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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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We don’t like to get too hung up on labels here at Overlander, but, well… it’s in our name so we thought we’d take some time to think about what overland travel means to us and for you.