British Columbia

Wilderness safety: how to be prepared for an emergency in the backcountry

B.C.'s remote backcountry can be treacherous, and minor injuries can balloon into major medical emergencies while people wait for help to arrive.

Time and distance are key factors in surviving an emergency in the wilderness, says instructor

An aerial view of the Selkirk Mountains and the Darkwoods lands in southern B.C. treasured for its backcountry recreation opportunities. (Nature Conservancy of Canada)

During the summer, many of us head out to the back country in search of solitude and adventure.

But the remote parts of B.C. can be treacherous and minor injuries can balloon into major medical emergencies, while people wait for help to arrive.

Time and distance are key factors in surviving an emergency in the wilderness, according to Kieran Hartle, the owner and lead instructor at the Coast Health and Safety Training Academy.

"You're out on the trail. Who knows how long you're going to be out there. If something happens late at night or in bad weather you may be 24 hours or more taking care of an injured or sick person," said Hartle.

Typical first aid classes are designed for situations where emergency response professionals can get there quickly — you're trying to keep a person safe, while waiting for professional help to arrive.

In the backcountry, help may not arrive for several days.

Responding to an emergency in the wild 

1. Food, water, warmth

Wilderness first aid courses talk about something called the wilderness medicine triad, or as Hartle likes to call it in his classes, the wilderness triangle of death: hypothermia, hypoglycemia and hypovolemia. It's important, he says, to keep warm, keep hydrated, and keep your sugar levels up.

"Without those things being supported, people can go down hill very quickly."

2. Treating Injuries

The most common injuries people experience in the wild are cuts and burns and the greatest risk is an infection. Clean, cover, and care for wounds over time, Hartle says, paying extra attention to cleaning out foreign matter.

"For big cuts, if you can't get them perfectly clean, don't close them. Pack some gauze in there. Cover it with a nice sterile dressing and then keep it clean and dry."

3. Medications

You may be planning on a short hike, but when heading into the wilderness you should be prepared for several days. Bring extra medication. It's also important to be really aware of who's in your group, what kind of conditions they have, and what kind of medications they need. If anyone has asthma or diabetes, for example, you should be prepared and know what to do in case of emergency, for example, which inhaler to use.

The Coast Health and Safety Training Academy will be running an intensive three-day course on wilderness first aid in North Vancouver's Cates Park from July 3rd to 5th.

To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled Wilderness Safety


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