Wilderness Wisdom

Ah, the weekend warrior. You’ve got two, way-too-short days to pack in as much epic outdoor adventure as possible and reboot your depleted office brain and body.

If you’re anything like me, your planning and prep is all about the glory stuff – what worlds to explore (coast, mountains, lake, desert), what activities to pack in (hike, run, paddle, ride, climb, camp, all the above), the wildlife you’ll meet, the beers you’ll drink, and so on. You don’t spend much time, if any, on the downer stuff like safety plans, back up gear, extreme weather possibilities, or appropriate distances and technical requirements.

That’s my usual mode, and I’ve been lucky to avoid any really tight spots while out exploring. While I’m not doing extreme level stuff, it’s surprisingly easy for a relatively calm day out to turn into a potentially nasty and dangerous situation. Just this past September I was mountain biking with friends in the Colorado Rockies on a warm, sunny day when all of a sudden a thunderstorm storm rolled in, started dumping rain, and dropped the temps to the mid 30s. We tried to wait it out but soon started losing feeling and motion in our hands and began shivering uncontrollably. Not wanting to go any further down that path we hopped back on the bikes and bombed downhill in the storm to get to the base of the mountain as quickly as possible. That worked out, but what if we had gone over the bars or blown a tire on the way down?

That little escapade helped motivate me to sign up for a NOLS Wilderness First Aid (WFA) class. NOLS is a great organization, and they offer these classes (and many more) around the country and throughout the year. A WFA class runs 16 hours over 2 days, gives you a great intro to the basics, and throws in some pretty fun (and challenging) scenarios to handle.

A nice leg splint. Photo credit to Mario Marzan.

While you’ll learn lots of cool things like splinting a broken leg with a sleeping pad and straps, or what to do with a severed finger, I found that the lessons that really stick with you are the big ones. You’ll forget the details unless you stay on this stuff, but if you can remember these fundamentals you’ll go a long way towards keeping yourself or others out of trouble.

(1) Just be aware. How often do you give thought to the things that could go wrong on a day hike? You don’t need to dwell on it, but if you give it some consideration you’ll be more likely to prepare for it.

(2) The best way to deal with trouble? Prevent it from happening in the first place. Check the forecast, bring extra gear for the change in weather (that would have made all the difference on our hypothermic bike ride), pack a first aid/emergency kit (you can buy one, or even better assemble your own with the basics…bandages, tape, scissors, benadryl, advil, etc.), and let someone know where you’ll be and when you plan to return (I’m terrible about this…but trying to get better).

(3) Bust open a can of calm. Our instructor Phil’s favorite saying..and he’s right. If you can remain calm in dicey situations you’ll be more likely to deal with them, and you’ll keep everyone else (including a patient) from freaking out and making things worse. Even in the drills when we were just acting injured…the calm demeanor of the first aid responders was really comforting.

(4) It’s process not diagnosis. Your tendency is to try and make a medical diagnosis….it just has to be appendicitis. But you don’t know..unless you’re a trained physician you can’t possibly diagnose what’s going on in someone’s gut. So don’t. Instead, your focus should be working through the assessment process to come to some determination if they are stable or getting better…or getting worse. That’s your job. The WFA teaches you an overall process that you can follow and provides a reference guide for all the details:

  • Situation – Assess the situation first and determine if it’s ok to jump in (are you likely to get hurt trying to reach the person?).
  • Run through the life threat ABCDE checklist – Airway (is it clear from obstruction?), Breathing (how is their breathing?), Circulation (take their pulse and determine if it’s strong/steady, control any bleeding), Disability (is there any chance that the person has spinal injury or disability?), Environment (is the environment safe and can you make them as comfortable as possible?)
  • Full Body Check – Do a check for other injuries on their body that may have been missed during the initial assessment.
  • Record Vitals – The whole time, take a moment to record your assessments, their vitals, their condition…in writing…..as you may need to pass this info along to emergency responders during an evacuation.

I hope that bit of wilderness wisdom gets you thinking and planning a bit before your next adventure. Maybe the basic lessons they shared are really just lessons for life. To learn more about Wilderness First Aid education or find a class visit the NOLS website.

Now, let’s get way out there!


Most of what you need to know is on the cover of this handy pocket guide.