Even small burns can be painful and debilitating, while larger burns may cause severe pain and predispose to complications such as infection, dehydration, and scars. The most common burn in the outdoors is actually sunburn, which can be treated in similar ways to “thermal” burns.
Sunburn prevention should be considered anytime before going outside, especially when surrounded by water, snow, and higher altitudes.
Large burns should be considered for early evacuation for wound care, prevention of infection, and dehydration.
Symptoms and Description
The type, location, and size of a burn will dictate the severity of the situation and the available treatment options.
You can measure the size of a burn with a hand. The palm of a person’s hand is equivalent to approximately 1 percent of their total body surface area.
- A sunburn can cause diffuse redness to the skin (like a shallow burn) or can cause a partial thickness burn with blistering.
- Large areas of shallow sunburn can lead to feeling weak and feverish and symptoms of dehydration.
- While uncomfortable, sunburn is rarely the cause to end an adventure.
- Ensure to wear sunglasses when outside in bright sun to protect the eyes from getting sunburnt.
- A shallow or superficial burn is red, and may turn white when pressed. Only the top layer of skin is damaged.
- The burn may be painful, but there are no blisters.
- If a large area is burned, the person may feel feverish and weak.
Partial thickness burns:
- These burns involve the top and part of the deeper layer of skin.
- There is blistering and they are very painful.
- May take weeks to fully heal.
Full thickness burns:
- Full thickness burns involve all the skin layers, and may be painless as nerves have been charred.
- These burns are often brown or white, and often ringed by extremely painful partial thickness burns.
- Skin grafts are usually recommended for these types of burns.
Have you or a companion been burned?
Download GOES to launch a digital medical assessment or speak with a wilderness medicine physician.
Guidelines for Safe Travel
Take necessary precautions for campfire safety to avoid stepping on hot coals, and keep fires away from flammable materials.
Do not leave fires unattended, or children unattended near fires.
Apply and reapply high SPF sunscreen when outside, especially after heavy perspiration, in areas of water and snow that can amplify the effect of sun, and at high altitude.
Consider carrying an antibiotic cream, this can be applied to a burn to decrease pain and cool the burn.
- PACKING LIST: antibiotic cream, high SPF sunscreen, sunglasses.
Rapid cooling of the burn area is the best way to minimize tissue damage.
Rapidly cool the burnt area with cool water. Ideally use drinkable water, but running water will do. Hold under cold water for 15 minutes.
- Avoid ice which can cause frostbite and worsen the skin damage.
- Remove constricting clothes or jewelry around the burn, as burns swell with time.
- Blisters from a burn can be left intact if they are small, and not movable/compressible – which makes them at risk for rupturing which can get infected.
- For large or severe burns, begin evacuation promptly after cooling the burn and dressing with antibiotic ointment (if available) and non-adherent dressing (See Emergency Red Flags).
Emergency Red Flags
Keep an eye out for the following symptoms. These red flags may be cause for evacuation.
- Burns involving the face, mouth, neck, or genitals
- Burns covering the full circumference of any extremity: fingers, hands, or feet
- Partial thickness burns involving more than 10 percent body surface area
- Persistent coughing or difficulty breathing after burn to the face or mouth
- Sunburn to the eyes causing severe pain