I just got back from an inspiring certification course on Wilderness First Aid taught by SOLO and sponsored by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. SOLO is one of the leading wilderness medicine education groups in the US and has trained over 100,000 students since 1976.
Hands On Rescue Simulations
This two day course included lectures and extensive outdoor role playing and simulated rescue situations. I feel like I learned a lot of useful skills for assessing and stabilizing a patient in the backcountry and the hands-on practice really cemented those skills in my mind.
Class attendees came from all over, including Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Canada, and included school teachers, ski patrol, backpacking group leaders, climbers, skiers, and wilderness guides. There were 25 students in all, including 6 people who attended the class to renew their Wilderness First Responder certification. Participants ranged in age from their mid 20’s to their 70’s and all had extensive outdoor experience. This was the real cream of the crop and included Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, several Long Trail end-to-enders, and many people who teach or lead 4 season outdoor activities.
I was really impressed by some of the younger attendees (I consider anyone under 30 to be young these days) because they have created lives and careers for themselves as outdoor instructors or teachers. I wish I had been brave enough or resourceful enough to do that when I was younger.
Role of a Wilderness First Responder
As a Wilderness First Aid provider, your role is to address immediate life threatening issues such as a blocked airway or heavy bleeding and to stabilize a patient for possible medical evacuation. If you’re like me and live in a city, you’re used to EMT response times of 7-8 minutes: but out in the backcountry, it could be hours or even days before a patient can be evacuated, and the application of Wilderness First Aid can make a huge different in their chances for survivability and comfort.
The topics covered in Wilderness First Aid training include patient assessment and medical history taking, documenting the mechanism of injury, how to move patients with minimal impact, how to splint broken bones, soft tissue injuries, frost bite, hypothermia, head injuries, allergic reactions, dislocations,spinal cord injury management, and much more.
Improvising First Aid Equipment
One of the most important skills needs for Wilderness First Aid is the ability to improvise with the materials you have at hand. For example, you can make splints out of tree branches, hiking poles, or even sleeping pads, or you can create a cervical collar out of a backpacking hip belt or a sleeping bag and strips of clothing. As a lightweight hiker, this is a skill I am very experienced with and I enjoyed this challenge immensely.
Now the big question: does the knowledge I gained this weekend change what I bring along on solo backpacking trips? The answer is yes. I will add a pair of latex gloves to my Murphy bag to I can have a body fluid separation layer, in case I come across someone who is injured and needs my help. If I am out 3-season hiking with a number of friends, I’d probably add one more item, a SAM Splint to my kit. This is lightly padded, flexible emergency split for stabilizing broken bones that can also be used as a cervical collar for stabilizing patients with spinal cord injuries.
SOLO Wilderness Medicine certification courses are offered by many hiking and outdoor clubs and you should consider signing up for one of these if you’re interested in learning these skills or if you will be leading trips. The instruction I received was excellent and I made a lot of new friends in the process. There’s nothing like a physical exam to break the ice!