Wilderness has paired with Wanaka Search and Rescue for a four-part series reviewing basic backcountry skills. Part 3 looks at first aid kits and getting fit for your summer objectives. By Carrie Miller
With spring warming the air, our thoughts turn to adventure, dreaming of epic summer missions, perhaps extending our backcountry legs a little further than we did last year.
It is the ideal time of year to get prepared, to stock the first-aid kit, review your skill-set and increase your fitness level so you’re mentally and physically confident for whatever task you’re setting yourself.
First aid readiness
Now is the time to review your first-aid readiness, from refreshing your training to updating and replenishing your first aid kit.
“Any injury you can imagine, you can obtain in the outdoors,” says Brent Hollow, who has spent a lifetime in first aid and is trained in advanced cardiac life support with a degree in paramedicine and a postgraduate diploma in emergency management. He’s been involved with Search and Rescue (SAR) since 1990 and also works as a hunting guide, first aid course instructor and medical director for major events like Challenge Wanaka and Red Bull Defiance.
“People often get fixed on broken bones or major haemorrhages in the backcountry, but more common injuries are hypothermia, strains and sprains, and medical problems like heart attack, diabetes and stroke,” Hollow says.
Basic first aid skills
Brent describes basic first aid training as knowing what to look for and how to manage things that go wrong.
“Every person involved in the outdoors should at least do an outdoor first aid course,” Hollow says. “Let’s say you’re hiking on a scree slide beyond the Ahuriri. It’s getting dark, someone breaks a leg, there’s weather coming in and you’ll have to manage the situation for two or three days. Do you have the training to cope?”
The bare minimum skill-set Hollow recommends is:
- Be able to evaluate your situation. “Before I do something, I run through a quick mental checklist,” he says. “If I run across this snow chute, is there a risk? If there is, what is the risk and what are my options? Doing that has kept me safe in the backcountry for 35 years.”
- Know your DRSABC – Danger, Response, Send for help, Airway, Breathing, CPR.
- Know how to check responsiveness and open and maintain an airway/breathing (if necessary).
- Be able to stop severe haemorrhage and understand when you can or can’t move a patient.
- Know how to manage exposure, fractures, strains, sprains, diarrhoea, vomiting, headaches and hypothermia.
- “Most of first aid is having a structure to apply to what you might encounter so you don’t miss something,” Hollow says. “Can you manage your issues, can you manage your mate’s issues, can they manage yours?”
The basic first aid kit
“If you’re walking more than a couple of minutes away from the car, carry a small first aid kit,” Hollow advises. “People seem to think ‘it’s just a day walk, we don’t need to bring anything for that.’ Bollocks. Rob Roy is a very popular track here in Wanaka and we’ve done a couple of rescues up there. You always have to assume that a rescue helicopter is hours or days away – not minutes. It’s up to you to manage the situation.”
Hollow’s “absolute minimum” first aid kit includes:
- Non-latex rubber gloves and a face shield (for mouth-to-mouth). “Everyone who’s bleeding is infected until proven otherwise,” he says. “Protect yourself. But there are a lot of latex allergies out there, so make sure the gloves are non-latex.”
- Emergency trauma bandage.
- Survival bag or thermal blanket. “I prefer a survival bag – it’s tougher and more effective,” Hollow says.
- One roll of good quality fabric strapping tape. “It’s the most commonly used thing in my kit,” says Hollow. “You can do so much with this, from closing wound edges to managing blisters. Remember to always tape the hot spot before it becomes a blister.”
- Fabric dressing tape.
- A small pair of scissors or rescue shears.
- A handful of first aid plasters.
- Poly-amp or saline for irrigating wounds or eyes. “This is a must for mountain bikers,” Hollow says. “If you lose your vision because of dust or grit in your eye, it can quickly get you into more trouble.”
- A card of paracetamol. “Ibuprofen or anti-inflammatories can impair renal function, so paracetamol is better.”
- Personal medication. “Make sure everyone in your group knows what you take and where you carry it – this is essential if you have a personal issue you’re managing, like food allergies or diabetes. Don’t wait until you’re in trouble to tell them how to help you.”
- A small first aid guide and/or laminated first aid card. “Every paramedic carries one,” Hollow says. “We use it as a checklist so we don’t forget things.”
- A personal locator beacon (PLB) and mobile phone. “These are mandatory.They take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue.”
“This kit doesn’t take any room and you can manage a lot with this,” Holloway says.
The full monty fist aid kit
If Hollow is going on a longer or more challenging expedition, he “escalates the amount of gear and the level of skill in the party”.
His “amped up” first aid kit includes:
- Oro-pharyngeal airway, which keeps the airway open and acts as a bite shield.
- Smaller dressings including waterproof stereo-strips.
- Another roll of the quality fabric tape.
- Tampons. “These are great for puncture wounds or nasal bleeds,” Brent says.
- Burn cream sachets.
