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02/24/2015 by Brian Eagen Click to Tweet

Wilderness Medicine

is a 3 Step Process

The average national response time for emergency medical services in urban and rural areas is 9.4 minutes. So when someone gets hurt, your immediate reaction is to call 911. We don't have that luxury in the backcountry. Even if you've only hiked a mile or two down a trail, it can take hours or even days to evacuate someone who has a severe injury.

This lack of immediate care can easily scare folks away from more committing trips, but it doesn't need to. There are three tools that we can use to combat any potential medical, environmental, or traumatic issues that might arise on our trips: prevention, advanced training, and a well maintained first aid kit.


This key step is often overlooked when addressing wilderness medicine. Smart decision making, pro-active self care, and quality preparedness go a long way in reducing illness and injury in the backcountry. Here are five of my top tips:

  • Maintain Good Group Hygiene
    Wash your hands with soap frequently (especially before cooking), don't share water bottles, and don't share bowls or other eating utensils. If one person gets sick in the group, keep them AWAY from all food preparation and clean up. Instead of sticking your hands inside a food bag, pour it out into a personal bowl, hat, or someone's cupped hands.
  • Maintain Good Personal Hygiene
    One of the best indicators of an experienced outdoors-person is their level of personal hygiene. Clean hands, clean nails, clean face, clean feet... It takes some extra effort, but you stay healthier and feel better.
  • Pro-Active Self Care
    I wrote an entire article about good self care tips. Some key points include: listening to what your body needs, keeping a regular flow of water and food, and treating your feet well. The best way to prevent injury is to take excellent care of your own body. Speak up when you need to rest or if you are feeling uncomfortable with your situation.
  • Know When to Stop
    It can be a hard decision to turn back from a goal, but your ability to make risk management decisions based on objective and subjective hazards goes a long way to prevent injury. Most trauma incidents occur when people get tired or too far out of their comfort zone. It's okay to push the limits, but be smart about it.
  • Prepare Yourself Ahead of Time
    Don't show up for a week-long backpacking trip without having ever backpacked before. Don't try to climb a 14 thousand foot mountain without any training. Your body needs time to learn how to efficiently move through varied terrain, explore its limits, and ease into it.
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Advanced Training

I cannot stress this enough. Advanced, wilderness-specific medical training is FAR more valuable than a first aid kit. WMI and WMA offer hundreds of wilderness first aid courses each year across the country. This two or three day course costs about $225 and is WORTH EVERY PENNY! This is an investment in your safety and the safety of any group you travel with.

This course covers a huge range of medical topics, including how to safely assess a patient, deal with hypothermia, identify a possible spinal injury, clean and bandage multiple types of wounds, and much much more. You'll get a small class size and plenty of time to get your medical questions answered by fantastic instructors. I have taken two WFA classes and two WFR (a higher level) classes at this point, and each one has been a great experience.

First Aid Kit

The final piece of the medical tools triangle is a first aid kit uniquely created for each trip. Change what types of supplies you bring based on the length of the trip, types of activities, number of people, and any specific risk factors you might encounter. First aid supplies can be broken down into four categories: basic life support, trauma, environmental, and medical supplies. Pack items that are hard to improvise and that are versatile, and don't bring items that are above your level of training. Learn all about how to build a first aid kit by reading our new article here.


Get an advanced level of wilderness medical training (WFA); pack a first aid kit based on your activity, user group, and risk factors; prevent injuries and illnesses from happening.

The Beta:

- Wilderness Medicine Institute

- Wilderness Medical Associates


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