Real Emergencies - First Aid Training and First Aid Kits

Real Emergencies - First Aid Training and First Aid Kits

by Stephan Edwards

Put yourself in this scenario.

You and I and some friends are hiking through a grove of towering Ponderosa pines on a blustery March afternoon. It’s chilly enough that we’re wearing our down jackets because the weather is volatile. Looks like sunshine the first minute, then rain, then snow, then thunder. Typical spring in the northern Rockies, but we’re happy to be out and exploring.

As we enter a clearing, suddenly there’s chaos. 

The group of hikers we met at the trailhead just an hour before are all now in disarray and desperately in need of help. Two are completely prone and unresponsive, one is wandering in circles, yelling, and the other is bleeding badly, a tree branch sticking from her arm.

What would you do? Who do you help first? How?

Wilderness medical evacuation in forest

Image: Aerie Backcountry Medicine

This scene played out not in “real life”, but in a simulated medical emergency during Aerie Backcountry Medicine’s three day Wilderness First Aid course. Our location wasn’t somewhere on a remote trail, but rather on a calm, grassy patch on a university campus.

The stricken hikers presented mystery injuries that my friends and I had to evaluate and then assist in quick succession. One hiker was in cardiac arrest. One was unconscious, though breathing steadily. The third was disoriented but frantic, making herself a danger to both herself and her friends. The last was suffering a deeply traumatic physical injury.

We sprang into action, using our fresh training to make sense of the disorder. Splitting into teams, first we attempted to communicate with emergency responders. Simultaneously, we ran to assist the most gravely injured of the victims, while finding a way to calm the others, and tried to determine what exactly had happened.

Did you catch the clue from the original scenario?

The Importance of First Aid Education

Thunder was the key variable in the simulation - our trailmates had suffered a lightning strike. We performed CPR on the victim in cardiac arrest, stabilized the broken and bleeding arm, isolated, evaluated, and comforted the wandering woman, and treated burns on the originally unconscious, but suddenly lucid fourth victim.

We prepared for a wilderness evacuation, and continued to try contacting emergency responders. The situation was still dire, but now manageable. Our training had worked, though the actors in the simulation were extremely convincing in their distress. 

My level of stress, despite the fiction, was definitely spiking. You can imagine how it might be in real life, with real lives on the line.


Boning Up On First Aid

Why walk through this scenario? 

Late last year we wrote about some of the common failures that will end your overland adventure prematurely.  

The final failure we discussed was a medical emergency - the worst kind of situation that you never want to encounter. It’s extremely important when you travel in wild places to carry a comprehensive first aid kit. You may never have to use it, but when you do, the investment will pay off way more than those rock sliders you’re eyeballing.

I would go so far to say that it’s your  responsibility to carry a quality first aid kit (and keep it freshly supplied), not only for yourself and your crew, but for others you may encounter along the way. It could make all the difference.

However, that fancy first aid kit isn’t much good if you don’t know how to use any of the supplies in it. Like so many of the skills we need for remote travel, education is paramount. You wouldn’t go wielding that new winch you bought without doing at least a little bit of research and practice, right?

CPR training class

Image: Aerie Backcountry Medicine

Obviously, the stakes are higher when it comes to your fellow humans than your rig, so we highly recommend registering for first aid training. The Red Cross offers basic versions of a first aid course and CPR certification in nearly every community in the US (even online), and that’s a great baseline. When you want to ramp up your skills, however, look for a certified Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course.

Certified WFA training offers more focus on education and information that is specific to the kinds of off-the-grid places we love to travel. This includes wilderness medical evacuation techniques and working creatively with a limited supply of medical equipment in harsh conditions far from professional help.

Most courses are two-and-a-half to three days long, and cost a couple hundred dollars. Want to go even more in-depth? You can train as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or even a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician with a little more investment of time and money. WFR training usually runs for a week. 

As with many different skills, these tend to get a little rusty with infrequent use, so most organizations recommend a refresher course for your WFA or WFR certification every two years. 

First Aid Kits - What's Right For You?

Once you have your first aid skill-set in place, it’s time to look at a first aid kit. 

First aid kits are available in a huge variety, and manufacturers develop them for all kinds of different consumers and emergency scenarios. It can seem a little overwhelming at first, especially if you’re just recently trained in first aid.  

Chinook Medical First Aid Kit


You can spend many hundreds of dollars on a professional-grade Emergency Medical Services kit, but will you or your companions realistically know how to deploy all the resources it offers? You may do more harm than good if you don’t. You can also spend a couple of sawbucks on a small first aid kit from a big box store, but in a real emergency, you will quickly outstrip its usefulness.

