More than just bandages: Learning first aid for the wilderness

If someone was badly injured in the backcountry, would you know what to do? Could you stop a person bleeding from a large wound? Could you splint a broken leg? Would you know how to treat a patient with a head wound?

I wanted to be able to answer “yes” to those questions, so last weekend I spent 16 hours in a wilderness first aid course taught by Remote Medical International.

The class was informative, fun and a bit overwhelming — a lot of information was crammed into those 16 hours.

The most helpful part of the whole weekend was a number of scenarios we completed. The instructors knew what they were doing. Just about the time I could feel my eyes starting to glaze over from information overload, we’d switch it up by heading outside to practice what we were learning.

The students took turns being patients with various wounds. Throughout the weekend, I had a head wound, broken wrist and fell unconscious due to a bee sting. The instructors had a lot of fun with the very-realistic fake blood and bruise-colored makeup.

The class taught us how to deal with specific circumstances, of course. But more importantly, it was trying to teach us how to think. Over and over, the answer to questions we asked were “It depends.” Everything is different in the wilderness. If you’re 3 days from help, you’re going to behave differently than if you’re 10 minutes from help.

So, say you have a person with a dislocated shoulder. In the city, you wouldn’t touch that shoulder. You’d leave it to the hospital professionals to do that. However, say you’re three days from the trailhead. If you can relocate the shoulder without doing more damage, that might make it possible for the person to walk out with only minor assistance.

However, it all depends. Depending upon the type of dislocation, it might be too risky to try fixing it.

The class tried to teach us a sequential, logical way of working through injures to make certain nothing is missed. If you immediately start treating a victim’s broken wrist, you might fail to notice they cut their back and are bleeding out into the dirt.

We ran through a number of scenarios as practice. These were incredibly helpful. Practicing the processes helped cement them in my mind. Soon, as the final element to this course, I’ll complete a three-hour scenario. The purpose of the scenarios is to let the students put all their skills to use.

I can already predict there will be a good deal of fake blood. I hope this practice means if I ever have to deal with real blood, I can do so effectively and calmly.

After all, I have a very firm rule on not dying in the mountains. And that applies to anyone I travel with as well.

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