Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lightweight First Aid

First Aid and backcountry medical care are huge issues for anyone because an accident can happen at any time to even the most prepared. Humans are far from perfect and each of us makes mistakes constantly. It is also unrealistic to claim we can control our environment (weather, animals, shifting rocks, etc.). With that said, if you haven't received an injury in the backcountry yet - you will. Fortunately, planning ahead, using the right gear, and educating yourself on how to deal with certain issues is often the best solution to helping yourself. As a Search and Rescue member, I can say with conviction that historically many people who require wilderness rescue often have with them the implements they need to survive. Unfortunately, many in need of rescue struggle with the one thing that must work – their mind.

I was on a recent search for a lost hunter deep in a National Park. Regrettably, he had a problem with substance abuse which no doubt contributed in his choice of heading out for some nighttime activities while under the influence. Night came and went and he never returned to join his friends at their nearby cabin. As our search widened, one of the teams found his jacket, then a shirt, then a sock, then a pair of pants. It was clear to us that this wasn’t a late night effort to streak, it was the effects of hypothermia taking over the reasoning skills of the man and it was these skills, or lack there of, which ultimately claimed his life. In any situation, the mind is the number one most important tool, skill, and resource. Without it, each of us has very little opportunity for success. In this search, the man felt like he was burning up and therefore he discarded his clothes. What he didn’t know was that he was hypothermic and his body was sending him the wrong signals in an effort to protect itself to keep functioning. Search teams found his body about a week later.

Lightweight backpackers are no different than the lost man in that we each must make smart decisions to be successful. Gear choices are one thing, but education is entirely another. Fortunately, people who have stretched their limits to lightweight backpacking usually have a better understanding than most of how to make the most out of their resources. It is for this reason that lightweight backpackers can often carry with them a minimum of first aid supplies and still be successful.

Before going nuts on planning for every possible injury, ask yourself what you really need. If you think long and hard about it, I bet you'll come up with some anti-inflammatory pills, pain killers, stomach-calmers (Immodium AD has good “plugging power”), triple antibiotic ointment, minimal gauze, and some athletic tape or leukotape to cover everything up. A sheet of moleskin and possibly some Glacier Gels also go a long way for blister care. I also know people who swear by a small tube of Super Glue as it can seal a wound very quickly and efficiently. A sterile scalpel and irrigation syringe may also be something worthwhile to carry, and something that usually can’t be duplicated in the field. With all of this stuffed in a water tight bag such as an Aloksak most hikers could be prepared for things they are reasonably likely to encounter. Really, anything more is redundant unless you're going to pack a pair of crutches or a full SAM splint which is a little silly as these implements can come from branches or a sleeping pad. Even a snakebite kit is overboard as the latest guidance for a snake bite is simply to leave it alone and seek help as cutting it will only hurt you more and spread the venom. Trying to suck it out will only push more of it into your system and into other areas at a quicker rate. Even wrapping it uniformly, which is the latest method, is often done incorrectly and it ultimately creates more problems. They key is to pack what you can't duplicate in nature or with other items you're carrying. Obviously, your daily medication or allergy medicine should be included as well as anything else of specific importance to you. Those who suffer from life threatening allergies should carry an EpiPen (Epinephrine) which can literally be the difference between life and death.

The key with first aid, must like every other piece of equipment, is to bring with you what you need based on your experience and environment. Likely a kit purchased from an outdoor store would be a good start, but a homemade version would likely be more appropriate for you. The folks at Adventure Medical Kits ( have a lot of experience with medical options needed in the backcountry and one of their kits in a pinch would be a good start. If you're interested in a small packable medical guide, my advice is to pick up "A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine (3rd Edition) by Eric Weiss, MD. It's fairly packable and covers most anything you could experience in the backcountry.

No comments: