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Why do we need a first aid kit
First aid is a skill that you learn and a first aid kit contains tools to help you administer care. There are some situations where simple items can save people’s lives (think allergy or heart attack), other items buy you a lot more time for help to arrive (think bleeding or snake bite) and even other items that just allow you continue your adventure (think blisters, small cuts or minor burns).
There are a bunch of factors such as terrain, length of the walk, isolation, weather, group size that will impact on the items and number of each item you carry. Possibly the biggest impact will be how you perceive the duty of care you owe to people in your group (and yourself). Duty of care is simply a moral (and potentially legal) obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of others. Yes, it is possible to do the minimalist thing and manage (not very well) a wound with toilet paper and leaves, but when you think through your duty of care you can decide if that is actually what you want before you leave home.
It is helpful to buy a first aid kit with most of the contents and casing that suits you then add and remove items as needed.
I developed this list for club group leaders, so it has been designed to cope with various conditions, as well as larger and diverse groups of people. On longer walks, you are likely to be exposed to a wider range of injuries and may need to manage them longer.
- 4 Rubber gloves
- 1 CPR Face shield
- 1 Alcohol gel hand wash
Injury and bleeding management
- 20 Band-aids (various shapes and sizes)
- 1 Spare gauze pads
- 3 Sterile non-stick compresses
- 2 Triangular bandages
- 2 Elastic roller bandage
- 1 Moleskin
- 1 Steristrips
- 1 hypoallergenic tape
- 1 Zinc oxide tape
- 5 Burn-aid burn gel
- 5 Chlorhexidine wipes
- 10 Ear buds
- 2 Saline squeeze vials
- 1 Trauma shears
- 1 Tweezers
- 3 splinter probes
- 1 sewing kit
- 1 Small torch
- 5 Safety pins
- First aid booklet
- Pencil & paper
- Group contacts and medical details
- Fire lighter
- Gas Lighter
- Space blanket (light weight)
- Personal Locator Beacon
There are some first aid items that people in your group may carry themselves. Such as medications for allergies, asthma, heart conditions and much more. Hopefully, along with the medication, they will have an ‘action plan’ that outlines the process of managing the condition if it flares up. Speak with them about it and know where it is in their pack.
But what about…?
Yes, I can already hear people screaming out, “but what about……..”
If you have someone in your group with a specific risk then there may well be more training and equipment for you to carry.
If you see a reasonably foreseeable need then, add it ?
How far do we take this is always going to be a question.
Should we carry oxygen cylinders? A semi-automatic defibrillator? Splints? Stretchers?
Maybe (not usually), consider vulnerability in your group, costs, weight etc. Think about what is expected of you and what most other people would do in a similar situation. Think about stuff going bad and how you would cope without having it.
It is not normal (yet) to carry a defibrillator on a bushwalk when they become as small and cheap as your phones then I suspect they will be added to our backpacks. The first aid kit will always be changing as technology, medicine, communication and transport improve.
How to pack it
It seems that most walkers have a first aid pouch and pack it near the top of their pack. Usually the PLB is separate. This works, but I do things a little different. I have 2 first aid kits as well as a bandage and the PLB separate. Let me explain.
- PLB needs to be handy, but not the first thing you grab, so it lives in the main section of my pack.
- I carry a roller bandage in an outside mesh pocket in my pack (in a snap-lock bag). I just find if I need anything from my first aid kit, it is almost always a roller bandage, usually for a minor strain or sprain. I keep it handy for that reason. It is also quick and easy to access in case of a snake bite, or major bleeding.
- Oh Crap! Bag. My first, first aid kit is for those moments when someone shouts out (or is way too quiet). Maybe a “trauma kit” would be a better name, but I prefer mine. This is a clear vacuum sealed bag (or just suck the air out of a snap lock bag) with triangular bandages, shears, gloves, shock blanket, etc. Basically stuff to help when someone is likely in a lot of pain or at risk of bleeding out quickly. This bag rips open quickly and basically never gets used, but sits at the very top of my pack, not in any extra waterproofing.
- Oh Yeah! bag. This is all the other items you would find in a first aid kit list. It is the part of the first aid kit that gets the most use. It is for dealing with minor or less urgent issues, before they become big and ugly. For blisters, small cuts etc.
Remember that first aid is mostly about buying time before medical aid can be accessed, and avoiding things from getting worse. For most minor issues you can visit a doctor after you finish the walk, if you need to at all. Occasionally someone in your group, or someone you find on the track may need medical aid urgently. In situations such as a heart attack, stick in the eye, significant bleeding, severe allergic reaction, significant burn the faster you get help, the more likely the person will survive as well as have a faster and better recovery.
You do not want to be in this situation wishing you had a way of contacting help and not been able to. Mobile phones are the best tool, when they work. Download the Emergency+ app now, and you can use it to make the call and know your location.
When you are out of mobile range then I always recommend a PLB.
There are many things in your pack, on your body and around you in the bush that can be used to help with first aid. It is worth considering what you already have in your pack that can be used. For example;
- A sleeping mat can be used to keep a person warm and comfortable, it can also be used as a splint or maybe even a stretcher to help move someone a short distance if really needed.
- I have used a thick space blanket/tarp to splint a broken lower arm effectively.
- When my son broke his lower arm, he was holding his arm across his tummy, instead of going through the trauma of opening the first aid kit we were able to make him comfortable just by lifting the lower part of his shirt over his arm and hold it for the drive to the hospital, probably more effective than a triangular bandage in this case.
First aid by remote control
Good first aiders take control of a situation, keeping everybody safe and making good stuff happen.
Great first aiders take control, keep things calm and clearly instruct people to help. If the injured person can safely help, then ask them to. They can clean their own wounds, and put on band aids. Asking people to do their own first aid, under good clear instruction, means you may not need to touch them at all, reducing your exposure and their risk of infection. It helps keep people calm and may even reduce their pain. It helps you be more situationally aware of what is going on around you, allowing you to deal with several injured people at the same time. It also helps improve the dignity of the overall experience and helps people learn new skills from you.
When, where, how and why to treat water
We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one Jacques Cousteau
Water treatment is the act of cleaning water to make it safe for drinking. Clean, fresh drinking water is essential for survival and healthy living, yet access to the equipment and technology to do so is not something to take for granted. A 2007 study found that 3900 children died a day due to unsafe drinking supplies[note]Montgomery, M. A. & Elimelech, M. “Water and sanitation in developing countries: including health in the equation.” Environmental Science Technology. 41, 17–24 (2007)[/note]. More recent studies fear that due to water scarcity the situation will only get worse, and engineering companies are working hard to develop technological aids to combat the situation.[note]Shannon, Mark A., et al. “Science and technology for water purification in the coming decades”. Nature 452.7185 (2008): 301-310.[/note]
Adequate safe drinking water is something that is easy to take for granted in developed countries because the process of how clean drinking water gets to a household tap is hidden. In Sydney, 80% of drinking water supply comes from the Warragamba Dam. The rest comes from a variety of sources, including a small amount from the Kurnell Desalination Plant. Sydney Water, the supplier of Sydney’s drinking water supply, follows the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines (2011) to provide a clean source of water.
The first principle listed in these guidelines states “The greatest risks to consumers of drinking water are pathogenic microorganisms. Protection of water sources and treatment are of paramount importance and must never be compromised.” Therefore, ensuring access to clean water supplies is also important on a bushwalk. Sometimes this means searching for clean sources or water, and at other times this means treating water.
In the end, the choice to treat or not treat water is a personal one based on knowledge of how clean the source is and what the individual’s immune system can handle. If unsure, err on the side of caution and treat water before using.
How to find and collect water in the bush
Access to good drinking water is essential for human life. The human body can last for several weeks without food but only a few days without water. In developed countries, most urban-dwellers take potable water for granted – turn on a tap and water is there – but outside of cities, and especially in remote areas, reliable water sources are precious.
Not all campsites have water, so walks must be planned such that everyone in the group carries sufficient water supplies or collects water from reliable sources en-route. Hence, managing water on a bushwalk requires adequate research and planning regarding the itinerary and gear requirements (e.g. water containers to collect and carry enough water), the expected pace of the group, campsites and water sources.
It’s common that daywalkers carry all their water supplies, but since every extra litre of water adds an extra kilo of weight, it’s extremely challenging to take sufficient water supplies for more than a day or two. Overnight walkers ideally select campsites close to water or organise water drops at regular intervals along the track.