The middle ground is a first aid kit that has reliable aids designed to save a life in extreme medical emergencies - particularly cardiac arrest and heavy bleeding - as well as a comprehensive group of useful “everyday” supplies that can ease discomfort in non-critical situations. 

Chinook Medical’s Adventure Kit is a great example. It’s a solid option for smaller groups that are traveling or going on outdoor adventures. It includes a full complement of necessary first aid supplies to treat a variety of issues to include dehydration, scrapes, cuts, and over-the-counter medications for multiple ailments. And it also includes an emergency survival blanket, elastic bandage wrap, and an irrigation syringe.

Adding the Chinook Bleeding and CPR kit, with a CPR face shield and SWAT-level tourniquet, makes sure that life-threatening injuries don’t have to be. Both are affordable, come with high-quality supplies, and are packaged in extremely durable Cordura or rip-stop nylon carrying cases. They are easily restocked.

Chinook Medical first aid kit


Let’s also issue a quick disclaimer - we’re not medical experts, just folks with a wide variety of different kinds of first aid training. If you have more complex questions about wilderness first aid, or first aid kits and how to use them, definitely reach out to medical experts in your area. And, of course, get some solid training. It could mean everything for you, your friends and family, or even strangers in distress.

Have you had a medical emergency out on the trail? What kind of first aid kit do you travel with? Let us know down in the comments.


2 Responses

Steve Edwards
Steve Edwards

April 16, 2021

Wow! Steve, that’s a wild story. I’m so sorry to hear about the injury, and the original misdiagnosis. Your wife sounds superhuman! I hope she’s recovered well.

Thanks for sharing your experience – I think it illustrates pretty well why you need to be prepared for all kinds of contingencies in the backcountry. Make sure to share your new stories from the road as you venture out onto the TAT! Travel well.

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson

April 16, 2021

While hiking in Arizona, my wife slipped on a wet rock on an incline, fell backward and broke her calcaneus (heel bone) in her left foot. We were about 4 miles in on the hike. Luckily there was another couple that was close by and the other gentleman was able to help me carry her to a clearing by the Colorado River about 200 yards away. Although it was a warm day, we had packed down jackets, beanies, water, food, a thermal emergency blanket, a smaller hiking first aid kit and our Garmin Inreach Explorer +. We have an extensive First aid kit in our Land Cruiser #theturtlecruiser. First we made my wife comfortable as possible, created a rock pile to elevate her leg, put her down jacket over her like a blanket and gave her water with about 600mg of Ibuprofen. She had quality hiking boots on, which we left on her and actually tightened to try to keep the swelling down. Although I had the Garmin Inreach, my first go to was my cell phone. We had deep canyon walls on both sides and possibly one bar of service, I called 911. Many people don’t realize that a call to 911 will get routed to your phones GPS if you don’t have cell service. It doesn’t always work, but if you have a clear path to the sky, its worth a try. The reason I did this verses the Garmin Inreach was to contact local emergency response as opposed to the Worldwide Search and Rescue and the layers in between. At first I reached Nevada 911, they transferred me to AZ 911 and when they learned of our location they transferred us to the National Park Service for the area that we were in. A search and rescue boat was sent from Hoover Dam and by the time they arrived it was dark. The Search and Rescue group were all wonderful and professional, but they are limited on what they can do and provide for the pain. I feel very fortunate that we had come prepared on our hike, and the help of a stranger to help carry my wife to the river, the only thing different that we might have been able to do, was remove her boot and place her foot in the cold water of the Colorado River to help keep the swelling down. She was transported b ambulance to a Las Vegas hospital where she was missed diagnosed with just a bad sprain or maybe torn ligaments. When we returned home to the Los Angeles area she was immediately taken to a Orthopaedist specializing in foot and ankles and after the doctor reviewed the X-Ray and sort of gave us the WTF moment in regards to the Emergency Room in Las Vegas, she said, I hate to tell you, but yo are going to have to have emergency trauma surgery today. She had a completely dislocated calcaneus and required surgery to stabilize the foot and ankle with external fixators and then another to set the dislocated calcaneus, install a plate and screws and remove the external fixators. Has this diminished our thirst for adventure, NO, we are headed out at the end of April to the East Coast and will begin the TAT (Trans American Trail beginning in June. The moral of the story is always go prepared for the worst and pray for the best. Oh, and what my Orthopedist said when I told him about my wife’s experience in a hospital in Las Vegas, “The best hospital in Las Vegas is the airport”.

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