Dig out your first-aid kit that you take on wilderness trips sometime and see how long it’s been since you used any individual item in there. One of the first tenets of lightweight backpacking is to go through your equipment, find anything that you haven’t used on your past two or three trips, and leave that at home. But if you’re allergic to bee stings, you wouldn’t leave your epi-pen at home just because you haven’t used it on your last few backpacking trips, would you? Would you leave a dose of immodium at home because you didn’t get diarrhea the last time you hiked? What about your sterile gauze pads, alcohol wipes, irrigation syringe, SAM Splint, three types of NSAIDs, snake bite kit, suture kit, scalpels?
|The patient fell off a cliff, and who knows what’s wrong with him now (Wilderness First Aid class in progress).|
Okay, you’re probably not carrying all of that stuff, but when I see most hikers’ first-aid supplies, I wonder if they’ve stopped to think why they have each thing that’s packed so tightly into those pre-packaged kits. I’ve seen hikers with gallon-sized bags full of pills for every occasion, football-sized supply-cases with enough trauma equipment to stock a small ambulance. Oftentimes, people with huge first-aid kits have no medical training, or only medical training related only to workplace or frontcountry settings, where in any emergency you can expect an ambulance in minutes.
Schools and expedition groups like NOLS or Outward Bound obviously have to take larger medical kits, both for insurance reasons and because they often travel far away from maintained trails. But the vast majority of hikers stick to maintained trails that are comparatively easy to escape from. And the vast majority of medical issues you’ll have in the wilderness are not life-threatening (I’m talking blisters, dehydration, tummy issues, scrapes and cuts). The major issues that pop up, they’re most likely not going to be cured by a big, fat first aid kit.
So you shouldn’t bring medical supplies, right? Well, don’t leave them at home without thinking, but remember– the most important first-aid item is your brain. I would recommend to anyone who spends a lot of time in the backcountry to take a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course (WFA courses are often just a weekend, and not incredibly expensive). These courses tend to leave you with the impression that you should take MORE first-aid supplies, but the most important lesson they teach isn’t about how to splint a broken arm or stop a bleeding wound. It’s about staying calm and level-headed when things start to go wrong, and how to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. Because, like I said, almost all of the medical problems you’ll run into while on the trail are not instantly life-threatening.
I’ve been certified as a Wilderness First Responder for seven years, and I’ve led wilderness trips for camps or schools almost every year since then. There are always stories of bad situations, but the worst injuries I’ve seen have been cuts on hands (one from careless use of a knife, and one from slipping while carrying a rock). The first-aid supplies required to treat these problems were a few alcohol wipes, a gauze pad, and some tape. I sometimes think of what I would do in more dire circumstances, especially when hiking on my own, but more often I think of how to avoid dangerous situations. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When the cure could involve carrying someone on a litter down a mountainside, I’ll go with the prevention any day of the week.
So let’s stop looking at our first-aid kits as a solution to worst case scenarios in the wilderness, and start using our brains instead.