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If you’re a homesteader, you’ll want to be ready for any eventuality. In a remote location or austere environment, the importance of medical self-reliance can’t be overemphasized. Injuries and illness can happen anytime due to a storm, wildfire, earthquake, or other disaster.
Medical strategies abound for these mostly short term scenarios that are both reasonable and effective. An entire medical education system exists to deal with limited wilderness or disaster situations. This system is served by a growing emergency supply industry and, in some cases, supported by federal taxes.
When you happen upon a victim in normal times, your goal is to:
- Evaluate the injured or ill patient.
- Stabilize their condition.
- Transport them to the nearest modern medical facility.
This series of steps couldn’t make more sense; you’re not a physician, after all. Somewhere, there are facilities that have a lot more technology than you have. Your priority is to get the patient out of immediate danger and then ship them off to a higher medical resource.
It seems reasonable for the average citizen to expect the rescue helicopter to be on the way. But what if it isn’t? Some homesteads are far from the nearest hospital. When modern medical help isn’t at hand, quick action on your part may be necessary to save a life.
You never know when you might be the medical “end of the line” in the uncertain future. To be effective in that role, you need supplies.
Family Medical Kit
The availability of medical supplies may just save a life in troubled times, but without an idea of what medical items should be stockpiled, your effectiveness as an emergency caregiver may be compromised. Not having the right equipment at hand is like trying to eat a steak with a wrench and a screwdriver instead of a knife and fork. Purchasing these items all at once would be hard on the wallet, so the best strategy Is to slowly stockpile the medical supplies you need.
This article is meant to be a guide to which supplies would help you become an effective caregiver as opposed to being an in-depth discussion of how to use each one. To help you become a well-equipped homestead caregiver, we’ll list common medical issues and what items you’ll need to deal with them.
To begin with, however, let’s talk about personal protection. No, I’m not talking about condoms, although they can be important additions to your storage. I’m not talking about firearms, either, although military medics are now usually armed. I’m referring to protecting yourself and others from injuries and infectious disease.
Don’t ignore the power of prevention. In any remote environment, you will be performing daily activities that carry risk of injury. Chopping wood for fuel would be one example. Eye and hand protection in the form of goggles and work gloves could prevent various injuries. Here are some other items that would be protective:
Gloves: I recommend nitrile gloves due to the increasing number of latex allergies reported recently. I would use size 8 or “large”, as gloves that are too small tend to break. Gloves come in both sterile and non-sterile varieties. Get lots of the non-sterile for everyday work, but don’t fail to have some sterile pairs as well.
Face Masks: These can be simple ear-loop versions or could be more advanced in the form of N95 and N100 “respirators”. These are masks that block out 95 or 100% of airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns.
Coveralls, Boots, and Headgear: In mosquito-infested areas, there are special coveralls and headgear made from netting that are lifesavers. In epidemics of infectious disease, however, hazardous material suits that cover the body, head and feet are more pertinent for the person in charge of the sick room.
General items: Some items are of good general use for medical issues. One of my favorites is the “EMT shears” or “bandage scissors”. This is a special scissors meant to allow you to cut through clothing so that you can accurately assess the level of injury that you’re dealing with.
Another general item that would be highly useful would be a headlamp. Injuries can occur at night as well as during the day. Using a headlamp frees up both hands to better handle emergencies.
A good supply of antiseptics will be important to keep your people healthy. Antiseptics are germ-killing substances that are applied to living tissue, usually skin, to reduce the possibility of infection. Antiseptics are different from antibiotics, which are meant to destroy bacteria within the body, and disinfectants, which destroy germs found on non-living objects, like kitchen or survival sick room surfaces.
I consider household bleach to be the simplest disinfectant for cleaning sick room work surfaces, but it’s too strong to apply to living tissue. Instead, consider Betadine (Povidone-Iodine solution), Chlorhexidine (Hibiclens), Alcohol , Benzelkonium Chloride (BZK), or Hydrogen Peroxide. These can be found in small bottles, gallon jugs, and in wipes impregnated with the antiseptic.