- Lip balm for chapped lips (it also burns well and can be used as a firelighter).
- Heartburn medication.
- Antiseptic cream.
- Saline irrigation.
- Small lightweight splint for minor fractures.
- Clothing shears.
- Forceps for removing splinters.
- Notepad and pen.
- Rehydration solution.
- Energy gels for hypoglycaemia or hypothermia. “If someone is conscious and shivering, they will go through their energy stores really fast. Energy gels help prevent or push off the onset of severe hypothermia. And remember: if someone is cold and shivering, they’re cold. If they’re cold and not shivering, they’re really cold,” Brent says.
- Lighter and fire-starter.
- Compass, whistle, and heliograph (signal mirror) – “It’s a great way of getting a helicopter’s attention.”
- Adrenaline amps, antihistamines and more severe painkillers. “Remember that if you’re giving someone anything besides paracetamol, you need to have a practising authority,” Brent says. “But you can carry it so they can give it to themselves.”
When packing your first aid kit, Hollow advises keeping your PLB within easy access of your arms, and packing a trauma bandage and gloves in the waistband of your pack. “Most emergencies don’t give you time to get prepared,” he says. “Having your PLB, a trauma bandage and rubber gloves within easy reach at all times means you have basic preparation for most emergencies and you can help yourself if you get injured. Keep your first aid kit at the top of your pack – the last thing you want to be doing is digging through your pack.”
Along with basic preparedness, prevention is the best medicine. “Maintaining your fitness and body condition, being aware of your injuries and medical conditions and knowing your limitations is really important.”
Springing into fitness goals
For his 60th birthday, Phillip Melchior set his sights on climbing Aoraki/Mt Cook. Being in the outdoors had always been a part of life for this former journalist and business executive, but it wasn’t until he retired to Wanaka that he began to get back into tramping and mountaineering.
“I knew to climb Aoraki successfully, I’d probably have to be fitter than I’ve ever been, and it’s a different sort of fit. It’s an endurance fit,” Melchior says. “I’d been climbing a little with [alpine guide and Wanaka SAR volunteer] Gary Dickson and I asked him, ‘would Mt Cook be a reasonable goal for me?’ He said no, I was too fat and my crampon technique wasn’t reasonable enough. So I worked on my skills and I set out to lose 10kg. For me, it meant going on the CH diet – no chocolate, chips, cheese, chardonnay.”
Melchior discussed his goals with Sally Soper, his personal trainer, and spent 10 months training for his goal. “We did a lot of conditioning: weights, flexibility, core work and really horrible exercises like burpees with two 10kg weights,” he says.
Along with his time in the gym, Melchior also replicated the actual experience he was training for, choosing a weekly “mission” with at least 300m height gain.
“You can spend all day on the cross-trainer in the gym, but that doesn’t train you for tramping, where every step is different,” he says.
Just before his Mt Cook attempt, Melchior tackled the Motatapu Track non-stop to Roses Hut, completing in 12 hours what most trampers take two days to achieve. The next morning he returned in 12 hours and five minutes. “That gave me confidence,” he says. “I knew if I had to carry on another couple of hours, I could.”
As a former chair of New Zealand LandSAR and a Wanaka SAR volunteer, Melchior knows there are three main elements of exhaustion for ‘occasional climbers’: fear and stress, the physical effort, and altitude. “The fitter you are, the less the impact of the other two,” he says.
When his summit day dawned, Melchior felt prepared, successfully completing the climb in 16.5 hours. “When we got back to the hut I was very pleased to stop, but I could have kept going for another few hours. I was always confident that I had the strength required to do it, which doesn’t make it easier, but it takes away some of the mental uncertainty.”
The Wanaka SAR team are great believers in people challenging themselves, but “within reasonable parameters”.
“We’re dealing with people all the time who get into trouble and probably could have got themselves out if they had been a little fitter,” Melchior says.
Sally Soper, the personal trainer, was thrilled to hear Melchior accomplished his goal. “He did it with such ease,” she says. “To hear that he had good energy, that he didn’t battle too much, that was even more exciting. It showed how well-prepared he was.”
Sally Soper’s tips for setting a personal goal
- Set goals and find someone experienced to bounce ideas off. “Have a trainer or guide to talk to if you’re not experienced enough to know what you need to do.”
- Gradually build endurance. “I always encourage strength training two to three times every week to make those advancements – that’s what the body needs.”
- Flexibility is key. “You need to know how to stretch and recover, and you need to practise it.” Recovery is huge: “It’s as important as the workout itself.”
- Set milestones. “Knocking off two or three milestones before your final test gives you confidence, knowing that all your ducks are in line.”
- Be prepared to re-set your goals. “You need to listen to your body. Are you carrying any injuries or niggles that could be detrimental in a challenging situation? Would you be better prepared if you pushed your goal out by six months or even a year? It’s a difficult line, learning what you need to battle through and what you need to listen to, but that’s where having someone to bounce ideas off can be helpful.”