Even the lightest burn can be debilitating. It’s crucial to know how to treat a burn in the wilderness so you aren’t at the mercy of nature. This guide will help empower you to know how to treat a burn of every degree when you’re out in the wild.
Potential Burn Scenarios and How to Prevent Them
There are numerous scenarios that can lead to suffering from burns while out in nature, which is why it’s so important to know how to treat a burn in the wilderness. These scenarios can be as simple as cooking at a camp stove and brushing against hot metal, splashing boiling water onto exposed skin, or fumbling with a lighter or flint while starting a fire.
To avoid these potential scenarios, remain mindful and steady when setting up camp and preparing your necessities. If you are cold, be sure to warm yourself enough so you’re not seized by uncontrollable shivers while trying to start a fire.
However, there are also unpredictable scenarios you might encounter that can lead to burns. This can range from taking a dip in a hot spring that turns out to be way too hot, to being caught in a wildfire. To avoid these potential hazards, always do your best to know the current condition of any area before you travel into it.
How to Treat a Burn in the Wilderness
Treating First-Degree Burns
First-degree burns are typically the easiest to identify and to treat. They are the least severe class of burns and are trademarked by red skin with no blisters. Because they are surface-level burns, addressing the damage to the first layer of skin is all you need to know about how to treat a burn of this nature.
For a first-degree burn, simply running water over the burn should be sufficient treatment. This will help soothe the burn, which should heal fairly well on its own, without any further intervention.
While the pain persists, as long as the skin in and near the burn is unbroken, you can submerge the burn in cool water or cover with a damp, cool cloth kept continuously wet to help ease the pain and keep your skin cool.
If you have any aloe gel on hand, potentially in a survival kit or first aid kit, this is a great tool for how to treat a burn of this degree as well.
Treating Second-Degree Burns
A second-degree burn can be identified in three common ways: the color of the skin, the texture of the skin, and the level of pain.
Unlike a first-degree burn, which affects only the top layer of skin and typically resolves in terms of pain within 24 hours or less, a second-degree burn penetrates deeper into the flesh. This will result in the formation of angry, deep red burns and developing blisters—sometimes immediately, sometimes within minutes of the burn.
There is also a much higher level of pain with a second-degree burn. The pain with these can go deeper, almost like an ache, and tends to be much more persistent and debilitating, even excruciating for some.
In terms of how to treat a burn in the wilderness when it reaches the second degree, you will need to exercise some greater caution than with a first-degree burn. Because blisters can behave as open wounds, you do not want to lance or burst them yourself.
Even if your blisters remain intact, avoid using anything but sterile water to treat them. While it may be tempting to plunge the affected area into running water, especially if it’s icy, ice water can further irritate the skin around a burn and cause even more damage to the cells.
Also, water that has not been sterilized can potentially infect a second-degree burn, especially if a blister has burst.
Avoiding these components, the best method for how to treat a burn of this nature in the wilderness is to begin with a sterile water rinse. Then, you will want to clean the affected area with soap or antiseptic, depending on what you might have available in your survival hygiene kit or first aid kit.
Use the soap or antiseptic to keep the second-degree burn free of dirt and bacteria, being careful not to rupture the blisters when cleaning. Once the area is sufficiently tended, you may then apply a wet compress, such as a washcloth dipped in sterile, cool, but not icy, water, for up to 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes of gentle compression, let the area breathe for an additional 10 minutes. Repeat this process until the skin begins to soothe.
If you have a first aid kit handy, you can wrap the second-degree burn in sterile gauze. This will help prevent any foreign bodies or particles from invading the blisters should they burst or the skin if it’s broken open in any way. This cleanliness is a crucial part of how to treat a burn in the wilderness.
If you happen to have something like cling wrap or plastic wrap on hand, such as if you’re camping when you suffer a second-degree burn, you can lay the wrap over the wound. This will help keep the skin moist, make it easy to assess, and best of all, it helps keep out dirt!
Treating Third- and Fourth-Degree Burns
Third-degree burns are among the scariest and most difficult to address when learning how to treat a burn in the wilderness. Inevitably, they will require serious medical treatment. These burns are classified by their penetrations from the epidermis (outer skin) all the way through the hypodermis subcutaneous layers (the innermost skin).
Some burns may even travel further than this, burning through tendons and even to the bone. These are considered fourth-degree burns, and must be treated similarly to third-degree burns: with professional help.
These most severe types of burns can be identified by skin that appears charred, leathery, or waxy. There are often no signs of pain in the victim due to nerve damage well below the skin. Additionally, third- and fourth-degree burns can send victims into shock and even hypothermia as the body’s temperature will fall quickly while the wounds release heat.
The best method for how to treat a burn of this severity in the wilderness is actually to minimally address the burn itself, and instead seek medical assistance and manage symptoms of shock. The wound should be covered lightly in a thin, lint-free cloth, such as cotton, and not uncovered again.
Victims of these severe burns should elevate their feet and keep the wound raised above the heart if possible to prevent blood loss. Lying on the back under a loose blanket will also help manage the effects of severe burns.
You should not attempt to rinse, compress, or remove clothing from burns of this nature. Instead, call emergency services right away and manage symptoms until help arrives.
The Importance of Professional Help When Treating Burns
Whether someone is suffering from minor or severe burns, seeing a professional is always an important step in how to treat a burn in the wilderness. As soon as you’re able, having a quick assessment of your burn done by a medical professional can help ensure there is no risk of infection.
While it can be difficult not to leap in to help when someone is suffering from third- or fourth-degree burns, professional aid is of the utmost in these cases. The process for how to treat a burn of this severity is long and thorough, involving many steps that can only be safely carried out in a sterile, controlled environment.
Wrapping up How to Treat a Burn in the Wilderness
Knowing how to treat a burn in the wilderness is the first step. Now it’s time to equip yourself for other scenarios! Check out our Hygiene Sanitation page for even more knowledge on how to keep yourself healthy in the wild.