Chapter 9 - Wild First Aid

Wild First Aid

This chapter is not about how to cope with worst-case first aid situations in the woods where you have only a handkerchief, a ripe banana and a few coins to deal with an emergency. In this chapter, I do three things:

Suggest that there is great merit for people of all ages in knowing how they can respond to some of the first aid situations most likely to occur outdoors.
Provide you, the first aider, with a fun way to refresh yourself with best practice in a first aid situation while giving your charges opportunities to play at being first aiders.
Inform you about a few common wild plants you might find useful in minor first aid situations and give you an example of a more ‘holistic’ first aid kit. The ABCDE of first aid is Airways, Breathing, Circulation, Deformities and Emotions and alternative first aid remedies can help significantly as they act on the body, mind and the heart.

Initial responses count
I was amazed and proud of my 8yr old daughter’s behaviour recently when the tip of an escaping whittling knife made a deep hole in my thigh when I was packing kit into the car for a camp. I came into the house white faced, holding the outside of my left leg. She looked on in interest as I cleaned the wound and applied some steri-strips. Ok, she did go “euuuuw” and look away for a moment but she was soon looking back to see what I was doing. When I had cleaned myself up I lay on the couch with my leg up, applying more pressure to the wound. She took herself off into the kitchen and made me a cup of sweet tea! Without any prompting!
“That is a perfect first aid response,” I told her gratefully.

Being able to keep calm in adverse situations comes from a lack of fear. Simply, first aid is about making sure the injured person’s condition isn’t getting any worse, calling for help if needed and keeping the injured person alive until the experts arrive. In first aid situations some people are naturally fearless and simply respond to a situation with great common sense and practicality. 

Others are left in a dither, running round in circles like headless chickens too panicked to know how to respond. Experience is often the key to overcoming the fear that arises in such situations. It is good for people to have some experience of problematic situations, to know how and when they can make a real difference to someone in difficulty.

However, over-confidence (too much fearlessness) can sometimes lead to someone taking unacceptable risks and being the cause of a first aid situation! It is experience that develops a sense of what is and what is not an acceptable risk. 

Wet logs are more slippery than dry ones but there is seldom any use in telling a young person that information; it’s better to allow them to find out for themselves, in a ‘safe’ environment. A safe environment does not mean it is entirely risk free! It is our responsibility as parents, leaders and educators to put our children in a place of acceptable risk so that they can learn from situations and build up the neurological pathways needed to facilitate the healthy development of the whole person. Children like to put themselves in new and sometimes dangerous situations because adversity nurtures resourcefulness. This is why children test our boundaries so much – they want to learn. They are hungry for experience.


Take tree climbing for an example - a brilliant activity for developing strength, stamina, judgement of distances, hand-eye co-ordination, moving in different ways and planes. It’s something almost every small person will want to try. Risky? Yes, of course and the higher you climb, the harder you fall. How risky? While reading the spring 2009 National Trust magazine I read that research has shown that more children are admitted to hospital from injuries sustained from falling out of bed that falling out of trees! The only way someone can become a better climber is through extending his or her experience. By climbing a different shape of tree or gaining greater heights, new skills can be developed. By playing in different species of trees the climbers learn about the qualities and strengths of wood in various tree species. Slowly but surely, through experience, the climber becomes more adept at assessing the risks of a wide range of tree climbing situations and there is then less and less risk of that person falling from the tree they are climbing.

However, accidents do happen. What if someone falls from a tree while in your care? Perhaps a group of friends are in the woods around a campsite you are staying at. They are climbing trees. One of them doesn’t notice a dead branch and falls 20ft face down to the ground, unconscious, with a broken back. How the friends respond in the next few minutes could affect the rest of their mate’s life. Knowing what to do in that kind of situation is useful learning, possibly more useful than remembering the names of Egyptian Gods or pi to three decimal places!

How can we provide the learning required to respond effectively in a first aid situation, without the risk?

Role-play is a wonderful way to provide experience without anyone really being hurt. It is easy to think up possible situations, write them down on a scrap of paper, put them all in a hat and hand them out to small groups to enact and come up with good practical ideas of “what you could do if…” It can be fun to wrap someone up in a bandage, tie a splint to an arm, make a stretcher or hop around screaming, pretending you have just poured boiling hot water on your leg! As well as having a laugh, learning how to respond to simple first aid incidents and accidents can be a source of great self-esteem to some people. It also helps us feel more confident about being in the great outdoors as we are equipped with an idea of “what to do if”. Being more confident will hopefully mean that a person also feels more at home and relaxed in nature.

Useful things to know
If you want to find out more about what to do in a certain kind of first aid situation there is plenty of help on the web - just type in ‘first aid’ and you will find there are many pages of information from the St John’s Ambulance, the BBC, the Red Cross etc. There are also many first aid courses available but not all deal with practical first aid in ‘wilder’ settings. For outdoor first aid expertise, there is Devon Discovery, Wilderness First Aid and Rubicon Solutions all of whom have websites with details of their training courses. On a final note, I trained and now refresh regularly with Devon Discovery and going back to role play, had a lot of fun learning some valuable lessons, in pretend extreme situations, up on Dartmoor. But that is another story for round the campfire…
Chapter 9 - Wild First Aid
Activity - First Aid Role Play
A Natural First Aid kit