Let’s Talk: First Aid

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.

An idea of what “technical” means

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.

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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!

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Let’s Talk: Personal Safety

Real talk – you can die in the wilderness.

There are so many things that can happen to you when you go on an adventure outdoors. Everything from becoming injured to becoming lost. If this happens, you want to make sure you give yourself the best chance at being found and at surviving an extended period of time in the outdoors. That’s why it’s so essential to be prepared every time you go outside. Even routine day hikes can go awry and you don’t want to find yourself in a tight spot. I’d argue that day hikes have the potential to be the most dangerous as you’re more likely to have less gear with you.

So when are you most vulnerable? When you’re a beginner and when you become complacent. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years educating myself on being prepared, but I feel lucky nothing bad ever happened to me when I first started hiking because I just naturally knew less and didn’t understand how to really be prepared. It’s hard to be prepared when you don’t understand the risks. Search and Rescue tasks have been way up because with the pandemic, more people are looking to enjoy nature than ever before. While it’s great that more people are getting outside, it’s also super important to get educated.

But it’s not just beginners who are at risk. Those who are experienced, but become complacent in their safety, are just as much at risk. It’s still easy to take a wrong turn on the trail or find yourself hiking in the dark as you get more confident in your abilities. I’ve noticed with some of my friends, there’s a tendency to bring less stuff on hikes in an effort to lighten packs and move faster. That’s great when everything goes as planned, but you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you left something at home that you shouldn’t have.

So whether you’re a beginner or experienced, what should you do to be prepared for a trip into the backcountry?

Create a Trip Plan

In my opinion, creating a trip plan is one of the most important things you must do. Make sure you research where you are going and outline what you expect the trip to look like. In your research of the trail or camp, you should take into consideration:

  • Seasonal conditions (will all the snow be melted? is there avalanche risk?)
  • Weather conditions (is there rain in the forecast? will it be cold?)
  • Daylight hours (how long will it take? will I be hiking in the dark?)
  • Ability (how long is the hike? how much elevation gain?)
  • Special equipment (will I need microspikes? beacon, probe, or shovel?)
  • Emergency contact (does someone know where I’m going and when I’ll return?)

Having an emergency contact who knows your trip plan is so important. If you become lost, this individual will be able to alert search and rescue quickly and advise them on where to look for you. There’s a lot of other information that can be helpful in assisting search and rescue. Leave a trip plan at BC Adventure Smart, or leave the following information with your contact:

  • Where you’ll be hiking, the route you’ll be taking, and when you’ll check in
  • What equipment you have with you
  • Identifying features of your equipment, such as jacket colour, tent brand, and hiking boots
  • Any other important medical information

10 Essentials

When I first started learning about the essentials, I thought it sounded like a lot of stuff and that it was impossible to bring everything with me on every hike. I’ve since learned that a lot of the essentials don’t actually take up that much space and many are things you would intuitively bring with you anyways.

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For example, even as a beginner I knew it was important to bring extra food and water (#1) in case the hike took longer than expected or was super challenging, and extra clothes (#2) in case it was cold at the top. What I’ve learned over the years is to always bring more water than I think I’ll need and I always bring a pack of water tabs with me as a back up (though these won’t help you on a dry hike). I also learned that your warm clothes should be more than just an extra sweater. Bring a hat and gloves, socks, a rain jacket, and warm layers made of wicking fabrics such as wool, fleece, or poly.

Other essentials that are pretty intuitive and don’t take up much space include a pocketknife or multi-tool (#3), a signaling device (#4) such as a whistle, mirror, or flare, and a headlamp or flashlight (#5). Even though it’s small, a headlamp seems to be something a lot of people leave at home. I think people just plan to use their phone flashlight if they need a light, but remember, you’ll likely be taking pictures on your phone or using it for navigation, which can run out the battery, and it may become a lifeline for you if you get lost. A head lamp enables you to be hands-free, making a dark descent safer. I recommend throwing in an extra set of batteries with your headlamp as well, just in case.

A first aid kit (#6) is also intuitive for most people, yet many hike without it. I have a pretty sizable first aid kit that I carry with me whenever I go out, but there are lots of pocket sized kits available at MEC, canadian tire, walmart, etc. Ideally everyone should have their own small kit in case they get separated and at least one person should have a more substantial kit. Some important things to carry in your kit include band-aids, blister care, dressings, gloves, medical tape, scissors, sam splint, and gauze or tensile bandage. I also like to bring polysporin, wet wipes, tweezers, electrolyte powder, and some medications (peptobismal, advil).

