Time outdoors warms the soul, but it also presents the possibility, however slim, of an accident that burns the skin. Serious burns outdoors can happen many ways, including injuries caused by campfire flare-ups and stove accidents, or scalding burns from water spilled while cooking. One of the most common types of burns is, not surprisingly, a sunburn. Chemical burns, though rare, might be caused by leaking batteries or spilled fuel.
Evaluating and treating burns when you’re outdoors is similar to treating them when you’re in non-remote areas like home or work. But professional medical treatment is less readily available, so you need a good foundation of knowledge and some practice in burn treatment.
Prevention is far easier than treatment after something goes wrong. Because cooking a meal and making a campfire are end-of-day activities, you’re more likely to be fatigued. So refocus on the task at hand whenever you’re near a stove or fire.
Make sure your stove is in a stable location and that you’re seated comfortably and out of harm’s way while you cook. Take care when lighting your stove and be extra cautious when moving or pouring hot water.
Preventing sunburns: Simply being outdoors for extended hours each day ups your exposure level; in addition, UV rays are more intense between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when you’re at high altitude and if you’re around water or snow. And you can still get burned when skies are overcast because the sun’s radiation passes through clouds.
Sunburn is eminently preventable with generous application of sunscreen and wearing sun-protective clothing. Two key tactics people often overlook are using enough sunscreen and reapplying it regularly.
Preventing Snow Blindness: A less prevalent type of radiation burn is snow blindness, which is caused by overexposure to light radiation: typically reflected glare off of snow or water. Sufferers don’t actually go blind, but their eyes get red, tear excessively and hurt whenever they open or close them.
Prevention of snow blindness is, not surprisingly, to wear sunglasses. Styles that have side blinders or wrap around the face are best. And wear them even on cloudy days because filtered sunlight can still cause damage. Wearing a sunglasses retainer to ensure you don’t lose them is also a savvy move.
Regardless of the source of the burn, one can classify its severity by the depth of skin damage and the extent of that damage. Burns may involve a combination of classifications—a person might have a full-thickness burn surrounded by a less severe, but more painful, partial-thickness burn, for example.
Your primary goals are to prevent further injury and infection, and to provide some pain relief.
How to treat a sunburn: Though the most serious risk from sun damage is developing skin cancer later, short-term sunburns can be severe enough to derail a trip—any partial-thickness sunburn can require evacuation for pain management and wound care. A patient with an extensive superficial sunburn might also need to cut a trip short if the discomfort is so great that they can no longer continue.
How to treat snow blindness: Treatment consists of cold compresses, keeping the person in a dark environment and the use of pain meds. Avoid anaesthetic drops, which can further damage the eye; artificial tears or saline drops are okay to use. Typically, eyes heal within several days.
How to treat for shock: Serious burns can also put a patient in shock, where they are cool and clammy, anxious or confused, and have a rapid heart and respiratory rate. Care involves keeping them warm, calm and lying flat with their legs elevated slightly (a foot or less). Also make sure they are well-hydrated.
While non-extensive, superficial burns can be treated and allowed to heal while your outdoor adventure continues, more serious burns require the attention of a medical professional. If you’ve followed the assessment and treatment steps above, you’ll have the information needed to make this decision.
Evacuate a burn victim in any of the following circumstances:
Relying on a cellphone to contact emergency responders is a problem because of limited cell coverage in the backcountry. For trips farther into the wilderness, it’s always wise to carry a serious communication device.