Wilderness Treatments for Burns

By Rose Cceberio, RN, BSN 

Today, if one is out and about camping, hiking, or on a dry run or for real “Bug Out” route, one can encounter a few things alone the wilderness path that can cause bodily harm. Unless you thought of everything and you’re hiking with a 100 lb backpack, even then, anything can happen and you may be fresh out of supplies other than Old Mother Nature can provide.  If so, never fear, for if you get hurt, there are plenty of ways to treat yourself and others, if you are calm, confident and know some basic things about sterility and how the body works to heal itself. One type of wound that can occur when exploring your inner Wilderness Warrior is burns. You get too close to the camp fire, under estimate a log you go to adjust in the fire, camp fire tri-pod trips over and Boom, you get a burn. Depending on the kind of burn, there are different ways to treat it. Here is a quick reference to assess what degree the burn is and determine the things needed to be done for treatment:

Red skin only: 1st Degree burn, surface wound.

White/blanching or Blister present: 2nd Degree burn.

Skin looks like burned hamburger/charred, fleshy/fatty looking: 3rd degree Burn.

You are looking deep tissue (no fat, just striated muscle and bone): 4th Degree Burns: You best get yourself professional medical help. This is serious and not ideal to be treated in the wilderness.

First things first, with all burns, get the site under some cold, clear water. If there is no water stream available, bottled water in a basin will do. Do not use any oil based salve on the site. This is an old wives tale and causes more damage to the skin than good. The trick is to cool the skin off so the heat will subside, with no further “cooking” of the tissue. Oils capture heat (think French Fries and Chicken wings) and water dissipates it (think running cold water over a hot pan).This is the basic treatment for both 1st and 2nd degree, with the only thing that a blister can form on the later. Try to keep that blister intact for that is the body’s natural response to healing the site. Once that blister pops, you have tender skin that will required being covered for both pain prevention and healing.

3rd degree burns require a little more diligence, due to the nature of the tissue damage and pain involved. If you are the one with the 100 lb backpack, then you must have some Baking Soda in there. Crack it open, pour some water on a pile of it, and create a past to apply to the site and leave on for 30-45 minutes. Not only will it help with the pain, the salts and pH balance of the baking soda will help neutralize any bacteria that may have worked its way into the site. Afterward, take your dried Baking Soda paste off, and apply an Antibiotic salve or honey on the wound.  Both products will keep it moist and allow the tissue to remain hydrated for cell growth to occur.   

Now if you are without a backpack full of supplies, get to a stream of water and rinse the site gently in the water, while finding a water’s edge spot to dig a bit for mud. Its one’s first instincts to go for the surface mud, but don’t. Dig about a foot below, and get that cool, moist mud that hasn’t been trampled on. Apply it on the site, and keep the area cool. The mud should be changed over every 20-30 minutes until the pain subsides, which depends on every one’s different pain tolerances. Rinse (not scrub, for you can do more damage to the tissue) the site gently again in the water, while someone gets you cloth or tree moss that can be soaked and applied to the site, keeping the area hydrated for cell generation.  A person can readily find an Elm tree in the US wilderness, crack open your wilderness knife and get some of the tree’s   inner bark to mash / ground to create a salve for the burn site. The Elm tree was revered by our Native American Indian brothers for its healing properties. Depending on your healing ability, after a day or two of keeping the site moist and covered, and leave the area open to air. If there is drainage (serous fluid) , don’t worry, this is the body’s way of healing itself, and the drainage acts as a prevention of infection as well by keeping the flow of the new “hole” in your body outward. Remember a bacterium has a hard time swimming upstream! The key here is to keep things as clean as you can.

4th Degree burns can be treated just like the 3rd degree burns, but there is more tissue level involvement, thus more potential for infection. Treatments can and should be applied for longer periods of time but conventional medicine is the preferred course of treatment for type of burn. This is a “long term” wound to heal from, and best managed under professional care. Again, can implement the 3rd degree burn protocol, but now the risk of infection is higher.

Remember to drink plenty of fluids during all of this, for again, the body heals itself through the manufacture of serous fluids (the yellowish clear stuff) that basically acts like a body lubricant, keeping the body “juicy”. This is the good drainage.

The bad drainage looks cloudy, thick, smells funny and can be the colors yellow or green. This can be accompanied with fever and sweating. These are signs of infection. That’s when the use of antibiotics is required to get you feeling better. 

Always keep in mind that any/all suggestions are but only temporary solutions to serious injuries. One should always consider the “Golden Hour” when it comes to any type of wound care: the best way to treat a wound without increasing the risk of infection. Get help, don’t be shy, ask questions, and do the best you can. Be sure to have two-way radios that have contact with a ranger or local law enforcement can be essential in the case of an emergency. They can help guide you what to do. As most wounds can be successfully treated by most people, there are some injuries that will need to be addressed by professional medical assistance in an aseptic medical site soon as you can.  Be calm, just breath, and be safe. 


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8 thoughts on “Wilderness Treatments for Burns”

  1. As a pilot, I hate the thought of burns and would much prefer to crash and die rather than be burned alive. UGGH!

    Informative post. Most pilots like Nomex for its flame resistant qualities. I’ve commented to several friends that their balaclavas are a fire hazard. The thought of leaning over a camp fire while wearing one made of cotton or worse, nylon gives me shivers. It is not hard to find both gloves and balaclavas made out of Nomex

    Another reason pilots like gloves made of this material is the tactile feedback it allows.

    Nylon is flat dangerous around fire.


  2. Apply mud to a 3rd degree burn? Sounds like a good way to increase the risk of infection, and make debridement more complicated and painful later. Ready to be wrong, am I missing something?

  3. Nurse Rose-thanks !!!! Rourke I vote no 1 for Roses article on Burn treatment.
    I have used mud on bees stings and no always deep mud and it has always helped.

  4. Hi P.R., would think lack of professional care would be a reason to do everything possible to avoid an infection, and can’t imagine a doctor congratulating someone for deciding to put mud on it before bringing them in either. Just my .02.

  5. Walt,

    I’ve never heard of the mud treatment either but believe in giving credit for RC’s academic credentials. Would like to read the references from RC citing mud.


  6. 4th degree burns? Who told you that? Uh… No. There are 1st (sunburn), 2nd (blister) and 3rd (full thickness.) Period. And mud? Uh… No.

  7. I had a 2nd degree burn on my hand I got when some boiled spinach attacked me. (That’s what I get for trying to eat healthy!) It hurt something awful and the only treatment that eased the pain was applying honey and covering it with a clean soft dressing/bandage. Even though I had a blister the size of a 1/2 dollar it healed without a scar.


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