I’m a Brit and I married an American. Together we live in London but we visit America at least once a year. We both love nature so we spend most of our holidays camping. He is from Los Angeles, so whenever we visit we go up the coast along Highway 1, to Big Sur and Yosemite.
The differences between camping in England and Yosemite are vast. It’s like comparing the rugged with the gentile. It really lives up to the stereotypes of: Cowboy vs. Gentleman. In England I might get nicked by a Blackberry bush and in Yosemite I might get a horrific rash from Poison Ivy. In England there are sheep which might nibble your tent, in Yosemite there are bears…
So when I woke up in our tent in Yosemite one morning, rummaged around my bag, and found a Hershey’s wrapper, I couldn’t understand my husband’s response. The look of shock in his eyes and the following anger was not something I ever thought a wrapper would inspire. But I didn’t know at the time that even a wrapper could put you in serous danger of bear attacks.
But it seems, even in Yosemite, we still get the same first aid problems:
– insect bites
– cuts and scrapes
Thankfully, despite other differences, the plant life is quite similar to the UK. As a herbalist and forager I take great comfort in that. Here’s what I use in the event of an injury when I’m camping and have no first aid supplies on hand.
Sprains can really ruin a holiday, especially when camping. If you twist your ankle and it starts to balloon up it’s important to get it checked for breaks as soon as possible. There are 3 grades of sprain. In the first, your ligaments are stretched; in the second, your ligaments are partially torn; and in the third, they are completely torn and most likely you’ll need surgery. If you can’t walk 5-7 days after the injury it’s likely that it’s more serious than you thought. While you’re getting to a hospital to have it assessed, you can dress it with a poultice of either Daisy (Bellis perrenis) or Elder (Sambucus nigra) leaves.
How to make a poultice
First off, lets talk about how it’s traditionally made so you know what you’d aim for if you had the ability. Usually a poultice is made from fresh plant material which has been bashed to a mush. This is then spread on a cloth and enveloped before applying to the affected area. Bandages or cling film will keep it in place. Heat is often applied over the bandage to encourage it into the skin.
The most rudimentary version of this is to chew the herb, then simply slap it on to the skin and wrap with anything you can find. Replace with fresh plant leaves every few hours and use it till you’ve healed or as long as is practical. Each herb needs to be used slightly differently.
The Elder leaves are toxic so don’t chew these to pulverize them, but try to bash them with a rock or something hard to break down the leaf. Then place them in some cloth and put that into hot water. While it’s still hot, but not so hot it would burn, apply it to the sprain till it goes cold. You are supposed to ice a sprain, but it seems the advice on this changes all the time — if it should be hot or cold and alternating between the two. So the jury’s out, I suppose. But when you’re camping you only have the hot option so heat will have to do! The most important thing is that you rest it, elevate it, and keep a compress on it till you can get more help. With any luck it’ll pass on it’s own accord after 24 hours of rest.
There are different degrees of cuts, and anything which goes down to bone is an emergency and should go straight to the hospital. The same applies for a wound where you can’t get the edges to meet or the edges are jagged. Apply pressure to the wound to help it clot faster in these instances and call an emergency rescue team immediately.
The more simple injuries like a scrape can be treated by doing the following: if there is something in a wound, do not take it out unless it washes out with water. Put indirect pressure on the wound to prevent bleeding, till clotting occurs. Rather than applying a herb directly into a wound as they would have done in the past, I’d recommend rubbing the herb into the areas around it instead, for fear of introducing bacteria to the open wound. I once infected an open wound I had post-surgery by pulling out a stitch while camping. A random bacteria from cow poo, which would have been floating around IN THE AIR, infected it. Not fun.
To help stop the blood flowing make a tea of Yarrow by pouring boiling water over a handful of the fresh flowers, stems, and/or leaves, and infuse for 10 minutes before straining and pouring over the wound. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was used by Achilles to staunch wounds on the battle field and this action (also known as haemostatic) earns it two of it’s names; Nosebleed and Achillea millefolium.
Insect bites can really take the edge off a camping trip with their incessant itchy-scratchiness. You can use Plantain (Plantago lanceolata or major) or Elder leaf to bring down the itch of a bite by applying a poultice of one of these or both. Simply chew the Plantain or bash up the Elder leaf and put in cloth as explained in the poultice instructions. You can apply heat to the cloth of the poultice but I’d imagine that it feels nicer cold. Keep changing the fresh plant material every 30 minutes or so to keep on top of the irritation.
If you’d like to learn more about Herbal Remedies, Natasha runs a course in which a mystery herb is sent to you once a month to study and read about. Learn more here: www.foragebotanicals.com
Natasha Richardson is an herbalist and outdoors enthusiast based in London.