Discovering an injured person in the wilderness is probably a common nightmare amongst those intrepid souls journeying into the Adirondack backcountry. The only situation more dreadful is actually being the one in need of assistance when there is not another person within miles.
A myriad of questions run through one’s mind when imagining such an emergency. What should I do? Help the injured person? Run for help? Just run and hide? Faint and let the next person to come along deal with two injured individuals?
The only way to deal with such an unpleasant situation is to be prepared. Preparations for an emergency event start at home, long before ever leaving for the backcountry. Familiarizing yourself with first aid texts, carrying a personal locator beacon and keeping a well-stocked first aid kit handy are just a few ways to equip oneself for a potential backcountry emergency. The single best way to prepare for such an event may be to attend a wilderness first aid class, which is exactly what I did recently.
My attendance was not for completely altruistic reasons though. It was not merely a masturbatory educational exercise either. Although my reasoning for attending such a class clearly involved both of these concerns, since anyone traveling into the backcountry should be aware of first aid issues, at least at some rudimentary level, if not for their own safety, than for the safety of others.
However, the driving force behind my recent participation was the class’s requirement for applying for a New York State guide license. Of course, this makes perfect sense. Anyone responsible for taking others out exploring the great public lands of the Adirondacks must be prepared for an emergency, if such an occasion ever presents itself.
Despite my suspect motivation, a wilderness first aid class should be part of every backcountry enthusiast’s training before heading out on the Adirondack trails, and certainly for those entertaining the thought of stepping off the trails and bushwhacking to the untrammeled and rarely visited remote places. The probability of an injury, anything from twisting an ankle to being impaled on a spruce branch while climbing over a blowdown, should be motivation enough for attending at least one extensive wilderness first aid class during a backcountry career.
The good folks from the New York State Outdoor Guides Association (NYSOGA) sponsored the class I attended. It lasted nine hours on a recent Saturday, including several breaks, with snacks and lunch provided. Although giving up an entire Saturday was difficult, it was well worth it. Other wilderness first aid classes are available, and with greater frequency, from the American Red Cross and the Adirondack Mountain Club, but these classes typically entail 16-hour commitment over two days. The content of all these different classes is most likely equivalent, although the longer classes probably contain more extensive hands-on demonstrations, and therefore might be well worth the time and expense.
Many interesting factoids came up during the course of the wilderness first aid class.
Apparently, there is a requirement to obtain consent before treating anyone, regardless of an emergency or not. This is a no-brainer, since no one should be required to accept assistance from a complete stranger within the backcountry. Although, if a victim is unconscious, then permission is implicit, suggesting that perhaps an Acme rubber mallet should be standard equipment in every first aid kit.
NEVER administer a medication to an injured person, regardless if such a treatment may save their life. Blame the highly litigious nature of our society for this guidance. A suggested way around this is to communicate to the injured party that the medication is helpful in such situations, that the medication is in your first aid kit and that your first aid kit is right next to them. If they take it on their own, then it is their responsibility. Apparently, placing the medication next to them or in their hands is akin to leading a witness.
Always use an injured person’s equipment to treat them during an emergency. Not only does this prevent you from ruining your own gear, but also because there is little chance of ever seeing the stuff again after an evacuation. Who wants someone else’s blood all over their equipment anyways?
The recommendation to place two naked people within a sleeping bag when one of them is suffering from hypothermia is outdated. Apparently, this just results in two naked and cold people within a sleeping bag. It is best just to place the naked hypothermic person in two sleeping bags instead. This probably provides great relief to the homophobic outdoor enthusiasts among us.
One aspect in which the wilderness first aid class was greatly deficient in, and I imagine all other such classes would be as well, is in the area of self-administered first aid. As a solitary backcountry bushwhacker, I find would find this topic especially useful. Unfortunately, little information appears to be available on this topic.
Fortunately, I never had a necessity of using most of what I learned in the wilderness first aid before. My history of backcountry injures include such innocuous emergencies such as a burst blister, a skinned knee, a bruised thigh or an occasional hand scrape. Whether this is due to my exceptional balance, aversion to risk, or just plain dumb luck, I do not know. At least now, I have rudimentary knowledge of what to do in an emergency, whether I can recall it in all the excitement of an actual event is anyone’s guess. That is why they make crib sheets, after all.
Has anyone else taken a Wilderness First Aid class before? What was your experience? What parts worked best? Least? Have you ever had an actual opportunity to put what you learned into use? How did you react in an emergency? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.
Photos: A blowdown in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.