A Woodsman's Wisdom: First Aid

You’re hunting with two friends, you’re an hour from the trailhead and another two hours from town.  Suddenly, one of the guys says he doesn’t feel too good, sits down for a rest, and then collapses.  What’s your next move?

This is not the time to wish that you knew something about first aid.  If you’re going to be spending time in remote areas, which is where the best hunting usually is, you owe it to yourself and your hunting companions to know the basics of first aid.  If you plan on spending significant amounts of time off the pavement, learn first aid, and carry some basic gear.

first aid helicopter

It’s become common for people to become too reliant on cell phones and GPS units, and to assume that, if the whole world turns to mud, all they have to do is call for help.  In an ideal world, when things go bad in the backcountry, you’d dial up your local search-and-rescue outfit, give them your lat/long readings then wait for the helicopter to show up.  An hour later, you’re in your local ER, and everyone lives happily ever after.

mountain range

The real world is more complicated.  In the real world, cell phones don’t always work, rescue units take days or just plan can’t get to you due to weather, terrain, or nightfall, you’re unsure of your exact location, etc.  In short, getting help in the backcountry will never be as easy as calling for a taxi home.  One thing you learn in wilderness emergency training is, when things go bad, you don’t count on going for help, you are the help.   When you’re in a remote location, it’s your responsibility to take care of your party, and to be able to stabilize the situation for however long it takes for advanced life support to reach you.

snow covering

Of all the potential mishaps associated with hunting, gunshot wounds are the first that spring to mind.  However, the rarity of gun accidents means that chances are you’ll be dealing with much more mundane problems.  Most backcountry mishaps involve cuts, burns, strains, sprains and breaks, cold and heat stress, and heart and medication issues.  However, on occasion, really bad things do happen, and your level of preparedness could save a life.

first aid booklet

The simplest way to prepare is to buy a basic instruction book, throw it in your pack, and hope you never have to use it.  This is not the method recommended by most experts.

Next up is to take a basic first aid course from your local Red Cross or other community organization.   You’ll learn basic wound care, how to deal with broken bones and sprained ankles, CPR, temperature extremes, etc.

first aid and cpr trained

If you live in an area with lots of outdoor recreation, you may be able to find a wilderness first aid course.  This level of instruction offers more info on how to deal with medical issues in the backcountry, how to improvise solutions when you’re far from help, and evacuation problems.

The ultimate level of backcountry first aid is a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class.  This is an intensive 70-80 hour course that covers every conceivable medical issue you’re likely to encounter in the woods.  Should you have to reduce a dislocated shoulder, administer injectable epinephrine, deliver a baby, or deal with any one of a myriad of other medical emergency issues in the backcountry, this course will give you the training to deal with the situation.

wilderness first responder

Where the WFR class differs from an EMT class is in the emphasis on taking care of emergencies when you’re far from civilization, and the only technology you’re likely to have is the camping, hiking and hunting gear you carry, along with a basic first aid kit.

first aid kit

You’ll also learn about backcountry decision making, risk management, evacuation challenges, and legal and medical considerations when treating injuries.  Although it’s a substantial investment of time and money, the training provided will prove to be invaluable if you’re caught in a medical emergency on your hunt.

emergency helicopter

Another thing you learn in a WFR course is the appropriate level of first aid gear to carry.  If you’ll be flying in to a hunting camp in the Alaska Range you won’t be carrying the same kit you’ll have for an overnight backpack near home.  You’ll also learn to be efficient in the gear you carry, making items do double-duty to minimize the weight and space required for your kit.

Here are a few basics in wilderness medicine:

water bottles

•    Water helps almost everything.  It’s surprising how many treatment regimes begin with the command to hydrate your patient.  This is a vital consideration in treating heat stress, hypothermia, dehydration due to perspiration, diarrhea, or vomiting, internal bleeding, etc.  Even if the only issue is a stress response, having a drink of cool water is very helpful.  This underlines the need to have a way to purify plenty of water for your party.

purify water

•    Learn how to stop and treat bleeding, and how to clean and dress all kinds of wounds. One of the most common hunting mishaps is a deep knife wound when field dressing a big game animal.  Infection is almost a given under these conditions, and knowing how to deal with this possibility is essential.


•    Everyone in a group should be aware of any potential medical issues of all the members.  If one of your buddies has heart medication, allergy problems, asthma, a seizure disorder or any other such issues, it’s best to know about it before the stuff hits the fan. Don’t be shy about disclosing this data to your friends- you may be incapable of doing so in an emergency.

first aid and personal safety

•    If someone in your group has a serious medical problem, you need to know how to take and monitor vital signs, and how to keep track of your patient’s condition.  Learn some basic medical terminology so you can efficiently communicate with rescue personnel.  When the paramedics show up, they need to know more than, “He passed out a while ago, and he’s been breathing funny.”  Pay attention, take notes, and pass them along when help arrives.


•    If someone can’t walk out, it’s almost never a good idea to try and carry him.  Unless the person is small, you’re close to the trailhead and you’ve got lots of help, carrying a person out is way tougher than you think it’s going to be.  You’re better off making your patient comfortable, keeping the stress level low, and sending someone out for help.

carrying victim

Wilderness hunting is a true adventure, and usually quite safe.  Once in a while, though, stuff happens.  If you learn first aid and how to manage your situation when things don’t go well, you and your friends are much more likely to return from those adventures as healthy as you were when you started.

(Photo’s courtesy of TRAILSOURCE.COM, CARLOS62, Jaroendy!!!, The SFGL)

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