The amount of water an individual needs to carry depends on the distance to the next reliable water source, the effort to get there, the air temperature, and individual needs, but as a general guideline, when walking in moderate spring conditions allocate half a litre for every hour of walking. On hotter days, ideally aim to hit a water source towards the middle of the day. On overnight trips where bushwalkers don’t expect to find additional water supplies, they tend to carry 4-6 litres of water.
Over time, individual water needs will become known, and it becomes easier to estimate water requirements for particular tracks and conditions.
Learning how to navigate along a pre-existing route
When you think about navigation, thick impenetrable scrub and vast empty wilderness spring to mind. But navigation is not only for off-track walking. It’s just as important when following established routes, that is, on-track walking. Unlike other parts of the world, not every route is signposted in the Australian bush! Also, routes fade, reform and change over time. Following a track, trail or path blindly can very quickly take you to somewhere completely different to where you intended.
Typical navigation decisions that bushwalkers face on established routes include:
- “Do I take the right or left fork at the junction?”,
- “Does the track continue on the other side of the creek now”, and
- “Is this the last water source for 10km?”
On-track walking means using pre-existing ways to get from A to B. On-track navigation involves planning a route that links these ways together. By comparison, off-track navigation is where bushwalkers plan and walk their route without following established ways. Both types of navigation rely on following the plan, staying found and recognising reliable map features.
An introduction to map reading
Maps are a fantastic resource to bushwalkers, and many love them for their simplistic detail. Maps can tell details as simply as the name of a road, right through to the side of a rock which a river flows past. An entire rescue operation can be planned and executed based on the knowledge of grid coordinates alone, and many people owe their lives to the wealth of information that users can extract from a simple map.
Learning to read a map is like learning a new language. Individual features are like words, and how the features are presented together create sentences. Being able to extract meaning from these sentences involves understanding what particular features represent, and putting them all together. This interpretation enables the reader to make sense of how the environment fits the map, and the map fits into the environment. Map reading is one step towards being able to navigate with confidence through the bush.
What they are and why to carry them
The best preparation for tomorrow is doing your best today. H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are devices that transmit your location via satellite to emergency services. They are used in life-threatening situations to signal that emergency help is required (e.g. group is lost, someone is injured or very unwell), and usually only activate when other forms of two-way communication such as a phone call cannot be made (e.g. group is out of mobile phone reception). PLBs are an important safety backup for groups traveling through areas with poor or no mobile phone reception, and have been proven time and time again to be a life-saving device for bushwalkers.
How to manage unexpected wildlife interactions
Don't let the same dog bite you twice. Chuck Berry
The terms ‘bite’ and ‘sting’ refer to when an animal or plant breaks the skin surface, potentially transferring germs or venom that can result in anything from a minor irritation to a severe medical condition.
We generally use the word ‘bite’ when it occurs with teeth (e.g. a dog bite), and sting when it occurs with another part of the body (e.g. a bee stings with a barbed stinger; a plant stings with tiny hairs on its leaves).
In the case of insect bites and stings, while both hurt, the difference in the two terms refers to whether any toxic venom is transferred. An insect bite occurs when the insect pierces the skin. Often the insect injects anticoagulant saliva so they can feed on your blood. By contrast, an insect sting is when the animal transfers toxic venom into your system, often as a defence mechanism.
While both can result in a pain, itchiness, or even an allergic reaction for some people, the causes are quite different. For an insect bite, our bodies are responding to the potential infection by the breakdown of the skin barrier and potential transfer of infectious agents from the insect (e.g. malaria transferred to humans via mosquito bites). For an insect sting, your body in addition to potential infection is dealing with a foreign toxic substance, that may have severe medical consequences. The same is true for spiders, although they are not if fact insects – a general misconception for many of us!
In the case of snakes, however, the term ‘bite’ can refer to both venomous and non-venomous attacks, however, for practical purposes all snakes bites are treated as venomous until proven otherwise.
And in the plant kingdom, ‘stinging’ plants have tiny needles that break off and lodge into the skin, causing extreme discomfort.
