We recently hosted a wilderness safety training and first aid course here at the Outpost, and we can’t overstate the importance of receiving this kind of safety training for those who regularly participate in outdoor activities. Whether you enjoy rafting, hiking, mountain biking or camping, there are clear life-saving benefits to knowing these skills.
Wilderness First Aid (WFA) is a specific study in First Aid which involves the medical care of those in remote areas that will be difficult for emergency medical professionals to reach.
The most common issues experienced in WFA will be discussed here. We are not medical professionals and encourage all those who are seeking medical advice or more information to contact a medical provider or Raft Outdoor Adventures directly for more information about one of our training sessions.
This occurs when a person’s core body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Center for Disease Control. We’re mentioning it first on the list because this is a problem that causes over 600 deaths in the United States each year, and early detection can save a life. If someone is wet and there is a slight breeze, hypothermia can set in quickly, even in warmer weather, which is why our raft guides are trained to be especially tuned to its symptoms.
One of the first signs is uncontrollable shivering. Those with mild hypothermia begin by showing signs of disorientation, irritability, apathy or confusion. The condition can worsen rapidly, so pay careful attention to these early signs. Individuals may begin slurring their speech, have difficulty walking straight and staying balanced, and may claim to be drowsy. In its initial stage, hypothermia is manageable, but any worse and it requires hospitalization.
Mild hypothermia can be managed with rewarming, which relies on one’s own body heat to rewarm the body. Remove wet clothing and dry any wet skin, and wrap the individual in sleeping bags, towels, or whatever else is available. The best treatment for hypothermia is prevention and monitoring the situation.
Heat Exhaustion or Sunstroke
Both are most likely to occur during heavy exercise in areas of high humidity (Like much of the Southeast), or during activity without adequate water consumption. Symptoms include: headache, mental confusion, irritability, excessive sweating, weakness, dizziness, cramps, and clammy skin. Treatment for heat exhaustion and heat cramps is similar: Find shade as soon as possible for the individual, and make that person lie down. Loosen any tight clothing, and sprinkle the person with water. Make the individual affected drink small amounts of water every few minutes. According to the International Wilderness Medical Association, the most effective way to treat heat exhaustion is by submerging the affected individual in cool water. It appears to work twice as fast as the best misting methods.
Burns can be very hard to treat, especially in remote environments, because the type and severity of burn vary so much. First degree burns, like sunburns, involve only the outer layer of the skin, and heal in 2-3 days. Symptoms include mild stinging pain and redness at the site of the burn. If any first aid is needed, rinse the burned area with cool water, and apply a topical aid like aloe vera gel to lessen the pain. Second-degree burns affect the top layers of the skin and can heal in 2-3 weeks. Scarring may happen with this type of burn. The first aid here is the same as for first-degree burns, but if a blister forms, do not pop it. It’s there to help the skin heal. Third-degree burns are critical burns, and destroy all the layers of skin.
These types of burns can be life threatening, and the treatment for those involves managing the wound until emergency medical services can arrive. Do not remove any clothing from the burned area, but cover with a clean cloth without applying pressure. Do not redress the wound unless it cannot be treated for more than 24 hours.
Cramping is most often caused by lack of water or salt or lack of oxygen to your muscles. Cramps from lack of oxygen can be relieved by rapid deep breathing and stretching. Cramps from lack of water or salt can be treated by stretching the muscle, drinking water or eating salt.
Insect and Animal Bites
Depending on what type of bite (bats, rabbits, wolves, raccoons, snake, or some insects), they can be fatal if left untreated. If bitten, the first consideration is cleaning the wound. While this can be difficult in the wilderness, try to clean as well as you can. Scrub with soap and sterile water if available, otherwise make sure there are no foreign bodies (such as dirt or debris) in the wound, and that it looks clean. Dress the wound and monitor it. Bite wounds should be cleaned and redressed daily until it receives proper medical attention. Other wounds should be treated similarly, by dressing and monitoring the area.
Don’t let the name fool you, this can occur in altitudes as low as 8,000 ft. Acute altitude sickness is the most common form, and the mildest. The early symptoms are drowsiness, and weakness, especially during exercise. If facing acute altitude sickness, moving to a lower altitude area until symptoms are gone is a common treatment. Otherwise, Aspirin may be taken for headache, providing oxygen to the affected, or a Gamow bag, an inflatable pressure bag, can be used if available.
If you’re in the wilderness and someone gets hurt, it’s important to note that transporting an injured person is difficult, and can do more harm than good. Most medical professionals recommend having one person stay with the injured and others going to find help.
For more information on Wilderness First Aid, please contact Raft Outdoor Adventures to attend an upcoming class.