First aid is one of those things I always knew was important, but it took me a while to really learn just how useful it is. Being able to swim was something that was always really important to my Mom, so she put me in swimming lessons as a kid and later signed me up for lifeguarding courses when I turned 14. I did junior lifeguarding until I was 16, when I completed my National Lifeguard course and was certified for 4 years. First aid is a major component of this course and it is something that has served me well ever since. I’ve done several variations of first aid courses for work and guiding ever since and I think it is so worthwhile to invest time in learning basic first aid. Even if you don’t have a formal certification, being able to recognize symptoms and treat simple emergencies is a huge asset in the outdoors.
I was employed for 2 summers as a lifeguard at age 18, other than that I’ve never had any formal capacity as a first aider. Yet, since then I’ve treated a seizure, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, a broken arm, injured knees, and any number of cuts, scrapes, and blisters. I never leave my first aid kit at home, and I’ve been surprised by how often I’ve needed it. You can be resourceful in the wilderness, but I’ve never regretted carrying along a few extra first aid items (and you will definitely regret if you need them and don’t have it). I think the most important thing is knowing what to bring and how to recognize symptoms.
First Aid Training
Let’s start with training. The easiest way to learn is to do a formal course. There are 3 basic first aid courses: Emergency, Standard, and Wilderness First Aid. Having done them all at least once, I think Standard First Aid is the best bang for your buck. I don’t like Emergency First Aid, it’s only a 1 day course and it covers very little outside of CPR and AED. While these are good skills to have, I don’t think they are the most practical. I’m much less likely to need CPR and much more likely to need to bandage a broken wrist, so I find Standard First Aid more practical (plus you learn CPR/AED in all 3 courses).
Standard First Aid is generally a 2 day course and covers diagnosing and treating all different kinds of ailments, which is why I think it’s more useful. Treating heat stroke was the most life threatening thing I’ve ever done and I was able to diagnose it incredibly quickly, to the benefit of the individual (read about that experience here). Even for simple things, diagnosis can make a big difference. I was once 3 days into the wilderness and had a frightened hiker approach me with heartburn, I gave him pepto-bismal and it resolved in no time (somehow he’d never heard of heartburn – he described his symptoms and Emily immediately diagnosed it as heartburn since she gets it a lot, while I sang the pepto-bismal rhyme and he looked at us like we had 3 heads). So in my opinion, Standard First Aid is more practical than Emergency.
Wilderness First Aid sounds like it would be the most applicable for outdoor adventure (and it is), but it’s also the most expensive and has the biggest time commitment (2 long days or 3 shorter days). In my opinion, Wilderness First Aid is glorified Standard First Aid. It covers the same material, but from the perspective of someone in the wilderness with limited resources. So you practice splinting with sticks, homemade stretchers, and hypothermia wraps, but it’s not substantially different. Though once you have Wilderness First Aid, it’s half the work to re-certify it every 3 years (just a day), so I try and keep mine up to date. So if financial is a concern, I’d recommend Standard First Aid as the best course.
Understanding Your Abilities
The second part of first aid is knowing what to bring with you and keeping a cool head in an emergency. If you panic, your patient will panic, so my approach has always been to be reassuring while asking lots of questions. Honestly, the presence of a first aid kit and care from someone who seems like they might be able to help is often reassurance enough for the patient. The other important thing is knowing when to call for help and doing so immediately. For example, you can probably handle small cuts and scrapes yourself, as well as mild dehydration. When my friend broke her wrist on a hike, I was able to wrap it for her to make her comfortable enough to walk back to the car on her own.
Dehydration is one of the more dangerous problems you can encounter, so being able to recognize it is important so that you can self treat. When I did the North Coast Trail, on the third day, me and Emily were both feeling really low and when Emily started to complain of an upset stomach, I immediately made the whole group stop hiking and we took a break while we both chugged a litre of electrolytes. While Emily’s energy remained low, our quick action prevented it from getting worse and we were able to finish the day in good spirits, with no injuries. In contrast, when my friend got heat stroke on the trail to Assiniboine, I didn’t know she was feeling bad until it was really too late. Her muscles started cramping, she couldn’t stand, and she even started losing feeling in her legs – all of these symptoms occurred within 15 minutes of her stopping to say she felt sick. In this case, I immediately made an SOS to emergency services on my inreach and spent 3 hours rehydrating her while waiting for help. Don’t try and be a hero; sometimes professionals and a quick extraction are needed and you are much wiser to make the call in those scenarios. Read my post on personal safety for more about communication devices and preparedness.
What to Bring
And the last thing I want to highlight is the more practical side of what to bring with you. Lots of places sell small first aid kits and most people opt for a tiny one to throw in their backpack. I wouldn’t say my first aid kit is large, but it is more sizable than what most people bring. Sometimes I lament the extra weight, but I always bring it. REI has a pretty comprehensive list of what to bring, which you can view here. Personally, I like to bring band-aids in varying sizes, a blister kit, sutures, antibacterial wipes, dressings, compression gauze, a tensile bandage, surgical scissors, triangle bandage, tweezers, safety pins, medical tape, polysporin, and latex gloves. I also bring electrolytes, advil or tylenol, pepto-bismal, and an emergency blanket and bivvy sack. Depending where I’m going, sometimes I throw in a small bottle of aloe and in the winter I will add hand warmers. One thing I don’t have is a sam splint, which I’ve been considering adding because it’s on a lot of first aid kit lists, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t just use a stick or a hiking pole in an emergency.
Your first aid kit is only meant to complement your 10 essentials, so make sure you also have extra clothes, food and water, as these can also help in a first aid emergency. If someone in your party is injured and it takes you longer to hike back – you don’t want to further endanger yourselves by not having other essentials, like a headlamp. I always remind myself to pack for the hike that goes wrong rather than the hike that goes right. I bring my insulated seat cushion on most hikes as well, because it can make a big difference to your comfort if you’re stuck sitting on the cold ground for hours waiting for help.
To conclude, my biggest recommendation is to get a first aid kit and learn what to do with it. Learning how to diagnose symptoms and how to treat them can make someone feel a lot more comfortable in an emergency, and may even save your life or the life of a friend. Stay safe out there!