Having said all this, the chance of being bitten by a snake or spider on a bushwalk is relatively low. In Australia there are about 3,000 snake bites per year, of which 200 to 500 receive antivenom; on average one or two will prove fatal. By contrast, spider-related deaths are almost unheard of:although approximately 2000 people are bitten each year by Redback Spiders, there has only been 1 spider-related death since antivenoms for funnel web and redback spiders were developed in 1980s.
To put this in perspective, there were 1290 road crash deaths and fatal road crashes in Australia during only 2016 And in 2015, there were 45,392 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease in Australia.
While fatal outcomes of bites and stings by Australian wildlife is unlikely, nevertheless, it’s worth having the knowledge and skill set to deal with unexpected situations in the bush because emergency medical help is often delayed.
Although the likelihood of getting bitten, stung or scratched by an animal on a bushwalk by an animal that will envenomate (or similar) is fairly low, there are some simple things that you can do to reduce that risk further. The information here is based on current guidelines from the NSW Health Direct website.
Some general advice for avoiding wildlife bites, scratches and stings, and good for mozzies too!
- Wear long sleeved shirts and pants and closed-top shoes to cover up your skin and reduce the risk of bites.
- Follow the Leave No Trace principles and leave wild animals be. Do not touch, corner or startle a wild animals, especially for the sake of a photo.
- If you notice a wild animal, warn others in the group. If you can, wait for it to move off on it’s own accord or make a wide berth around the animal.
- Insect repellant is great for preventing insect and leech bites.
DEET is an extremely effective way of avoiding insect bites including mosquito bites, and is particularly important in areas with known mosquito-borne diseases. The DEET (Diethytoluamide) chemical conceals us to insects by stopping the detection Carbon Dioxide, which we emit from our skin, a stimuli for blood feeding [note]Leslie, Mitch. “Hiding From Biting Insects in Plain Scent.” Science 319.5869 (2008): 1471-1471[/note].
The Department of Medical Entomology at the University of Sydney & Westmead Hospital released the following guidelines for using repellants:
- DEET repellants = recommended, but in different strengths depending on situation.
- Plant-based repellents = good, but need to be reapplied regularly.
- Wrist-band and patch repellents = ineffective.
Always check the label before applying insect repellent for instructions on how to apply and how often to reapply, and test it first on a small patch of skin before applying fully.
Health direct is a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information:
Free app on to help identify and deal with bites and stings: http://www.seqirus.com.au/bites-app
Resources at the Australian Museum website (e.g. spider bites and venoms)
SPECIAL THANKS TO THE FOLLOWING EXPERTS FOR REVIEWING AND CONTRIBUTING MATERIAL TO THIS ARTICLE:
Author of Marine Explorer and Ex-President of National Parks Association of NSW.
Citizen Science Officer
National Parks Association of NSW
HENRY LYDECKER | PhD Candidate
School of Life and Environmental Sciences | Faculty of Science
The University of Sydney
FRAN VAN DEN BERG
Citizen Science Officer
National Parks Association of NSW
What is ‘weather’ and does it differ to ‘climate’?
“Sunshine is delicious,
rain is refreshing,
wind braces us up,
snow is exhilarating;
there is really no such thing as bad weather,
only different kinds of good weather.” John Ruskin
Weather forecasts are a handy tool for predicting future weather conditions and packing appropriate gear on a bushwalk. Knowing in advance if the trip will be particularly cool, hot, wet or dry means you can tweak your gear to best meet your needs.
In Australia, we are a land of extremes, from snow-capped peaks to arid desert conditions. Bushfire awareness is a key part of weather forecasting for us, as well as knowing when to pack warm clothes for Alpine conditions.
Of course, no weather forecast will ever be 100% reliable, but as technology improves, experts are better than ever before at predicting conditions. And technology like weather radars, maps and satellite images mean that you can get a fairly good idea into what to expect. Long-term datasets also enable walkers to select walks based on typical seasonal weather patterns so you can avoid (if you wish) camping out in the rainiest months of the year! As a general rule shorter term forecasts are more reliable than longer term forecasts. Forecast for the next 24hrs from a reputable source (such as BOM or NOAA) tend to be very reliable.
Dive into this topic by first learning more about weather and then how to check conditions before and during a bushwalk.