Over the past few years, Ive become more cautious about my safety while backpacking. Ive had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, had to carry an unconscious guy out of the backcountry, and had a friend die of heat stroke on the trail. The last real wilderness first aid I had was back in Boy Scouts in the early-mid 90’s. The classes don’t come cheap, but I figured the knowledge is worth it, if it’s potentially life-saving.
Basically, this training teaches you how to assess what is wrong with a person, and how to best treat them. In the backcountry, there is often not access to 911. Even if you can call 911, you may be pretty remote, further delaying medical treatment. You need to know how to do some things on your own. Trust me, you never know when you might need it and you’ll be glad you have the knowledge when you do.
The classes are taught by NOLS and I enrolled through my local REI. Members get $25 off, my tuition was $225. It is a two day, 16 hour training. It features a combination of in class instruction and scenarios in the field. The instructors come around and critique you during the scenarios which ranged from assessing and treating anything from minor bruises to broken legs. One cool thing is that they encouraged us to bring the gear we would have normally in our packs to see what is useful.
Of particular benefit was my fold up camp chair. I have the REI version, but Crazy Creek makes the most popular one. Folded up, it made for a pretty badass arm splint, and folded out it was a great splint for a broken leg.
The first day mainly concentrates on properly assessing a person for injuries, medical issues, etc. Certain events are more dangerous than others and this training helps you tease apart when to keep a trip going, when to start heading back, and when to call for evacuation. Part of the first day and all of the second day focused on treating common backcountry injuries. We all took turns being the victim, which included using makeup and stage blood to symbolize real injuries.
I also learned a fair bit about some things I need to add to my first aid kit. For sure I will be adding wound closure strips for big lacerations, tincture of benzoin (helps bandages and closure strips stay on, even when it’s humid/wet out) and a 12cc irrigation syringe. They are very cheap and really useful in preventing infection in wounds. Basically you suck up clean water in the syringe and squirt all the shit out of your wound. They recommend using up to a liter of water, or more for a nasty one. I almost died once from a MRSA infection in my leg, so I was happy to learn about this. Im a big believer in infection prevention since Im allergic to some of the few antibiotics left that treat MRSA.
The instructors are great at teaching evidence-based interventions and dispel dumb “treatments” like snakebite kits that don’t fucking work. However REI and other places sell them even though they are totally useless. Seems like a liability issue to me, but what do I know. I also learned that tourniquets are now back in style thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One of the few benefits of those worthless wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people, is that we now know how to properly use tourniquets without killing someone or necessitating amputation in every case. Cheap, light, self-locking tourniquets are sold online and can save a life. No need for a stick and a dirty t-shirt anymore.
As a result of the this course, I definitely feel more prepared to handle a larger variety of emergencies and medical issues in the field until I can help connect someone to medical care. My first aid kit is beefier, but more effective and multi-purposed. I also carry a PLB for a sitch where I’d need an evacuation/rescue for myself or someone else. Most importantly, my knowledge base has been significantly expanded which is worth its weight in gold. Hopefully you never have to use these skills, but they can really save your ass or another persons ass in a pinch. You won’t regret taking one of their classes and you should see if one is available soon in your area!