Lasko: What to carry into the backcountry, Ten Essentials
December 6, 2016
Imagine that you are out hiking in the backcountry of Grand County with your family or friends on a beautiful day. You or a member of your party suddenly has a medical emergency – injuries from a fall, or perhaps an illness. Most likely you will not have a cell phone signal to call 911. Even if you do, help may be many hours away. Are you prepared to treat this person until help arrives? You will need to be properly equipped, you will need to know how to use the equipment you carry, and to know how to improvise the equipment that you do not carry.
I spent a career working as a paramedic in a busy urban environment. Our response times were normally under four minutes, and major hospitals were just minutes away. Despite decades in emergency care, when I retired to Grand County I found I was a complete newbie when it came to providing care in the backcountry. I no longer had my $500,000 ambulance full of equipment, and the hospitals were a whole lot further away. I needed to take a wilderness medicine course to learn what to do. A standard first aid course is helpful, but a wilderness course is better. A wilderness first aid course will teach you how to improvise equipment in the field, how to decide which injuries or illnesses require immediate evacuation, and how to treat someone for a more extended period of time when help is hours or days away. NOLS offers excellent training, but many other organizations offer wilderness first aid courses as well. Do some research.
Any time you venture into the backcountry, it is recommended that you always carry the "Ten Essentials". One of those essentials is a first aid kit. But since space and weight are limited in your pack, what should you carry? A first aid kit that gets left at home because it is too heavy or bulky is useless. Keep your kit to a minimum, and tailor its contents based on the expected duration of your outing, how far you will be from help, the environment you will be in, and most important, your ability/willingness to carry it. It is often cheapest to purchase a commercial first aid kit, then modify it to suit your needs. Focus on those items that are difficult to improvise in the field. For example, commercial splints are great, but they are bulky and can usually be improvised from available materials (ski poles, branches, etc.)
Some items to consider include:
Pocket CPR mask
Knife or scissors (a knife should already be part of your Ten Essentials)
Sterile gauze dressings (consider non-stick dressings as well)
Elastic bandage ("Ace" bandage)
Triangular bandages (these can also be improvised; if you carry them, be sure they are large enough to fit over any heavy clothing that may be worn, especially in the winter)
One of the most difficult things to improvise in the field is medications. Bring any prescription medications that you may need, keeping in mind that you may not make it back in time to take them at home. If anyone in your party has a severe allergy, particularly to insect stings, be sure that they bring their Epi-Pen along, and know where it is kept in their pack so you can access it if needed. If anyone is diabetic, bring the appropriate medications, along with something sugary to treat them if their blood sugar becomes too low. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can be especially dangerous in the field. Some over-the-counter medications to consider include Acetaminophen, Aspirin, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, Immodium, Pepto-Bismol, and antibiotic ointment. Be sure any medications you carry are properly labeled.
Most of us treasure the beautiful outdoors of Grand County. But as a GCSAR teammate of mine is fond of saying, "The veneer of civilization in the backcountry of Grand County is very thin."
Be prepared with the proper training and equipment.
Jennifer Lasko retired to Kremmling after a career as a firefighter and paramedic in south Florida. She has been a member of Grand County Search and Rescue for four years.