The Ultimate First-Aid Manual: Muscles & Bones

Sprains, strains, and fractured bones. Here's what to do in the case of a distressed limb.

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Sprains and strains

Remember RICE: First, Rest. Ice the site to reduce swelling (use snow or cold water). After 20 to 30 minutes, remove the cold and let the injured area warm naturally for 10 to 15 minutes before use. Compress the injury with elastic wrap or athletic tape (the basket-weave pattern, left, works well for ankle sprains). Apply it snugly, but not tight enough to cut off circulation, and wrap it toward the heart (for example, up the leg, not down). Elevate the injury by keeping it higher than the heart. Repeat three to four times a day until pain and swelling subside.
PHOTO SLIDESHOW: How to Treat a Sprained Ankle
Add support and reduce swelling in 5 easy steps.


Breaks can be hard to diagnose. If it’s painful, swollen, and/or the patient doesn’t want to use the injury, consider it broken–and splint it.

Lower Arm

  1. Wrap soft padding, such as a T-shirt, fleece, or socks, gently around the arm.
  2. Put a rolled sock in the patient’s palm.
  3. Place a rigid support–SAM splint, folded section of a closed-cell foam pad, or a stick–under the injury, making sure it’s long enough to support the hand.
  4. Apply an ACE bandage from hand to elbow. Second choice: Bind the arm with strips of a wide, soft material, such as bandannas, at the hand and above and below the fracture site.
  5. Secure the arm in a sling, then wrap a soft cloth around the sling and the patient’s torso to make a swathe.
  6. Check fingers for circulation and sensation. Can the patient wiggle his fingers and feel it when you touch them? If not, the splint is too tight.

PHOTO SLIDESHOW: How to Treat a Fractured Arm
Learn how to improvise a splint with common backpacking gear.


  1. Roll up a sleeping pad from both ends until you have something resembling two jelly rolls, leaving four to six inches of pad between the two rolls.
  2. Place pad against the back of the leg and curl rolls around from the rear.
  3. Place a rolled-up T-shirt (or other firm, padded object) behind the knee to keep the leg slightly flexed.
  4. Tie pad securely around leg with bandannas or backpack straps. Use two above the knee and four below (don’t tie directly over the break).
  5. If using a self-inflating pad, inflate it after tying for extra support.
  6. Check patient’s toes for circulation and sensation; loosen if necessary.

If you know how to diagnose, treat, and splint a broken leg with camping gear, you’ll better your odds for survival.
PHOTO SLIDESHOW: How to Treat a Fractured Leg
Stabilize an injured leg with a sleeping pad and a few T-shirts.