the bleeding does not subside enough to begin normal first aid, tie another tourniquet an inch or two above the first one. Once again, tighten it as much as you can, within reason.
- Re-evaluate the tourniquet about every 2 hours to see if it is still necessary. Loosen the lower tourniquet slowly first to check on the level of bleeding.
- After more than 6 hours, a tourniquet can cause major damage to tissues so try to get professional help as soon as possible. Remember, your job is to stabilize the person and not necessarily to provide a long-term solution.
In my opinion, basic first aid is something every person who spends a lot of time outdoors should learn. Whether you are a hardcore survivalist or a casual camper, it is imperative that you learn how to disinfect and treat wounds. It may save someone else’s life (or your own) someday.
I hope this article has been helpful. Don’t forget, preparedness is the key to survival!
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. The techniques listed in this guide were obtained through research of credible sources like WebMD and the Cleveland Clinic. Please refer to them for the latest correct medical advice on the topic of this article.
Anne James has a wealth of expertise in a wide array of interests, including quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, and making jelly.
She has a professional canning business and has been featured in the local newspaper, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is.
With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass.
Lovingly known as “Jelly Grandma” by her grandkids, Anne hopes your visit here has been a sweet one.