How to Treat an Infected Cut in the Backcountry

Don't let a small scrape send you off trail for some antibiotics. You can prevent getting an infected cut with these tips.

Photo: SolStock via Getty Images

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For how much we love the backcountry, sometimes it seems like it doesn’t like us back. There are plenty of severe maladies and illnesses that can arise on a backpacking trip: giardia, HAPE, and hypothermia to start. But what about little bumps and scrapes? Those can become severe too. If not treated properly, a small abrasion can become an infected cut.

Going outside strengthens your immune system, which is crucial to preventing illness and infection. But that doesn’t mean that you should leave your cuts to heal on their own.  Make sure your med kit is fully stocked and customized to fit your specific needs or terrain conditions. It’s always helpful to supplement your med kit with some medical know-how. A full kit means nothing if you don’t know what’s in it or how to use anything in it.

Ouch, You Have a Cut. Now What?

Clean that sucker out ASAP, especially if you were sliced by something dirty. You probably thought you cleaned well enough the first time around, but if you’re approaching 24 hours post-injury and have heat, swelling, pus, and pain, bingo: infection. Fill a zip-top bag with treated water, nip off a corner, and squeeze a jet of water into the wound until it’s clean. That means there shouldn’t be any dirt or debris visible in the cut once you’re done cleaning it. Tweezers can help remove chunks of gravel or glass from your skin.

No baggie on hand? Sit on your hydration bladder and direct the stream into your wound. No hydration bladder? Well, you can use your own bladder, too. (Depending on how desperate you’re feeling, urine straight from the source is sterile barring any bladder infection or UTI.)

Until you can get help, keep your infected cut clean and covered. Soak your wound in water as hot as you can stand for 20 minutes, three times a day. Pat dry with something clean and cover with a dry, clean cloth. Change the cloth daily until you start developing a protective scab over your cut. If you’ve got the chills or see red lines crawling from the wound toward your heart, well, it’s as bad as it looks. The infection is spreading and you need to get to the nearest hospital before your fever gets dangerous; they’ve got an IV bag of antibiotics waiting for you.

young woman treats small cut on knee while sitting on slope of trail
(Photo: robertprzybysz via Getty Images)

What If I’m Lost Without a Pot?

We’re getting into true survivalist territory here. If you don’t have a Jetboil or a pot, could you use a leaf to boil water and clean your cut? That’s a slick ultralight solution—unless you enjoy using more than a teaspoon of water at a time. Besides, Sigma 3 Survival School Instructor Matt Tate says if the trees around you are sprouting big leaves, you’re somewhere warm, and that’s not a good place to spend lots of time over a fire heating tiny amounts of water.

Instead, dig a small pit, line it with clay (if available), a tarp, or a plastic bag and fill it with water. Heat dry rocks (never river stones, which can explode when heated) in a fire and use sticks to move them into the water until it boils.

That’ll do, if you don’t mind a little chemical leaching—and in a survival situation, you probably won’t. But those setups aren’t so portable. Better bet: Burn out the inside of a log until you’ve got a pot-size bowl you can rock-boil in and carry with you. Use that treated water to clean out your infected cut.

Can an Infected Cut Heal on Its Own?

It depends on the size and severity of the cut. If you keep it clean and covered, a minor infected scratch will likely be self-contained and heal on its own. But if you develop a fever, oozing pus, or redness that extends beyond the cut, you need to treat that immediately. Letting that heal on its own can lead to worse, deeper infections or illnesses such as cellulitis, where the infection spreads throughout the body.

Make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus shots. You can get tetanus from more than just a rusty needle; you can also get it from soil, dust, and animal waste. If you received your shots when you were a child, the CDC recommends boosters every 10 years.

From 2022