First Aid in the Woods

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Last month I had the opportunity to upgrade my outdoor first aid skills through Rocky Mountain Adventure Medicine‘s Advanced Adventure Medic Bridge course. It was a fun and informative two weekends and two evenings of instruction, scenarios and, of course, exams.

As outdoor enthusiasts we believe it important that everyone who recreates in the back-county have some form of first aid training, not just for the benefit of yourself or your group, but as a member of the larger community. It doesn’t have to be advanced training, however every additional first aider in the back-country increases the chances that an injured person will find the support they need. After all, the person needing help in the wilderness could be you.

80 hour certification for advanced medic course

Last month I had the opportunity to upgrade my outdoor first aid skills through Rocky Mountain Adventure Medicine‘s Advanced Adventure Medic Bridge course. It was a fun and informative two weekends and two evenings of instruction, scenarios and, of course, exams.

As outdoor enthusiasts we believe it important that everyone who recreates in the backcounty have some form of first aid training, not just for the benefit of yourself or your group, but as a member of the larger community. It doesn’t have to be advanced training, however every additional first aider in the back-country increases the chances that an injured person will find the support they need. After all, the person needing help in the wilderness could be you.

A simple google search comes up with a wide variety of first aid course options and it’s important to find one that meet your needs.

In most jurisdictions, first aid training is defined by the Province or State based on standards set at the Federal or International level. In most cases it will be through your department of occupational health and safety or its equivalent (for us it’s Alberta Occupational Health and Safety). These regulations often focus on the workplace and describe the requirements for first aid training and supplies based on the size of a business, it’s distance from emergency response, and the nature of work conducted (e.g. an industrial site will have different requirements than a typical office). In Alberta there are 3 formal levels of first aid training  (OHS Code Part 11 Section 177)

  • Emergency First Aid
  • Standard First Aid
  • Advanced First Aid

These levels define the core knowledge that anyone taking a course should be expected to know, and what is recognized by the government for use in the workplace (topics like CPR, how to use an defibrillator, etc). However there will likely be a whole range of supplemental information provided depending on the nature of the course. With this in mind, there are a few things to bear in mind when making your decision:

SCOPE OF PRACTICE

Mountain view towards lake louise

Most first aid course are developed around a scope of practice based on where those skills are likely to be used. A babysitting first aid course will focus more on accidents that could happen to young children in the home (e.g. a toddler scalded by hot water). A workplace first aid course may cover industrial accidents (e.g. exposure to dangerous chemicals). In outdoor first aid there will be more material concerning environmental emergencies (such as hypothermia) and how to manage situations where help may be hours or days away. In the outdoor first-aid courses I’ve taken, at least a quarter of the time was spent outside, using gear we’re likely to be carrying with us (such as hiking poles, sil-tarps, sleeping pads etc.). This helps us develop the skills we’ll need in the backcountry.

First aid training includes lots of hands on scenarios, so be sure to look for courses that fit the environment that you’ll be likely to use them and the gear you’ll have access to.

TYPE OF ACTIVITY

Hobbit (kid) walking over a bridge

As first aiders, one of the first things we are expected to look for as we approach an injured person (after identifying any potential hazards to ourselves) is the Mechanism of Injury (MOI). By identifying the events that may have led to the incident we can begin to assess the potential severity and any precautions we may need to take. Seeing a mountain bike lodged in a tree at the bottom of a steep hill with an unconscious person laying several feet away may indicate a significant impact and concern for a spinal injury. While a backpacker sitting at the side of a flat trail clutching their ankle is more likely to be something minor.

We can use this approach when trying to determine the type of training appropriate for the activities we engage in. Mountain bikers, climbers, ski touring, and similar activities have the potential for more serious injuries simply due to the higher speeds and heights involved. On the other hand, backpackers and hikers are at lower risk risk due to the nature of their activities. By understanding the types of activities you and your group engage in (as well as the types of activities common to the areas you recreate in) you can get a better idea of the level of training that is appropriate for you. Someone who only participates in day hikes will be just fine with an introductory first aid course  (such as Backcountry Emergencies). On the other hand someone into climbing, or mountain biking may want to consider something more extensive (such as Adventure Medic)

LOCATION OF ACTIVITY

Jedediah Wilderness Sign

Lastly, you’ll want to consider where you typically recreate. One important factor that influences the level of training you’ll need is the amount of time it could take a professional first responder to reach you. Depending on where you are and the time of day, it can take hours, and sometimes even days (yes days). A few things to remember:

  • Helicopters only operate during daylight hours and in good weather conditions
  • Helicopters will be prioritized based on the severity of incidents within the area they cover
  • Paramedics are trained and equipped to work in close proximity of their ambulance
  • In many areas, Search and Rescue (SAR) teams are made of up volunteers that must be mobilized to respond
  • In remote areas SAR dispatch services may involve distant resources that may take hours just to get to a trail head

For those who spend more time in remote areas you’ll want to consider more extensive training to deal with the potential of having to support an injured person for quite some time.

With the concepts of “Scope of practice”, “Type of activity” and “Location of activity” in mind you’ll be better equipped to pick the type of course best suited for you. By all means contact several providers and ask them questions about the kinds of scenarios they practice, how the training is recognized, and if a certification is provided, how long that certification lasts.

Hopefully first aid skills arn’t something you’ll every need on the trail, but as per the Scout motto its best to “be Prepared”

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Kelly McDonald

After spending 12 years in Ottawa Kelly returned to Calgary in 2012 and decided to pick off where he left off by roping his closest friends into some new back-country adventures (some more fun than others).

Kelly McDonald is a father of two hobbits ages 12 and 13 and tries to get them out into the wilderness as often as he can.

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