For most of us the concept of wilderness has little to do with the notion of access to medical care, and everything to do with the sense that only in wilderness are our spirits truly free. Nevertheless, every time we enter the wilderness, we risk injury, illness, or worse. Injuries and illness to backcountry visitors are quite common.We face greater risks to life and limb driving to our backcountry destination, it is true, but few of us would venture down the road to the trailhead in our sport utility without training and experience in the fine art of safe automotive travel, even if the law allowed it. Yet, millions of folks each year enter the wilderness areas of North America, and for that matter the rest of the world, with little more than a bandage, a dab of antibiotic ointment, and a prayer. More than a few forget the ointment and the bandage. I have practiced primary care medicine in rural Montana for more than twenty years, yet all of that, and six years in my youth as a Boy Scout, wasn’t enough to drum the point about always being prepared into my head. It took a fairly common injury to my young son to drive home the error of my ways.
We were in the backcountry of a friend’s ranch, near the end of a two mile walk to a remote section of otherwise inaccessible trout stream. Climbing the last fence before we reached the creek, my son’s boot foot waders caught the top wire, he tripped, fell, and broke both bones in his wrist. The truck was back at the house, the meadows were flooded with irrigation water and undrivable. I did not even have a bandage with me, let alone any useful first aid equipment for the field treatment of a fracture. On that long walk back to the ranch, my seven year old son bravely cradling his broken wrist in his hand, I promised myself I would not ever again venture into the wilderness unprepared.
If you work or seek recreation in the wilderness, simple sense dictates you must, at least, be prepared for the most common injuries and illnesses you will encounter. A Red Cross approved course in CPR, and Basic First Aid is a sensible minimum. Further training in wilderness first aid is highly desirable, and is widely available from a number of professional sources around the country. The basic principle is this: ordinary people are capable of doing more than they think they can in an emergency. With a little instruction, and a measure of experience, you can acquire the knowledge to successfully manage first aid treatment of a wide variety of emergencies. Please note that many conditions and illnesses can be easily prevented with careful planning and preparation. Emergency preparedness is the key to a safe trip.