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Backcountry Survival and Rescue Skills 101

Learn how to survive and treat others by taking a wilderness medicine class
Learn how to survive and treat others by taking a wilderness medicine class

I hope you never have to deal with a life and death situation in the wilderness. But the odds are good that you will, sooner or later, if you spend significant time in the backcountry by yourself or with groups of backpackers, hikers, climbers, skiers or whitewater kayakers.

I’ve dealt with a myriad of these situations myself as a member of a group, as a group leader or a course instructor, and I’ve found that proper training, preparation and practice are key to keeping a cool head.

My advice is to get trained in wilderness first aid, rock climbing, advanced navigation, and swift water rescue, and practice your skills often so you know what to do when you need to save yourself or help a friend. This takes some determination but I’ve found that it really pays off and has helped me to better evaluate risky situations when I’m out on my own.

In addition, you should extend your knowledge and read widely about rescue and survival skills. This has helped me become a lot more creative when I’m on solo hikes because I have abstracted some common principles that guide my responses with the materials at hand.

Here’s a list of the best backcountry rescue and survival books that I’ve found out there.

  1. SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea
  2. Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backpackin’ Book: Traveling & camping skills for a wilderness environment
  3. NOLS Wilderness Medicine
  4. NOLS Winter Camping
  5. NOLS Wilderness Guide: The Classic Handbook, Revised and Updated
  6. NOLS Wilderness Navigation
  7. AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping: Everything You Need to Plan Your Next Cold-Weather Adventure
  8. Whitewater Rescue Manual: New Techniques for Canoeists, Kayakers, and Rafters
  9. Fundamentals of Search and Rescue

Updated 2017.

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  1. I highly recommend taking either Wilderness First Aid or, better yet, the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder course. Even if you have traditional, urban medical experience, these classes are a great addition for the outdoors person. You learn to deal with injuries and illness in less-than-ideal conditions and to improvise with the gear you have on hand.

    A great book, which I'm currently reading, is Mountain Rescue Doctor<img src="; width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />

    by Christopher Van Tilburg. Tilburg is an ER doc and a volunteer member of Oregon's Crag Rats, the oldest SAR team in the U.S.

  2. I just got back from getting my Wilderness First Aid certification from SOLO. Good stuff. Learned a lot and got to do it in excellent role playing simulations in the woods and snow. I think I'll do the Wilderness First Responder course next winter. Solo lets you do it at their campus in North Conway, NH over 4 consecutive weekends.

  3. Deb, Chris: I ordered both of the books your recommended from Amazon and they arrived yesterday. They look great, and should provide hours of reading on the stationary bike! Thanks.

  4. Important topic. Another vote for WFA/WFR courses. (I took WAFA by Wildmed/Outwardbound. Maybe the best outdoor related course I've ever taken. Will be taking the WFR next year…)

    Philip: Would you mind writing about some of the situations you've dealt with? Some sort of "case lessons" to add some real life based content to the blog?

  5. I'd be happy too. I've been involved in a number of accident scenarios – including several ambulance evacs and knowing what to do is really critical.

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