First Aid: Hiking and Camping
There are many minor injuries that one can sustain while hiking and camping. There are others that, while not life threatening, require a professional rescue effort. Still other situations are potentially life-threatening. Being out on a trail, away from available medical care can make rather routine injuries and illnesses more of a problem than they would be back in "civilization".
I have been involved in only two trail rescues; one as a hiker and one as an EMT. Both show that being prepared isn't always enough but that not being prepared is foolish.
Many years ago our ambulance corps was called to the Balsam Lake Mountain parking area for a hiker stung by bees. It turned out that the hiker was more than a mile in on the trail. We carried a backboard for transports and all the necessary medical equipment to treat the possible consequences. The local fire department also responded to help lift and carry. It was a good thing that the patient did NOT have an anaphylactic reaction to the stings. At the time we did not carry epinephrine and the patient did not have an Epipen. Had there been a severe allergic reaction, the patient may have died.
Strangely, the other incident was also on Balsam Lake Mountain. My son, Karl, and I had decided to hike the mountain several summers ago after I got home from teaching summer school. We went up the steeper side from the Beaverkill parking area and were the only car in the lot. We spent a minute at the top and then headed down the other side. Along the trail I found a new pair of Nikon binoculars and then a can of bear mace and then a woman with a severely injured ankle. She had been inching her way down the slope while her companion had gone for help! It wasn't possible to tell whether her ankle was sprained or broken. She could not put any weight on her foot and was weak and dizzy. I sent Karl ahead to make sure help was coming. It wasn't long before two forest rangers arrived and shortly after members of the Millbrook-Arena Fire Department and Margaretville Rescue Squad. Fortunately, they were able to get a four-wheel drive pickup and a "Gator" up the trail from Millbrook. They parked near the gate on the trail. That meant a short distance to carry the patient and quicker transport to the hospital.
First Aid Supplies
What you carry for first aid supplies partly depends on your medical training and on your philosophy of hiking. Some people only feel responsible for themselves, believe they will not get injured, will rely on others to find and help them if they are hurt and, therefore, carry little or nothing. The rest of us carry some first aid supplies so that a minor problem does not make us unable to continue hiking and so that we can help others.
Some things to carry might include:
- Bandaids (various sizes)
- Gauze pads (4x4 and larger)
- Roller bandage
- Triangular bandages (cravats)
- Spenco Blister Kit
- Chemical cold pack
- SAM splint
- Pain reliever
I am a New York State Emergency Medical Technician and have been one for over 20 years. This training does not necessarily prepare you for dealing with the kind of injuries that can occur in the woods. Experience, a clear head in emergencies and the ability to adapt and improvise are all important. Specialized course such as Wilderness EMT DO concentrate more on the skill needed to diagnose and treat someone in a situation where definitive medical care may be delayed by hours. Some rudimentary training is helpful so save your own life or the lives of others and so that you do not do more harm than good. Training in CPR is essential although may not be helpful depending on the situation.
Minor Injuries and Illnesses
I have had them infrequently and I have seen others have them. Blisters usually occur on the feet and ALWAYS occur because of friction of the body part with another body part or piece of equipment. NEVER wear a new pair of shoes or boots on an extended hike before trying them out on a shorter walk. Some shoes break-in quickly and others take some time. NEVER ignore those little pains on the feet as they may turn into blisters; sometimes rather large blisters. PREVENTION can be the difference between happiness and misery.
I try not to break blisters if I can help it. The blister is there to cushion the area that is being irritated. Opening it allows a pathway for bacteria to enter through the skin and cause potentially larger problems. If you MUST continue to walk or perform the irritating activity then carefully break the blister with a clean "instrument". Immediately apply some antiseptic and bandage to keep out bacteria. Anytime the bandage becomes displaced, bandage it again. Try to rest as soon as possible.
Cuts, Scrapes and Bruises
Frost Bite and Hypothermia
More Complicated Problems
There are opportunities in hiking, climbing and camping for rather deep and/or long cuts. Some of these can cause significant blood loss and could be life-threatening. The first concern here is to control blood loss and, afterward, limit infection. Your own judgment must be used when deciding to call for emergency help or not.
Apply direct pressure to the wound. Preferably you should be wearing latex gloves and have a gauze pad to help apply the pressure. If possible, elevate the injured area above the level of the heart. The patient should be seated or lying down. Add more gauze if it becomes soaked with blood. DO NOT remove what is already there as it acts as a matrix for clotting. Wrap the area with roller gauze. Wrap it tightly but not so tight that blood flow will be cut off to the area or any part beyond the area. These steps should slow down, control or stop the bleeding. ONLY AS A LAST RESORT SHOULD YOU APPLY A TOURNIQUET! A tourniquet should NOT be loosened once it is applied. Any body part beyond the tourniquet will be deprived of blood and will probably have to be amputated.