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Hunting First Aid: Common Injuries and What to Do, From NOLS Experts

Photo credit: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen
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After a summer of uncertainty and sheltering in place, folks remain eager to get outside whenever they can. With hunting season in full swing, now’s the time to review advice on managing popular injuries that can afflict hunters.

Four common injuries hunters experience include lacerations (often while field dressing a harvested animal), fractures from falls while hiking or from treestands, hypothermia and heat exhaustion, and blisters — which may not seem like a big deal but can cut a trip short if not managed properly.

Photo credit: Iris Saxer

Lacerations: How to Control Bleeding

Wounds can happen in a variety of ways while hunting. Knives, arrow blades, rifle scopes — even antlers — can lead to lacerations or punctures. With that in mind, it’s important to know how to stop bleeding. Fortunately, most bleeding is easy to control, and the same principles apply from mild to severe bleeds.

Direct Pressure & Elevation

Applying pressure to torn blood vessels will control most bleeding. Use your hand and a piece of fabric — preferably sterile gauze — to apply direct pressure to the wound. The important word is “direct”; the pressure is most effective if you apply it to the source of the bleed.

Three-finger pressure (hard enough to make your fingers uncomfortable) seems to work best. If the dressing becomes soaked with blood, leave it in place and apply additional dressings on top because removing the dressing disturbs the blood clots that are forming.

Assuming there are no injuries that will be made worse by movement, elevating an extremity may help decrease the bleeding. Direct pressure and elevation together can control almost all bleeding.

Wound Packing

Pack (stuff) the wound with hemostatic gauze, plain gauze, or a clean cloth, and then apply direct pressure. Wound packing may be helpful for groin or armpit injuries where a tourniquet is difficult to apply.

Pressure Dressings

After bleeding is controlled, a bulky dressing — firmly secured with roller gauze, ACE wrap, or a strip of cloth or cravat — can provide pressure on the wound and free your hands for other tasks.


A tourniquet should be wide (minimal width of 1.5 inches, or about 4 cm), padded, and ideally 2 inches (5 cm) above the wound. If you can’t see the wound, placing the tourniquet high on the extremity is acceptable.

Tourniquets can be improvised, but if hunting, it’s a good idea to carry a commercial model. Leave the tourniquet in place, treat for shock, and seek medical care.

NOLS Covid shoot, 8/17/20 Wild Iris. Backapcking and Wilderness Medicine
Photo credit: Kirk Rasmussen

Injuries From Falls

When you think about hunting safety, you might picture firearm safety. Although practicing firearm safety is critical, over half of hunters in several states get their injuries by falling from treestands. Fractures from falling while moving across difficult terrain are also common.

Musculoskeletal Injuries: Fractures & Dislocations

First, what’s the difference between a fracture and a dislocation? Fractures are broken bones, and dislocation is the displacement of a bone end from its normal position at a joint.

It’s important to understand the difference to optimally recognize and treat each type of injury.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Pain, tenderness, or both on the bone or at the joint
  • Swelling, bruising, or both
  • Deformity to the limb or joint
  • Altered pulse, feeling or ability to move an extremity
  • Wounds with or without protruding bone
  • Inability to use a limb or joint


Splint the limb and immobilize the joint. Craft a rigid, padded, supportive splint that does not constrict blood flow. You can check out a NOLS educational video on splinting limbs here.

Next, focus on managing the pain. This can be done with ice, elevation, compression wraps, and pain medication.

Spinal Injuries

Falls from height have a risk for injury to the spine, especially if the person lands on their head, shoulders, buttocks, or back.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Pain, tenderness, or both on the spine
  • Altered sensations including numbness, tingling, unusual hot or cold sensations in the hands and feet
  • Weakness or paralysis


  • Control head movement with your hands or with head blocks
  • Check the hands and feet for the ability to move and feel
  • Protect the spine; unless you have training, move the patient as little as possible
  • If you need to move the patient, do so slowly and carefully
  • Seek medical support

You can learn more about managing spine injuries here.

