If you slip on a trail and scrape up the surface of your skin, you need to consider a few important things to treat an abrasion in the outdoors that you might not consider indoors. If not cared for properly, minor abrasions can pose larger problems when you’re in the outdoors for an extended time. Plan ahead by taking a wilderness first-aid kit, and be prepared to clean and treat your wounds as well as those of other members in your group.
Know Your Enemy: Bacteria
First of all, bacteria is any abrasion’s enemy because it’s what can cause infection. If you injure yourself in the outdoors, you’ll likely be in an environment that contains increased bacteria. Furthermore, you may not have access to purified water for cleaning a soft tissue wound, and you may not have sterilized bandages for dressing it once it’s clean.
Personal hygiene may be more difficult in the outdoors, which could result in more bacteria around a wound if there’s more of it on your skin or clothing, especially when you haven’t bathed or washed your clothing in several days. The steps below will help you keep an abrasion clean until it heals or until you’re able to seek further medical treatment.
Step #1: Abrasion Bleeding Control
An abrasion is a soft tissue injury, usually in the form of cuts or scrapes. Sometimes it might look like what’s called road rash, an abrasion in which the top layer of skin has been scraped off. Abrasions may not bleed profusely, but if bleeding won’t stop, control bleeding by applying direct pressure to the wound and elevating it above the heart. If you have sterile gauze pads in your wilderness first-aid kit, place them over the wound, and apply pressure. Add additional layers of gauze until the bleeding stops.
If you are in the outdoors, you may need improvise your gear and use the cleanest absorbent material you have in your backpack, which could be an extra piece of clothing or a camp towel. Attempt to clean the improvised material by scrubbing it with soap, if available, and rinsing it with water to clean it before putting it in contact with the wound.
Step #2: Cleaning an Abrasion
Now that you’ve controlled the bleeding, you need to clean the abrasion. Remove all dirt or debris that may be on the surface of the skin or in the wound. Use tweezers if you have them to pick out any debris that’s difficult to dislodge. Next, clean the wound with the cleanest water available. If you are in a backcountry setting, ideally you want to use water that you have purified for drinking. If you’re unsure how to purify water, read “Three Ways to Purify Water in the Backcountry” for additional advice. Rinse the wound and surrounding skin with clean water and soap, if available, and then irrigate the wound with water.
Step #3: Protecting a Cleaned Abrasion
You can protect a cleaned abrasion by covering it with sterile gauze and securing the gauze with athletic tape. If sterile gauze is not available, improvise by covering the wound with a piece of cloth that you have scrubbed clean with soap and water, and tie it around the wound or secure it with duct tape. If you choose an improvised method for covering the abrasion, be vigilant about monitoring it to prevent infection.
Step #4: Monitor the Abrasion
Keeping an abrasion clean is the best way to avoid infection. Change or clean the bandage and the wound every 12 hours with soap and water. Look for signs of infection, which may include redness, tenderness, swelling, or discharge. If signs of infection occur, continue to clean and irrigate the wound as usual, but consider leaving a backcountry setting to seek medical attention.