Some of the most important medical supplies you’ll accumulate will be those used to deal with injuries. Let’s outline what you’ll need in your role as a homestead medic:
In an austere environment, it might be difficult to get through the day without some minor injury, such as a burn while cooking, blister while hiking, or a splinter from hauling wood. The average person has, over the course of their lives, dealt with more than one of these. Helpful items to have include:
- Soap and water and antiseptics: To clean out minor wounds. Antibacterial soap is not necessary, however. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) determined that it doesn’t give additional protection against infection.
- Adhesive Bandages: various sizes and shapes to protect a scratch or abrasion from getting worse.
- Moleskin: Have a supply of these to deal with common blisters on areas that receive friction.
- Tweezers: With a magnifying glass, these will be useful to remove splinters or other small foreign objects.
- Styptic Pencil: Although most minor bleeding stops with direct pressure, a styptic pencil can be used for razor cuts and is a helpful addition to your kit. For a natural alternative, Cayenne pepper powder is reported to have similar effects on minor bleeding.
- Eye wash, cups, and patches: For minor eye irritation and injuries.
- Gauze packing: for nosebleeds. Dental cotton rolls and tampons are alternatives.
- Burn Gel or Aloe Vera: To apply to small burns.
The popular SAM Splint
Few of us, even couch potatoes, have avoided the occasional sprain or strain. In situations where we are exerting ourselves, these will be more common, not to mention the possibility of fractures. You should have available:
Cold Packs: These are available commercially or can be made with ice. Cold packs help reduce the swelling often seen in sprains and strains, as well as provide some relief from pain.
Elastic Wraps: Elastic “Ace” wraps help stabilize an injured joint and decrease the chance of re-injury. Use compression in tandem with cold to decrease pain and swelling. Don’t forget to elevate the injured limb above the level of the heart. Elastic wraps can also be used to cover bandaged wounds and to secure splints in place.
Slings: Commercial triangular bandages or improvised bandannas both are well suited to make a sling, these are useful to stabilize an arm or shoulder injury. The commercial versions usually come with safety pins.
Splints: Commercial “SAM” splints are flexible and can be cut or shaped to immobilize a sprain or fracture. These vary in size to fit anything from a finger bone to a thigh bone. You can improvise with sticks and strips of cloth or even a folded-over pillow and duct tape.
Anti-inflammatory medications: Ibuprofen is an over the counter medication to reduce swelling and pain in orthopedic injuries, and can be accumulated in bulk. Salicin from the green underbark of willow trees is helpful for pain and, incidentally, was the base substance for the first aspirins ever made. Natural remedies such as Arnica salves are useful to decrease bruising, swelling, and pain (use on intact skin only). Various anti-inflammatory medications also come in patches that can be applied to the back or other strained areas.
Heat Packs: These won’t reduce swelling much, but can be used during recovery from an injury to help relax and loosen stiff tissues. They also stimulate blood flow to injured areas.
EMT shears or bandage scissors can help expose a bleeding wound
The injury that non-professionals fear most is the bleeding wound. With the right supplies, however, even heavy bleeding can be staunched successfully. In addition to a blunt-edged scissors to expose the injury, the well-prepared medic will have:
Gauze: Bulk non-sterile gauze (some of our kits carry bricks of 200 at a time) is valuable as a medical storage item to apply pressure to bleeding areas. Even one hemorrhagic wound could require you to use all the dressings that you had accumulated over years of stockpiling, so get plenty.
Dressings come in squares of varying sizes and shapes. Roller bandages wrap around the area, and non-stick pads of various sizes (not technically “gauze”) are good for burns and other injuries. Carry a variety to increase the versatility of use.
Although I recommend storing tampons, it is more for its traditional use than to treat gunshot injuries, which vary in size (especially exit wounds). A tampon would not always be the right size for the cavity created by the projectile; they are best used for nose bleeds combined with compression. Maxi-Pads, however, are excellent items for your medical storage.
Specialized Pressure Dressings: It’s difficult to keep pressure on a wound with your hands without becoming tired, so special dressings like the Emergency Bandage™ (aka the “Israeli Battle Dressing”) allow you to wrap wounds that have the tendency to bleed. These are an absorbent pad attached to an elastic bandage that comes with a “pressure applicator”. Used correctly, each turn of the wrap increases the pressure on the wound, which can help control bleeding.
