As I write this, my palms and fingers are full of little bleeding cracks from another busy weekend in sub-freezing temperatures. Even if I use lotion and gloves during the winter, my hands still end up with painful skin cracks that bleed like cuts. If it goes too far, these wounds can impair movement and even become infected. How do you deal with these small but nagging injuries? I use a penetrating treatment, like a balm.

A balm is a medicine that is thicker than lotion and greasier than salve. It typically contains more volatile oils than other skin remedies. This type of topical treatment can be medicated or without medicinal qualities. A balm works to restore your skin’s health by replacing the oils and moisture that have gone missing from your skin. The balm provides the oil directly, and your skin generates the moisture underneath that oily coating. Here are two different ways to make balm from a wide range of natural oils, both in the field and at home.

Field-Made Balm
Outdoor winter activities can turn even the toughest hands into a rough, bloody mess. During regular outdoor activities, or during an emergency, there are several natural oils that you can use to save your own hide.

Plant Oils: Oily tree nuts make the best field-made balm I’ve ever gotten from plant sources. Shell out the nut meat from hickory, pecan, beech, or walnut fruit. Crush this nut meat into a paste and rub it deeply into your dry skin. In a survival scenario you may be better off eating those nuts for their high calorie content–more than 180 calories per ounce. But for normal outdoor living and sporting, you can probably allow this non-food use of a food item. And if you ever need a more refined skin product, simmer the crushed nut meats in a little water for 30 to 45 minutes. This will bring the oil to the surface as a liquid, which can be skimmed off and used as a liquid skin lotion.

Animals Fats: The lard, tallow, marrow, and fat of game animals is often the most abundant source of oil in hunting and survival situations. Wipe it on your skin as a solid or liquid, raw or cooked–although cooked is the safest approach, as it destroys any pathogens. Bear fat is my favorite choice because it penetrates your skin so deeply. It’s also great for conditioning other skins, like leather.

Homemade Balm
For those who know their medicinal plants, you can add dried plants like comfrey, plantain, and chickweed to the hot oil in this remedy. For those who want a straight balm, just follow these easy steps. Warm up one cup of liquid vegetable oil in a pot or pan. Olive oil is a great choice, but any other will work. Add grated beeswax to the hot oil. One ounce of beeswax is about right for one cup of oil. Draw out a spoonful of the wax-and-oil solution and place it in your freezer for one minute to test its consistency. Add more wax to stiffen the batch or more oil to thin it, until you achieve a petroleum jelly-like consistency. If you have them, essential oils can be stirred into the cooling liquid to make this a true balm. Let the batch cool to room temperature when you are satisfied, and the balm can be used immediately. Store it in small containers, and you’ll always have something to heal your skin and share with your less prepared buddies.