An image very similar to this one, seen in a previous blog post, sparked an in-depth conversation on first aid in the field. I was asked how we handled the situation by one of the guys at Fiddleback Forge. Indeed we were very fortunate the nicks to the arteries weren't any deeper than they were, and the loss of blood was minimal. Also, because of years of study and experiences in the woods, we were very much prepared for just such a situation. My assistant is a former EMT, and we had everything we needed to stabilize the situation in our first aid kits.
Many of my experiences in life have taught me the benefits of having at least a rudimentary first aid kit on hand. First, twenty years as a woodworker and subcontractor. Later it was being around groups of individuals practicing new skills with knives. The more people involved, the greater the chance of an accident. The more powerful and sharper the tools being used the more the possibility of serious accident. I have three different first aid kits, small, medium, and large if you will, that I carry at different times depending on the circumstances.
My experiences as a father have taught me to always have a small first aid kit on hand when I am out with my children. It doesn't matter if we are hiking one of the local woodland trails, on more of an urban hike on the river walk, or a long walk through the city to have dinner at a sidewalk café. Children are curious and have lots of energy. Accidents can and will happen. Having a small kit on hand that allows you to clean, treat, protect, and ease the pain of the wound will – in most cases – greatly improve the quality of the rest of the evening. This mini pocket organizer holds the items I am most likely to need, and will easily drop in a cargo pocket.
The kit I use most often for my personal outings in the field is made using a Maxpedition Janus extension pack I have attached to my Max-Ped water bottle carrier. The insulated bottle carrier is dedicated to water and snacks for the trip. By using a cold or frozen bottle of water, it becomes a small soft-sided cooler that I can carry on my shoulder. The Janus extension is large enough to carry essentials for treating minor wounds such as: cuts, scrapes, splinters, and thorns, as well as pain relieving, anti-inflammatory, sinus, and allergy medications. The things I am most likely to need while working in a temperate rain forest. Plus, it also has room for a large compression bandage if something worse happens and a small emergency head lamp for low light conditions.
The larger of the three kits is the one for situations where the risk of serious injury is greatest; the one I want on hand when I am conducting experiments with various cutting tools in the process of research and development. It is also the one I have available if I am with individuals who are relatively new to the use of knives, axes, or saws in a wilderness environment, or who are practicing new skills with such tools. This is an extensive first aid kit which has: various sizes of gauze and bandages, topical treatments to deter infections and sooth burns, tools to cut clothing and remove splinters or debris from wounds, and medications to ease pains, as well as antihistamines and allergy medications to aid with minor allergic reactions. Thus providing the ability to stabilize a wide range of situations which do not require urgent medical care. Protective gloves and seal-able plastic bags are necessary proper body-substance-isolation. Also included are compression bandages, a tourniquet and a knife and saw to cut the materials to fashion splints, a crutch, or a litter to aid as much as possible with a more serious injury. It should be noted: the improper use of a tourniquet, or in many cases the use of one at all, is a choice of sacrificing the limb in order to save a life. Using a tourniquet is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
My earlier studies in survival taught me there are definitely benefits to having a metal water bottle, primarily, because it can be used to boil and purify water if necessary. However, witnessing several accidents and mishaps in the field over the decades has taught me a different lesson; one that allows my water bottle to also serve as part of my first aid kit. A squeezable sports bottle nested in a steel cup in my bottle carrier gives me the ability to carry and the boil water if I need to. At the same time, it also gives me a the ability to produce a controllable stream of water which makes for a relatively effective means of irrigating a dirty wound.
You are probably wondering what connects compasses with a discussion on first aid. No, it isn't to help determine the fastest evacuation route though they could certainly aid in that endeavor. It is also not because the mirrors could be used to signal for help though that is obviously one possible use. I spend a lot of time alone in the woods, and often I am miles away from my camp or vehicle. More than once, I have found my mirrored sighting compasses to be utterly invaluable when it came to removing foreign matter from my eyes in the middle of nowhere. A compass with a map reading base plate also has a built-in magnifying glass that can be handy for removing fine thorns, splinters, or a bee stinger. If the compass does not have a clear base, then a magnifying glass from an eyeglass repair kit takes up very little room in a kit.
The point I have hoped to illustrate with this is, as with most things, typically the outcome is directly related to planning and preparation. When you actively use sharp cutting tools in a wilderness environment, for prolonged periods of time, accidents can and will happen. It is inevitable and is a matter of when not if. The vast majority of accidents are minor and not life-threatening; being prepared to quickly deal with them usually leads to happier endings. In this case, even after having nicked anterior arteries in two fingers and calling to arrange for someone to meet him at the hospital, Andrew was still able to smile when I complimented him on his professionalism: for transitioning so smoothly from from one lesson to another and doing so well in presenting one of the best classes on emergency first aid I have ever seen. Twenty-four hours and five stitches later, he was doing fine and back in the field conducting experiments in one-hand survival techniques. Without proper planning, the outcome would have been much worse.
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.