Tourniquets: In circumstances where bleeding can’t be stopped with pressure alone, a tourniquet may do the job. Tourniquets can be improvised with a bandanna and a stick or they can be high-tech commercial items such as the CAT or SOFT-T tourniquet. Some tourniquets, like the SWAT, can serve double duty as a tourniquet, back-up tourniquet, or pressure dressing.
Blood-Clotting Powders/Dressings: Also known as “hemostatic agents”, these are effective and easy to use. Available as a powder or powder-impregnated dressings, Celox™ (the most popular brand) is made from Chitosan, a component of crustacean shells. Celox™ will even stop bleeding in patients on blood thinners. Although it is made from shrimp shells, the company states that can be used on people allergic to seafood. Hemostatic agents are useful but expensive items. Remember, however, that they might save a life.
Dealing with open wounds in a remote setting requires good judgment as well as supplies. Most of these wounds should be kept open, but there are various supplies to help you close a wound as well as supplies that allow you to care for an open wound until it closes on its own by a process called “granulation”. In a remote homestead or survival setting, you never know when or if help will be on its way. You’ll need to be ready to care for that wound from beginning to end.
Antiseptics and sterile gloves: As mentioned earlier in this article.
Sterile Gauze: Although non-sterile gauze is often used to stop hemorrhage, sterile dressings are best to use in open wounds as they heal. With commercial sterile saline or water solutions (or even boiled water), you’ll provide the type of environment that newly forming cells need to fill in a wound. Dry sterile dressings to cover the moist dressing in the open wound will help keep the area clean. Some call this technique “wet to dry”.
Certain dressings, such as “Telfa™”, are non-stick and especially useful for burns or other injuries where removal might be painful. Some burn dressings like “Xeroform™” are dipped with petrolatum to protect healing areas where the skin was damaged or burned off. Alternatively, petroleum jelly could be added to improvise a similar item. Honey has also been used for this purpose, but make sure to get the raw, unprocessed version.
Wound Closure: Closing a wound is risky (most wounds acquired outdoors are contaminated) but there are circumstances where it may be appropriate. Always start with the least invasive method such as Steri-Strips or even duct tape fashioned as butterfly closures. Sutures and staples can form a strong closure, but they also add more punctures to the skin that could become infected. Super glue is a safe method unless you happen to be allergic to the chemical (Cyanoacrylate). It is used in some underdeveloped countries without incident.
Additional Supplies: Dry sterile dressings to cover the moist dressing in the open wound will help keep the area clean. Medical tapes to hold everything in place are helpful and come in cloth, self-adhesive, and paper (least allergenic). Tincture of Benzoin is an adhesive liquid that comes in ampules that will help secure the tape. Triple antibiotic ointment and oral antibiotics are likely to be needed to prevent and treat infected wounds. Consider having a thermometer to determine whether a fever is present.
I’ll bet you can think of other useful items that you’d want to keep in that homestead medical cabinet. We haven’t discussed, for example, the medications and natural remedies you should have on hand. We’ve addressed these before on this website, though, and will update in a future article.
HOW MUCH TO HAVE?
I commonly see books that give you numerical amounts of medical items to have if you’re the caregiver in an austere environment or in a long-term survival scenario. My opinion is simple: You can never have too many of any medical supply. They are expended more quickly than you think. If you’re in a remote location or other austere setting, have as much as possible in your storage.
A parting thought: You can have all the beans in the world and all the bullets in the world, but it won’t amount to a hill of beans and you’ll just shoot yourself in the foot, if you don’t have the bandages.
Joe Alton, MD
Whether you’re a homesteader or a city dweller, you need medical supplies to deal with injuries and illness in the uncertain future. Check out Nurse Amy’s entire line of kits and individual items at store.doomandbloom.net. Also, keep a copy of our brand new Third Edition of “the Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way” in your survival library.
Portions of this article were first published in Backwoods Home magazine.