The most important thing you can bring on a hike is knowledge.
You and a buddy are hiking through the woods and you come across another hiker who’s lying on his back below a huge boulder and moaning. What should you do?
Backcountry Medical Assistance
You have a couple of options:
- You could walk away because you don’t know what to do and you’re afraid of getting sued
- You could try to call 911 for assistance, although rescuers might get there too late
- You could quickly assess the hiker’s condition, immobilize them to prevent a possible back injury, and then seek assistance when you have a better idea of the type of help they require
Injuries both large and small are pretty common in the backcountry. The problem is when you’re unprepared for it and don’t know how to take care of your companions or yourself. A deep cut, a badly sprained ankle, or a bee sting can go from bad to critical very quickly in primitive conditions.
Wilderness First Aid
I spent two days last weekend in a Wilderness First Aid class learning how to assess and stabilize broken wrists, arms, legs, and backs, how to re-warm hypothermic patients, how to treat cuts, scrapes and puncture wounds, treat to ameliorate allergic reactions and anaphylactic shock, and dozens of other maladies that can affect backcountry travelers.
This is the third time I’ve been awarded a Wilderness First Aid certificate which is required by both of the organizations I guide and teach hiking with, the Appalachian Mountain Club and Andrew Skurka Adventures.
If you lead hikes for an organization or just for family and friends, I really recommend that you take an accredited Wilderness First Aid (abbreviated WFA) class. If a family member or someone in a hiking club, church group, or social club has an injury on a hike you are leading, they may need you to provide them with immediate medical assistance if they’re more then 4-7 minutes from a paramedic.
Self Sufficiency and Preparation
I also think there’s a lot that any hiker, whether they’re group leaders or not, can learn about Wilderness Medicine that will help make them more self sufficient and better prepared in the backcountry. I bring certain equipment on every hike I take, including day hikes, because I want to be prepared in an emergency situation that could threaten myself or others.
The simplest example is a foam pad. The ground is cold. In fact, it’s an average of 55 degrees Fahrenheit which means it can contribute to hypothermia if you have to sit or lay down on the ground for an extended period of time while you wait for a rescue. That’s why so many experienced hikers strap a Therm-a-Rest Z-lite folding sleeping pad to the outside of their backpacks. It’s not just for comfort at lunchtime, but to put an injured hiker onto if they’re immobile so they stay warm.
I know a lot of leaders and professional guides who complain about the need to take a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder recertification class every few years to renew their certification. I’m not sympathetic. If you want the liability protection or other benefits provided by an organization that sponsors trip leaders like you, recertification makes sense to help protect your clients, yourself, and the organization you belong to.
If you don’t use your Wilderness Medicine skills frequently, you get rusty in how to apply them and make effective decisions. It’s just human nature. For me, it’s incredibly beneficial to review the assessment, treatment, leadership and judgment skills taught in a Wilderness Medicine class and to practice them with my peers in experiential role playing scenarios. I think it’s a fantastic learning experience, even if it means brushing up on skills you’ve learned previously.
I had fun in my WFA recertification course last weekend and felt it was a worthwhile use of my time, even if it meant missing two days of hiking.
The more knowledgeable you are, the better prepared you’ll be.