Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Backcountry Safety: Wilderness First Aid Training

Hazardous blowdown near Cropsey PondExploring the Adirondack backcountry is risky business. All manner of medical issues can arise where assistance is not just a 911 call away.

Recently, I attended a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) class provided by Adirondack Wilderness Medicine (AWM) to keep current on the first aid requirement for my New York State Guides License. This was my second wilderness first aid class. The first was an eight-hour class taken through the New York State Outdoor Guides Association, this new one was much more comprehensive and twice the length.

Adirondack Wilderness Medicine is an authorized training center for the SOLO Wilderness Medicine School. SOLO is the gold standard for wilderness medicine curriculum development since 1976. In addition to the WFA course, AWM also offers an even more comprehensive Wilderness First Responder course, as well as CPR and other related courses. SOLO certifications from these classes remain valid for 2 years.

Clark Hayward, the class instructor and the mastermind at AWM, is a seasoned medical professional with years of experience in wilderness medicine. His paramedic experiences, where relevant to wilderness medicine, was invaluable in illustrating concepts during the class. In addition, his personal anecdotes, injected at key points during lectures, elevated the class instruction from just a list of medical facts, to an interesting and entertaining experience.

The class included lectures about the typical injuries and ailments one would expect to encounter in the backcountry. The Patient Assessment System, musculoskeletal injuries, environmental emergencies and soft tissue injuries were major topics thoroughly covered. Within those major topics, all the usual suspects were discussed, like shock, hypothermia, trauma, splinting, frostbite, heat exhaustion, animal bites, lightning and all types of soft tissue injuries.

The class was more than just sitting and listening to lengthy dissertations on lacerations, abrasions and bone fractures however. The highlight of the class was the many demonstrations and scenarios sprinkled throughout the two days, where several students would do their best Marlon Brando and act out injuries (supplied by the instructor), while the other students go through the proper procedures of evaluating them.

Two such golden acting opportunities came my way during the two-day class. A diabetic suffering from hypoglycemia was my first opportunity. This did not take much acting on my part, as I just sat slumped over and mostly grunted and groaned in response to the other participants’ questions – pretty much what I do for my day job!

My second opportunity was the one where I really got to exercise my acting chops. This scenario involved two different victims during a rock climbing accident where I fell fifteen feet, landing on my partner’s head (played by another student). My primary injury was a broken lower leg, sustained during the fall when my foot hit a rock ledge on the way down.

My acting mostly consisted of rolling around, holding my leg and screaming “Help! My leg! Oh, my leg!” repeatedly. Answering actual questions from the other students was doled out sporadically in between my usual mantra about my injured leg. By the end, I was quite exhausted and hoarse from all the yelling and groaning.

Apparently, my acting job seemed quite realistic. Not only did I get some kudos from the instructor but a couple of the other students that tended to my injuries made positive comments about my performance. One student asked if my regular job included acting (as if!), while another said my performance was “annoyingly convincing.” High praise, indeed.

Although I found the course content and teaching excellent, the class was a slightly disappointing in two topic areas.

It would have been helpful to include more information on what constitutes a well-stocked backcountry first aid kit. Although there was useful first aid material advice scattered throughout the weekend, it would have been helpful if it were concentrated in a single section dedicated to the topic.

Another area where I would have enjoyed more discussion was self-administered first aid. Since most of my backcountry adventures are solo bushwhacks, having more emphasis on treating oneself instead of others would be ideal. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much emphasis on this topic in the wilderness first aid community, which is unfortunate – for me.

In addition to the WFA, I took the CPR/AED course offered Saturday night after the first eight hours of the Wilderness First Aid class. The reasoning behind including AED within the curriculum with CPR escaped me somewhat, as I have never noticed an AED station on a tree in the backcountry before, though I would not be overly surprised if they showed up sometime in the future. Despite the AED presence, this course had a more wilderness-related perspective, which was a refreshing change from the similar ones I have taken in the past from the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross.

Being prepared for a medical emergency is an important skill for anyone who spends time in the Adirondack backcountry. Fortunately, Adirondack Wilderness Medicine offers an outstanding Wilderness First Aid course just outside the Blue Line. Not only does the course inform and illuminate the topic of wilderness medicine, it is a lot of fun too.

Photos: Hazardous blowdown near Cropsey Pond in the Pepperbox Wilderness Area by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

2 Responses

  1. Dan,
    Check out this article from the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Medicine Institute (NOLS-WMI) blog. I have always found them to be a good, reliable source of information.

    Hans Erdman, WEMT
    Isanti, MN

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