Essentials that can be less intuitive to bring on every day hikes include a firestarter (#7) – I bring a ziploc with waterproof matches and 2 small firestarters – and shelter (#8). I think shelter is one people could get hung up on because it sounds like you should bring a tent, but it’s really as simple as bringing an emergency blanket with you. North Shore Search and Rescue recommend pairing a bivvy sack with your thermal blanket. I keep both in my first aid kit so that I never forget them.

I want to spend a bit of time talking about the last two essentials; navigation (#9) and communication (#10), because it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year. Also, please note, depending on the activity, your essentials list may need to expand to include other specialized gear such as PFD and spare paddle if you’re boating; transceiver, probe, and shovel if you’re in avalanche terrain; or ropes and harness if you’re climbing (as examples).

Navigation

Most people use a cell phone for navigation and communication, myself included until the past year. Options for navigation range from a map and compass, to your phone, to a GPS. Having a map is important because it will set you up for success from the beginning. It’s good to check the map in advance to identify any areas where the trail branches so you can be sure to take the right fork. Maps can become less useful if you become lost and don’t know where you are on the map (unless you’re good at identifying topography, which I still think is an important skill), which is where a GPS can become more useful.

With a GPS, you can track your steps from the very beginning, leaving a digital trail for yourself to follow back if you become lost. The good news is, you don’t really need a dedicated GPS for this and there are lots of great apps you can use directly on your phone. I don’t personally have a GPS and always use my phone, there’s just a few things you need to do in advance to make sure it will work for you in the field.

GaiaGPS

If you’re relying on a GPS app, make sure to download the map offline before your adventure and to turn on location services. A lot of maps load from the network and you don’t want to find yourself without navigation because you forgot to pre-load the map. You also want to make sure your battery is going to last if you’re using your phone (especially if you’re also relying on your phone for communication). Make sure you have full battery before you leave and bring a power bank with you. There’s lots of trail apps out there, I personally like the GaiaGPS app. Just be aware that the trails on many apps are based on user data – just because you see a trail on the map doesn’t mean it’s safe; some trails may pass through climbing routes or only be used for winter travel, so you still need to do your research.

Communication

Communication is probably one of the hardest parts of emergency preparedness. It’s expensive to purchase satellite devices, so understandably a lot of people rely on their phones or the fact that they’re hiking in a group and have left a trip plan. The obvious problem with relying on a cell phone is that you may not always have service. If you only hike near cities with good cell service, then it’s probably fine – just make sure you know how to get your GPS coordinates off of your phone in the event you need to be rescued.

If a cell phone is your only communication device and you’re not sure if you’ll have service, then hiking in a group and leaving a trip plan with someone you trust can reduce your risk. By hiking in a group, it’s easier to manage injuries on the trail because it’s usually possible for one of your hiking mates to provide first aid or to turn back for help. It won’t be great if you have an emergency that requires a quick extraction, but at least one of your fellow hikers should be able to go for help faster than having to wait for your emergency contact to raise the alarm when you don’t check in. And in a scenario where your whole group gets lost, you still have the safeguard of your emergency contact to send Search and Rescue to look for you.

However, if you’re going to be spending any extended time in the wilderness – where help or your check in time with your emergency contact are more than a day away – then you should really either buy or rent a reliable satellite communication device for the trip. They are expensive, but it could literally save your life.

inreach

I’m not an expert on satellite devices, so you’ll definitely want to do your own research. Options range from the SPOT, to the InReach, to a personal locator beacon. I recently purchased an InReach Mini from Garmin that I’ve been very happy with. The InReach is more expensive to buy upfront, and costs ~$15-25 a month for a basic subscription. If you won’t actually be using the device that much, you can suspend your subscription for months at a time, which is a nice feature. SPOT has a cheaper upfront cost, but I understand the annual subscription can get pricey and I haven’t heard very good things about their customer service.

The main difference between the two is that SPOT is a one way communication device, so most likely you’ll only be using it to notify your emergency contact to how the trip is going, or to activate the SOS function for emergency rescue. The InReach is a two-way communication device that works like SMS. It has the SOS function as well, but you can also send and receive texts to anyone with a cell phone or email address. Both are great if you find yourself running a day behind schedule or you have a non life-threatening injury, because you can notify your emergency contact. However, my InReach saved us a lot of grief this summer when Brandon’s car broke down on the forestry road to Cape Scott, because after hitching a ride back into town, I was still able to communicate with the group stuck on the forestry road. Plus in an emergency, it’s reassuring to get an immediate response back when you activate SOS, being able to communicate with you enables rescuers to be more prepared for your situation.

