Wilderness First Aid 101
Here’s why you should take a wilderness first aid course and some basic tips to help you stay safe on the trail
Just as you start your run back, the sky opens up and you’re caught in a torrential downpour. You’ve only been running for a few minutes when your friend suddenly slips on a slick rock and tumbles a hundred metres down a rock face. You scramble down to help her, and find her unresponsive and bleeding from her lower leg.
What do you do?
Andrea Mackey, a certified wilderness first aid instructor with Alert First-Aid, can tell you what do to. In fact, she can walk you through several emergency scenarios that might happen when you’re out on the trails in the woods and can teach you how to prepare for and respond to situations where someone’s (or your own) life is in danger.
There are myriad things that could go wrong when you’re in a remote wilderness area, Mackey explains. “You could slip or fall causing injury, get lost or stuck due to an avalanche or a rock slide, encounter aggressive animals, or suffer from dehydration, heat exhaustion, heart attack, stroke, hypothermia, diabetic emergencies or any other sudden medical condition.”
Mackey suggests that anytime you go out into the wilderness, even if it’s not totally remote and it’s a nice sunny day, you should be prepared for extreme weather changes, all types of injuries and the possibility of staying out there for more time than what you had originally planned. “Unforeseen events could lead to you being stuck overnight or for several days, and you don’t want to be stuck with out something to keep you warm, extra food and water, needed medications, tools like a knife, and something to keep you dry.”
Aside from bringing extra gear, it’s critical to know basic first aid and to bring a basic first aid kit with you, especially if you plan to spend more than a few hours traversing an area with challenging terrain, extreme weather conditions and other known risks like dangerous wildlife.
“Basic wilderness first aid you should know includes injury splinting, bleeding control, dealing with animal bites, dealing with dehydration/heat exhaustion/hypothermia/low blood sugar, wound inspection and infection knowledge, and emergency evacuation planning/packing a person out,” Mackey explains, which is covered in detail in the Basic Wilderness and Remote First-Aid course offered in Victoria, BC, at Alert First-Aid. An Advanced Wilderness First-Aid course is also offered, suitable for people who act as overnight/day hike guides or lead groups of people on wilderness exploration trips. These courses also cover trip planning, what to bring in case of emergency, emergency evacuation plans, first aid with improvised materials, and long-term care and treatment for up to 48 hours, which are all learned primarily through real life scenarios, Mackey says.
So what kind of first aid equipment should you pack with you if you’re planning a day-long trail run or multi-day trek through the wilderness?
“Items that can be used for multiple purposes to limit what you’re bringing,” Mackey says. “For example, elastic bandages can be used for pressure on bleeding or wrapping an injury to a splint, or could be used as rope in a pinch for any tying requirements along the way. You’ll also need absorbent dressings for bleeding, padding splints, soaking in cold water to use as an ice pack or just extra insulation for cold weather. Garbage bags or a tarp is handy to have if you get stuck in the rain. Tarps can also be used as an emergency stretcher for evacuation, or as a shelter. Basic Band-Aids and larger wound closures are also important, as any injury could get infected and you want to keep it clean.”
As for what to do in the horrible scenario described above, Alert First-Aid’s head instructor Mike Barnes stressed that there are so many variables and questions to consider it’s hard to give a direct answer – and underlines the need for someone to take a wilderness first aid course so you can be prepared to handle a situation like this.
“First I would ask, how far to the vehicle? What is the terrain like? How far until you come into cell service? Is it a busy trail? What are the chances of other people coming by? Minimal supplies, no communication, bad weather and only two people – one of which is unresponsive and bleeding – is a worst case scenario,” Barnes explains. “The first thing you would need to do is stop the bleed with a piece of clothing, since that's all we have. Then you’d need to come up with a plan for evacuation. It is unlikely you’d be able to carry this person out, so you need help, but it is not ideal to leave an unconscious person in a remote setting by themselves while we run for help,” Barnes says. “This is the reason we need to take a wilderness first aid course – so that we can have better pre-trip planning and so we do not end up in these situations.”
For more information about wilderness first aid courses or to find one offered near you, check out Alert First-Aid, St. John’s Ambulance, Slipstream Wilderness First Aid or Canadian Wilderness Medical Training.
If you want to get a head start on your pre-trip planning and need a first aid kit, Alert First-Aid is offering readers of Get Out There Magazine 15% off their great selection of first aid kits (including a wilderness first aid kit that has everything you’ll need to keep you covered in case of any emergency out in remote areas, while still being lightweight enough to carry with you) with the promo code GETOUTTHERE15. Enter this code at check-out to receive the discount and stay safe on the trails.