ABC's of First Aid - Medical Emergency Guidelines When Camping

In serious medical emergencies, what you do in the first few minutes can determine if, and how well, the victim will recover. The following ABC's are suggested emergency guidelines that can help you remember what to do. It is especially important to be prepared when camping as you may be in a remote location. ANTICIPATE AND AVOID
  • Learn first aid. At least one adult should know rescue breathing, CPR, how to apply bandages and splints, and especially how NOT to cause further harm, even if you don't know how to treat every injury. Contact your local community college or American Red Cross chapter ( for information on first-aid and first-responder classes in your area.
  • Carry the 10 essentials: extra food and water, extra layers, an emergency space blanket, waterproof matches and fire starter, knife, map and compass, headlamp and a first aid kit - all for when plans go awry.
  • Do not travel alone. A party of four is best: If one person is injured, one can stay with the patient while the other two go for help.
  • Learn the special medical needs of everyone in your party, take care of impending medical and dental needs before you hit the road, and carry important medications with you.
  • Learn the weather patterns and natural hazards of your destination and route. Be cautious in places where there are risky conditions, such as swift water, wet logs, rocky or slippery ground, steep slopes and high or open country during thunderstorms.
  • Leave an itinerary with a responsible person at home and rangers near your trailhead, noting your destination, route and time of return, so people know when and where to look or you if you don’t return.
  • Stay calm. When emergencies happen, try not to panic. Panic impedes clear thinking. Everyone in your party will take comfort from your calm attitude. If you’re optimistic, they will be, too.
  • A very important emergency guideline to remember is to look and think. Assess the situation. What caused the injury? Will you be in danger if you rush to the rescue? Swift rivers, cold water, avalanches, fires, rattlesnakes, lightning and car accidents are just a few things that can kill you while you are trying to save someone.
  • Wear surgical gloves and a CPR barrier to protect yourself from bodily fluids and diseases (HIV, hepatitis, etc.). Nitrile gloves are available for those allergic to latex. A plastic bag taped over each hand will work in a pinch. The CPR Microshield is an excellent mask (cprmicro
  • Do not move the victim until you know the extent of his injuries, unless he is in imminent danger. If you must, help a conscious victim walk. Roll an unconscious person on his back, then pull by his shirt collar or underarms while supporting his head. Preferably, have several people lift his body as a unit.
  • If you are the leader (the most capable rescuer), stay with the victim at all times (supporting the head and neck if you suspect spinal injury), keep the big picture in mind, and assign others to go for help; set up shelter, make food, etc. If you’re not the leader, follow instructions helpfully. This is no time to argue about who gets to be leader.
  • Check for breathing first thing. Speak loudly and ask the victim to respond as you approach. A response means the person is breathing and has a pulse. If none, roll the victim onto his back to place the airway, which might have been blocked by an awkward head tilt, into a neutral position. Roll the victim carefully, keeping the head in line with the shoulders and hips, to prevent further damage to the spine if it is injured. Treat the victim as though a spinal injury has occurred until you have eliminated the possibility.
  • Place your ear close to the victim’s mouth, then listen and feel for breath while watching for his chest to rise. If there is no breathing, and you do not suspect a cervical spine (neck) injury, tilt his head back by lifting the chin lightly. An unconscious person’s tongue can relax and block the airway. This motion will pull it out of the way. If you suspect a cervical spine injury, hold the head steady between your knees and thrust the jaw forward. If there is still no breathing, the airway may be blocked by a foreign object. A conscious person will be grasping his throat in panic. You can help clear the object using the Heimlich maneuver:
  • Hug a conscious choking victim from behind, placing your fist (thumb facing toward you) just below the rib cage. Grab your fist with the other hand. Give a quick, forceful thrust toward you, and slightly up. Repeat if necessary.
  • Straddle an unconscious person’s thighs, lock your fingers together and perform the same motion with the heel of one hand. Repeat if necessary.
  • Sweep the mouth with your fingers to clear an object from the unconscious person.
  • If the victim does not breathe, delegate someone to go and call for help. If you are alone, take a few seconds to yell, phone or whistle before helping the victim.
  • Pinch the victim’s nose closed and place your mouth over his mouth. Use a CPR barrier mask.
  • Blow air into the victim until you see the chest rise. Remove your mouth to allow the victim to exhale.
  • Give breaths once every five seconds, until the victim begins breathing on his own, help arrives or you are too exhausted to continue.
  • If air does not move in and out of the victim, double-check the airway. Try to re-establish that the airway is open and check for foreign objects.
  • If you breathe air into the stomach, the victim might vomit, creating an airway emergency. If this happens, roll him away from you onto his side to let the fluids drain, then continue rescue breathing.
  • With a gloved hand, check under the victim and inside bulky clothing for signs of serious bleeding. Ignore minor cuts until you have finished your ABC's.
  • Place a sterile gauze pad, or the cleanest material you have, directly on the cut, press firmly with your hand, then bandage in place. Elevate the injury, if possible. This should help stop the bleeding, although it can take as long as 30 minutes.
  • Check to see if the victim has a pulse. Place your middle two fingers on the neck at the carotid artery (between the esophagus and the muscle to the side). Practice on yourself and others, so you can find it when it matters. Hold until you feel a beat, up to 30 seconds (one minute with very cold patients). Never check both sides of the neck at once. If you do not feel a pulse, the patient will need cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to survive.
  • Place the victim on his back on a firm surface. Tilt the head back gently to open the airway (or jaw thrust if you suspect spine injury). Give two rescue breaths. Watch the chest rise and fall.
  • Place the heel of one hand over the center of the breastbone and the heel of your other hand on the first. Interlock your fingers.
  • With arms straight and your shoulders directly over the victim’s sternum, quickly compress the chest 1-1/2 to 2 inches, then release. Count out loud, “One-and-two-and-three-and...”
  • After 15 fast compressions, in as many seconds, give two rescue breaths. If two rescuers are available, one can perform compressions while the other gives breaths, at the same two-breath-per-15-compression ratio.
  • Children and infants require faster, gentler compressions and breaths. Please get official CPR certification to learn more. This article is too brief for proper CPR training.
  • Your efforts to keep the patient still can help avoid making spinal injuries worse. Suspect spinal injury after car accidents, diving accidents or serious falls. Other warning signs include an unconscious victim, complaints of neck or back pain, numbness, weakness or tingling in the arms or legs or paralysis. If possible, all movement and rescue should be done by trained, equipped rescuers.
  • Place insulating materials under and over the victim to keep him warm. Remove and replace wet clothing.
  • After stabilizing the most serious injuries, it’s time for a complete head-to-toe examination to make sure you didn’t miss anything. When you’re done, take care of minor cuts, then comfort and reassure the victim until rescue can be arranged.
  • Talk to the patient. Explain everything you’re doing (avoid dire assessments of injuries). Ask how the accident happened, where it hurts and the severity of the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Not only will the answers tell you about the patient’s injuries and level of consciousness, but clear communication and a calm attitude can inspire trust and hope in recovery. If your patient is unconscious, talk anyway so he will hear a friendly voice when he does awake.
  • Use the victim’s comfort to guide your actions.
These emergency guidelines are only for general informational purposes for handing medical situations while camping. It is not intended to diagnose any condition you may be feeling or treating. If you have questions or concerns about medical needs, consult your physician immediately. We encourage you to participate in first-aid and CPR training through local public education or the American Red Cross.
Read more about Campfire Safety.