Wilderness First Aid

Are you prepared? The life you save might be your own

“You should have left the knife stuck in your leg,” said the attending physician at the local emergency room.

This knife is still the author’s favourite, even considering past (potentially deadly) experiences.
This knife is still the author’s favourite, even considering past (potentially deadly) experiences.

For the life of me, I can’t remember if I was cutting black-tipped fur or splitting cartilage between the deer’s ribs and sternum, but I’ll never forget the moment I realized there was a Buck Vanguard knife buried nearly shank-deep in my thigh. The moment before my freshly sharpened knife let go, I thought to myself, “This is a bad cutting setup. We should turn the deer.” But my brother and I were still admiring the shot, how the buck dropped at a solid hit and skidded in the snow. Pete shot the deer off-hand at 200 yards while it was running away. I watched the deer stott – doing, doing, doing – bang, the 170-grain bullet entering the pink ring on the east side of the westbound muley. Pete was shooting a 30-30 lever-action Winchester ’94. Is it any wonder we were admiring the shot?

Our attention was quickly re-focused on the knife in my leg. We stood in eight inches of snow, a little over a mile from the truck, and it was -22 Celsius. A moment later, with my wool hunting pants and polyester long johns around my ankles, we examined the wound. It was bleeding alright, but not gushing or pulsing. My first aid pack consisted of finger-sized adhesive bandages and a pair of fine-pointed tweezers – neither very helpful in this situation. We found a clean wool sock, balled it up and pushed it into the wound to put pressure on the hole in my leg. My long johns over the sock held the makeshift packing in place with enough pressure to stop the bleeding while I walked out.

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From a sprained ankle to an injury that has the potential to be fatal, it’s important to be prepared for all circumstances. Photo by iStock.
From a sprained ankle to an injury that has the potential to be fatal, it’s important to be prepared for all circumstances. Photo by iStock.

The local emergency room attending physician shook his head while he carefully irrigated my knife wound, calling me lucky, and he wasn’t talking about Pete’s off-hand shot. After a few stitches and a tetanus shot, we returned to our deer work and found an almost fully mushroomed, plain-Jane jacketed lead bullet had slipped between the hams, traveled a considerable length inside the deer and embedded in the heart – the classic Texas heart shot.

One of the first things first aid course participants learn about cuts and stabs is not to automatically remove whatever object is embedded. Removing a knife (like I did) can cause a secondary injury and increase bleeding risk. On the other hand, many of the clothes we wear outdoors are waterproof or heavily insulated and can prevent the proper assessment of an injury. It is best to be informed with updated first aid training before tackling those decisions in the field.

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Think about what might go wrong with a particular task and take steps to prevent an accident or injury. Photo by iStock.
Think about what might go wrong with a particular task and take steps to prevent an accident or injury. Photo by iStock.

Take Wilderness First Aid Training Now

Anyone who spends time outdoors hunting and fishing should take first aid training and pack first aid supplies as part of their standard gear. Red Cross offers three levels of first aid training in British Columbia.

If you take first aid training, you’re less likely to end up in a negative situation. First aid training is a big part of prevention. If you are familiar with industry pre-shift hazard assessments, you will know that anticipating what might go wrong helps reduce the risk of something actually going wrong. The key is to think about what risks are present, what could go wrong, eliminate or control the hazard and safely complete the action. Trouble happens when people don’t think. (See my knife story above.) Thinking through what might go wrong and anticipating what one needs to do to eliminate or reduce the hazard helps prevent injuries and accidents.

Many wilderness injuries are the result of not thinking through a particular action. Anything from tossing a fresh log on a roaring fire to swinging your ax, filleting a salmon or firing up your chainsaw present the risk of injury. Rope burns are common, as are accidents involving quads and snowmobiles. The number one injury in the wilderness is knife cuts. Not thinking about cutting direction, unsafe cutting methods or inappropriate surfaces contribute to potential knife injuries.

This injury occurred in a split second, and it could have been fatal.
This injury occurred in a split second, and it could have been fatal.

Think about what might go wrong with a particular task and take steps to prevent an accident or injury.

What’s In Your Pack?

An Occupational Health and Safety first aid kit is a good place to start when assembling the kit for the field. Consider what risks you face in the field and anticipate the kinds of injuries that could happen, then focus on items you might need and that have multiple purposes. A tourniquet might be called for when a chainsaw is along on the trip. (Note that specific training is required before applying a tourniquet and that application can be very painful to the injured person.)

The author’s first aid kit, which conveniently fits into a cooking pot.
The author’s first aid kit, which conveniently fits into a cooking pot.

Plastic bags are your friend in the wilderness to keep things dry and because of how many potential uses we have for them. Nothing (in my pack) has just one use. Every item in my pack has at least a dual purpose: the orange garbage bag can be used as a signal for help, worn as protection from the weather, make a shelter or it can be used to collect water. The washbasin, plastic film, aluminum foil and commercial splints all have multiple purposes.

Each one of us wants to make it home safe and injury-free from our outdoor adventures. You owe it to yourself and your hunting and fishing crew to freshen up your first aid skills with a wilderness first aid course and back that training up with a thoughtfully selected kit of first aid items.

Survival

Dave Woodridge, founder and owner of ridgewilderness.com, said, “We go out into the woods or the wilderness for adventure, the potential danger and for that thrill. But the flip side of that is making sure that you know that you’re ready to deal with it. Wilderness first aid is a basic starting point for that.”

Woodridge and his crew offer a series of wilderness courses based on the Red Cross curriculum that Woodridge helped develop. Book a wilderness first aid course before hunting season. The life you save might be your own.

The basic 20-hour course is designed for wilderness adventures situated three hours or less from organized medical care. Participants learn skills and strategies for providing care in a remote setting for up to 24 hours, including planning, prevention and situational awareness; wound care; and dealing with environmental emergencies. Participants are provided a wilderness and remote field guide to take home after the course.

The 40-hour course is suitable for those who wish to become professional guides, parks officials and/or work in recreation and ecotourism. Participants learn skills and strategies for providing extended care overnight to a few days, including accident prevention; health and wellness of the group; leadership skills; assessment; extended care; and decision-making around additional supports required. A wilderness and remote field guide is provided to participants.

The 80-hour session is for professional wilderness first responders.