Photo credit: Lena Conlan

Environmental Hazards: Heat & Cold

When you’re outdoors for hours at a time, you might be subject to the hazards that can come from the effects of intense heat (like heat exhaustion and heatstroke) or cold (hypothermia).

Again, understanding these hazards and what to do when you experience them can go a long way toward safety while hunting.

Signs & Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, vomiting, or both
  • Loss of appetite
  • Exercise-associated muscle cramps
  • Dizziness with fainting
  • Elevated heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Skin: Cool and clammy, skin and mucous membranes may be pale or flushed

Treatment for Heat Illness

  • Rest and avoid further heat stress
  • Hydrate
  • Treat exercise-associated muscle cramps with gentle stretching
  • Evacuate if there is no improvement

Heatstroke is a life-threatening form of heat illness, with its telltale sign being noticeable changes in mental status (disoriented, irritable, unable to balance, combative, or unconscious). The person’s skin may be warm and dry or warm and sweating.

These people should be cooled as quickly as possible. This can be done with methods like removing clothing, spraying them with water, and fanning them. If you can protect them from drowning, you can immerse them in the coolest water available.

Signs & Symptoms of Hypothermia

  • Cold stress: Cold sensation and shivering with normal mental status
  • Mild: Impaired ability to perform complex tasks, fine motor shivering, apathy, slurred speech, and “the umbles” (fumbling, stumbling, mumbling, grumbling)
  • Moderate: Uncontrollably violent shivering, worsening of “the umbles,” altered mental status
  • Severe: Shivering stops, muscular rigidity, decreasing mental status progressing to unresponsiveness, slow pulse, and slow respiratory rates

Treatment for Cold Stress to Mild Hypothermia

  • Change the patient’s environment: Find shelter and get out of the wind
  • Insulate the head, neck, hands, and feet
  • Replace wet or damp clothing with dry garments
  • Add wind and waterproof layers
    • Consider a hypothermia wrap: patient in a sleeping bag, on a ground pad, with extra insulation under and around them, and wrapped in a windproof tarp; add heat packs or hot water bottles, insulating these to prevent burns
  • Add calories: Encourage the patient to eat snacks or a meal; give warm, sweet, non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic liquids
  • An alert patient who can stand can use exercise to generate heat
  • A person with moderate-to-severe hypothermia should be carefully moved into dry insulation — a hypothermia wrap is ideal — while you seek medical care
NOLS Worthen Backpacking Covid-19 Shoot 7/30
Photo credit: Kirk Rasmussen


While blisters don’t sound like a big deal, small hot spots can become painful blisters that can cut a great weekend hunt short. Fortunately, they’re simple to prevent and manage, especially if addressed early.

Treatment for Hot Spots & Blisters

Look for the source of the friction between footwear and skin and try to reduce it. Tight footwear and seams in socks or shoes are often culprits. Pad the area with moleskin or tape (Hypafix, Kinesio tape, Elastikon, Fixomull, duct tape, athletic tape, or other medical tapes) as a buffer against further rubbing. You may need multiple layers, so don’t be shy.

Paper tape or a lubricant under the medical or duct tape can prevent the skin from tearing when the tape is removed. The stickier the tape, the more the risk for tearing. Try any of the modern blister-prevention products. Blist-O-Banblister Band-Aids, and similar products work well.

If you’re worried the blister will burst (usually nickel-sized or larger, or tense with fluid), drain it. First, clean the blister. Use a needle cleaned with an antiseptic solution or heated until it glows red, then is cooled. Insert the needle at the base of the blister. Cover with moleskin or any other medical tape or 2nd Skin (or similar).

Final Thoughts

Our main piece of advice? While it’s important to be prepared to manage injuries, prevention is the best medicine. With proper planning and self-care, you can make injuries like these less likely and have a better experience while hunting.

Note: Articles don’t replace hands-on training and regular practice. Only practice methods that are within your scope of care. Visit the NOLS site to see options for initial certifications and re-certifying.

This article is sponsored by NOLS. You can learn more about the brand’s programs and offerings here.

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