Grow Your Knowledge

That pretty much concludes this blog post – I just wanted to note that while the internet is a great resource, there are lots of hands-on ways to grow your skills as well. There are lots of organizations that offer group hikes focused on skill development and I’ve seen a lot of webinars popping up with safety and skills based workshops. Red Cross offers several first aid courses – I don’t recommend their emergency first aid course as it’s too basic, but I’ve done both their standard and wilderness first aid courses, which are excellent. If you spend a lot of time skiing or snowshoeing, I’d also recommend taking Avalanche Safety Training, or if you canoe or kayak, to take the respective training course from Paddle Canada.

Finally, check out the new docu-series on North Shore Search and Rescue, which you can stream for free on Knowledge Network. North Shore is the busiest S&R in Canada and the documentary does an excellent job showcasing the work that they do and the importance of being prepared in the backcountry. Happy adventures everyone!

Let’s Talk: Backcountry Bathrooms

Okay friends, let’s talk about using the bathroom in the outdoors. I’ve done a lot of overnight trips without bathroom facilities this year and I’m shocked by the amount of bathroom waste being left in the wilderness. I’m a wastewater engineer by trade and a passionate advocate for leave no trace camping, so let’s get dirty and talk about it!

You’d think using the bathroom in the wilderness would be intuitive, but it’s absolutely not for a lot of people, and that’s totally okay. You don’t need to feel bad if the prospect of peeing and pooping in the wilderness is scary or overwhelming for you, but you do need to do your research about it to be prepared. So I’d like to use this post to talk about some tips and proper leave no trace principles, so that we can all commit to a healthy and clean wilderness and so that Carolyn doesn’t have to avoid stepping in HUMAN POOP the next time she tries to make a bear cache.

Tip #1: Do your research about the trail

Before you go anywhere, always research the trail so that you know what to expect and ensure that the trail is within your ability. This includes checking if there are any facilities along the trail where you’ll be hiking or camping. I would say that generally, most hikes in southwestern BC have outhouses at the trailhead. There are hikes that don’t, but most hikes within provincial parks will have a toilet near the parking lot, so make sure to use it before you start your hike. Fewer hikes have outhouses at the end destination, but if it’s a popular backcountry camping location, odds are there may be an outhouse there too. Unless you have digestive concerns, for most people, access to a toilet at the start and end of the hike is usually sufficient, just make sure to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you, because these are rarely guaranteed to be available.

Tip #2: Plan ahead

If access to toilets are limited, pay attention to your surroundings along the hike. If a hike has a long open section, you may want to consider using the toilet before you get to that section because there will be limited privacy later. Keep an eye open for more private areas where you can hide behind a tree, or if you need to poop, pay attention to the ground conditions and look for a spot that would be easier to dig. Take into consideration where the water sources are and avoid them or go downstream of where you collect your water. Planning ahead also includes making sure you have the right supplies with you, both for using the bathroom, and for disposing of your waste. I always bring a ziploc bag with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, plus another ziploc bag for my used toilet paper. Bring a trowel for digging catholes, or a waste disposal bag if catholes are not possible (see below).

Tip #3: Properly dispose of all bathroom waste

In my opinion, this is the hardest part and the part that most people get wrong. Never ever leave waste. I know pee tissue is gross y’all, but it’s not as gross as a beautiful trail that’s cluttered up with half de-composed pee tissue. There’s no getting around this one, unless there’s an outhouse, you just have to take it with you. Use an extra ziploc bag, double bag it, or bring an empty pringles container along with you, whatever you have to do to make it bearable. But you have to take it with you. If this is really a challenge for you, consider using the drip dry method or getting a pee cloth (see below).

