Living Well: Don’t head into the wilderness without a proper plan or necessary supplies
Heading into the backcountry with friends or family is an exciting time, but it can turn sour quickly without the proper preparations in place.
In addition to securing campsites and other logistics, it’s equally important to be prepared for potential emergencies.
Dr. Netana Hotimsky is a family medicine physician who will join the MRH Medical Clinic, and Patrick Machacek is a physician assistant who will join the Rapid Care team. Both will start in October.
We asked two Memorial Regional Health providers with wilderness medical experience — Dr. Netana Hotimsky and Patrick Machacek, Physician Assistant — to share some of their best advice about emergency preparedness for backcountry expeditions. If you follow these tips, you’ll increase your chances of returning safely from a wilderness experience.
Make the right preparations
Have you created a trip plan and shared it with someone? This is one of the first steps for emergency preparedness. Share your plan with someone who won’t be in the backcountry and let them know when they should worry if they haven’t heard back from you, Machacek said.
Not telling someone when or where you’re going, or deviating from your intended plan, could backfire if you end up in an emergency situation.
“Google your trip plan and see if anyone has any region or trail-specific advice or recent experiences that may help you,” he said.
It’s also important to:
- Check your gear and make sure it is in working order and nothing needs fixing.
- Check the weather.
- Bring back-up supplies such as extra food, water and adequate clothing.
- Make sure your gear is functioning properly and that you know how to correctly use your equipment.
- If you are going to participate in higher risk outdoor activities, you should be prepared to educate yourself about those particular activities.
Avoid these common injuries
Most backcountry injuries tend to be minor, but they can become more serious if not treated promptly. Here are some tips for how to care for common injuries:
- Blisters – Wear properly fitting boots that are broken in. Use mole skin or something similar when you are developing a hot spot.
- Dehydration – Stay well hydrated, bring and drink plenty of water, and bring a water treatment system (such as iodine or a water filter).
- Sunburn – Wear sunscreen and protective clothing.
- Lacerations, scrapes, cuts and subsequent infection – Take care when using knives and other tools to avoid these situations whenever possible. Bring adequate first aid supplies and antibiotic ointment. Promptly clean and bandage wounds.
- Altitude sickness – Adapt to altitude slowly. Descend if you are feeling symptoms such as fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea or trouble breathing.
Bring the right first-aid supplies
Your first aid kit contents and size should change depending on the type of trip you’ll be going on and the training of the individuals on the trip, Machacek said.
“Bring what you know how to use. It’s no good bringing medications or supplies if you are not comfortable or competent in using them,” he said. “I also like to think about things I can’t replicate in the outdoors or with my other supplies when selecting which items to bring. For those without any formal medical training, I recommend simple band-aids of various sizes, antibiotic ointment, several larger gauze pads, tape, safety pins, moleskin or similar products. Useful medications to have on hand include benadryl, tylenol/ibuprofen and TUMs.”
Consider communication abilities
Having a SPOT beacon or satellite phone can be helpful, but only if you know how to use it and what capabilities your device has, Machacek said. Some offer only an emergency SOS signal, some have texting capabilities and some can make phone calls.
“Choose one which aligns with your comfort in the backcountry, intended trip and risk of the trip,” he said. “These are rented in some places since they can be expensive.”
Don’t delay addressing a medical issue
While this depends on the training and experience of the individuals, Machacek said that generally speaking, you do not want to delay addressing a medical issue.
“Due to lack of resources and access to medical care, a relatively minor issue, such as a minor burn or scrape, can become very serious if it is ignored and becomes infected,” he said. “For more serious issues such as broken bones or serious trauma, try to stay calm. Avoid creating a worse situation by becoming a second victim by injuring yourself or other rescuers, inappropriately moving someone or getting lost while searching for help.”
Depending on how many people are on the trip, sending one or two people for help may be appropriate, he added.
“It’s always best to travel in pairs when possible. If the injured person cannot hike out and there is not anyone to go for help, this is a time to activate an SOS beacon,” he said.
It’s important to check weather forecasting websites before leaving home. These include weather.gov and avalanche.state.co.us for snow travel.
General preparedness classes are offered by REI and often by local outdoor shops. Outdoor retailers often know where to direct you for more local classes or groups.
“Medical training such as Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder classes — offered through NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), WMA (Wilderness Medical Associates) or similar organizations — are invaluable, Hotimsky said.
For snow travel, take an avalanche class certified by AIARE (The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, avtraining.org).
Don’t leave home without…
Machacek and Hotimsky recommend “The 10 Essentials,” a list that first appeared in the third edition of “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” released in 1974 by Mountaineers Books. Here’s the list, with some of their personal tips added in:
1. Navigation: Map, altimeter, compass, GPS device, PLB or satellite communicators, extra batteries or battery pack.
2. Headlamp: Bring extra batteries.
3. Sun protection: Sunglasses, sun-protective clothing and sunscreen.
4. First aid: Including foot care and insect repellent.
5. Knife: In addition to a repair kit.
6. Fire: Matches, lighter and tinder, or stove as appropriate.
7. Shelter: Carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy).
8. Extra food: Beyond minimum expectation.
9. Extra water: Beyond minimum expectation, or the means to purify.
10. Extra clothes: Beyond minimum expectation.