How to Make an Improvised Splint

Use these materials and others in your backpack to make an improvised splint. Photo © Traci J. Macnamara.

A splint helps immobilize part of the body when it’s injured to reduce pain and to prevent further injury. When you or when someone in your groups gets injured in a wilderness setting, you may not have access to all of the items that a doctor would use to make a splint in an office setting. However, you can make an improvised splint from items in your wilderness first aid kit or from other items in your surroundings to make a workable splint that does the job until you’re able to access further medical treatment. Here’s how to get started when you need to make an improvised splint.

Basic Principles of Splint-Making

First, assess the nature and extent of the injuries before splinting any part of the body. A splint is used to immobilize broken or potentially broken limbs, but a person who has a fractured bone in a wilderness setting may also have other injuries that need attention first. Stabilize the injured person, control bleeding, and clean abrasions before you begin to build a splint.

A few basic principles contribute to successful splint-making, whether you’re splinting a finger, an arm, or a leg. Plan on making a splint that spans the joints both above and below the injured area. If you’ve fractured one of the bones in your forearm, for instance, you need to immobilize both the elbow (above) and wrist (below) joints.

Splint the injured area as you find it; do not attempt to re-align any broken bones or misshapen body parts before applying the splint, as you could cause greater injury in doing so. When you’re securing the splint, make sure that it’s tight enough to stay in place but not so tight that it cuts off circulation to the injured area. If you have a long hike before you’re able to reach additional medical care, don’t forget to check the injury for paleness, swelling, or numbness, as these may be signs that you’ve splinted the area too tightly.

Basic Materials

In order to make a basic splint, you need a rigid material for support, a padded material for comfort, and materials that can keep the splint in place. If you need to splint a broken arm, for example, so that you can safely transport an injured family member from home to the doctor’s office, you can use a rigid material such as cardboard to form the splint base, towels for padding, and gauze and tape to keep it all together. But if you’re in a wilderness setting, you may not have any of these items. So what can you use in your backpack or in your natural surroundings to make an improvised splint?

Improvised Materials

For the rigid component of an improvised splint, you can use items that you’re already carrying, such as trekking poles or the rigid inner portion of your backpack, if it’s removable. You may also use tent poles or sections of a camping chair if you’re carrying these items with you. If need to look into your natural surroundings for a sturdy splint base, driftwood makes a nice splint because it’s sturdy and usually smooth. You can also cut appropriately sized sections of tree limbs and branches to make your splint’s rigid base.

Use extra clothing for both paddings and fixing the splint in place. Wrap an extra shirt around the injured area to pad it before applying the rigid components, and wrap any extra clothing around the completed splint to create additional padding, which will make transport more comfortable and less likely to injure the area further. If you only have limited clothing, you may use bundles of grasses or leaves to pad the injured area; however, you must have another material to keep it all in place if you use this technique.

Other items you may use to fix a splint in place include strips of tent material, bandanas tied together, socks, an elastic bandage, duct tape, gauze, webbing, or straps if you have them. It’s always a good idea to keep some duct tape wrapped around your trekking poles for emergency use, and in this instance, duct tape can be used to tape rigid and padded elements together, or it can be used to make a sling for a splinted arm.

Instead of panicking when you need to splint an injury in a wilderness setting, look creatively at the gear you’re carrying and at the items in your natural surroundings to create a splint that both stabilizes the area and protects it from further harm.