Tip #4: Research proper cathole technique

I recommend using leavenotrace.ca for proper techniques, but to summarize here, the two most important considerations are location and technique. As discussed in Tip #2, find a location away from the trail, that has good soils, and that is away from or downsteam of your water source. I’ve found that soil type really is a big consideration because it influences how easy it will be to dig the cathole. Organic soils are best because they will help decomposition and are easier for digging. As for technique, the hole should be 6-8 inches deep (length of the trowel blade) and 4-6 inches wide. It’s not necessarily better to dig a deeper hole as it will be harder for the waste to decompose. Afterwards, fill the cathole with the removed dirt and disguise with other native materials. You can bury your poo tissue in the cathole, however, try to use as little as possible as it does take a while to decompose and some people recommend just taking your poo tissue with you too. For the same reason, do not try and bury your pee tissue from earlier as it’s just too much material. Overall, it is better to pack the tissue out as much as possible. Lightweight trowels are easily available at camping stores, Canadian Tire, Walmart, etc. I have a plastic Coghlan’s trowel that literally cost me $3.

Tip #5: Be prepared for your period

You can absolutely go hiking and camping on your period and it’s smart to be prepared for it. First of all, even if you’re not on or expecting your period, bring supplies for it. Hiking and camping are a big change to your normal habits and can cause your period to come early. Otherwise, dealing with your period on the trail isn’t really that different from anywhere else. Take extra care in washing and sanitizing your hands both before and after you use the toilet and pack everything out, including used tampons and pads. These will not decompose in an outhouse or cathole and may be dug up by wild animals, so they need to be packed out. Bring something a little more heavy duty for waste disposal (a pringles can instead of a ziploc) and mask the smell with other garbage, like used tea bags. As with all garbage, you need to keep it in your bear cache overnight. If you use a menstrual cup (see below), you can use a cathole to empty the cup. REI has a great article about menstruation in the backcountry if you want to read more.

Tip #6: Proper squatting technique

Some of you may laugh at me for including this one, but I still believe it’s not necessarily intuitive to everyone. The sitting position that we use on the toilet is not really a natural position for using the bathroom. Don’t try and mimic a toilet position in the wilderness, it’s tiring and not as effective. I’ve heard some people will bench against a tree for support, but my recommendation is to squat with your knees out so that you get your bottom as close to the ground as possible. Try and keep your feet a good distance apart and use your hand to brace against whatever is nearby. If you’re on a slope, pee downwards to avoid the pee running back into your shoes. Likewise, if its super windy, pee with the wind. If you still find squatting really difficult, consider getting a pee funnel to make it easier. Some people really love these, just make sure you give consideration to how you will clean and store it.

 

That’s it for my tips, but there are 3 more backcountry bathroom considerations that I’d like to discuss:

1. What to do when it’s not possible to dig a cathole? There are some situations where it’s just not possible to dig a cathole, primarily in the alpine where it is mostly rock. Fortunately I haven’t been in this situation very often and I usually try and plan ahead (i.e. poop in advance when it’s possible to bury it), but unfortunately in some cases you will just have to take your poop waste with you as well. If it’s a short haul, use a sealed container like a pringles can and dispose of it when possible by burying it or dumping in an outhouse. If it’s a long haul, consider getting a proper waste disposal bag. I don’t have experience with these myself, but there are waste disposal bags, such as the wag bag, on the market.

2. What’s the deal with menstrual cups? Menstrual cups are definitely not for everyone and if you’d prefer to continue using pads or tampons, that is totally great, though I’d recommend against free-bleed in the backcountry for wildlife reasons. Essentially, it’s a silicone cup with a stem that collects menstrual blood and is removed, dumped, and cleaned up to every 12 hours. Personally, I’ve been using a menstrual cup for several years and I absolutely love it. I find it more comfortable than tampons or pads and I like that you don’t have to change it as frequently. It’s great for the backcountry because it’s easier for disposal and you only have to carry the one little cup with you instead of a stash of products. But it’s definitely messy and that can be a challenge to manage. Always wash your hands before inserting or removing. It can also be hard to wash the cup in the backcountry, so I usually just give it a wipe with some toilet paper or pour some water on it if I’m only out for a day or two. There’s lots of cups on the market, I have only tried DivaCup, but I love it.

3. What about pee cloths? I don’t personally have experience with pee cloths since I don’t mind just dealing with pee tissue, but I’ve heard a lot of people really love them. It’s basically a microfiber quick dry cloth that can be used multiple times and then laundered after the trip. If you have one, you can carry less toilet paper and subsequently, less pee tissue. I won’t get into it because I don’t have any experience with them, but I’ve heard Kula is a great brand and recommend checking them out if you want to learn more about it.

 

And that concludes my bathroom talk. It’s important to take care of ourselves and the environment, so it’s also important to normalize talking about it. I hope you learned something and always do your best to be prepared in the wilderness!