On a recent trip to hike the Overland Track in Tasmania I was presented with an opportunity to use the skills that I had learned in a Wilderness First Aid course that I completed in January 2015. The 7 day course covered basic first aid to keep a patient alive until more skilled help arrives, in some cases this could be hours, but in the worst, it can be days or weeks. The course teaches the student to utilise the things we have available in the wilderness to benefit the patient.
It’s not often that we are given an opportunity to use the skills that we learn in lifesaving courses, and in my case, having a non life threatening situation with the potential to make someones afternoon a hell of a lot more enjoyable was, at best, a good refresher course, and at worst an excellent workout!
My patient Helen, was an experienced hiker celebrating her 70th birthday with her family and had completed the Overland Track several times perviously. Helen had experienced a fall caused by strong winds on day one of the Overland track and as a result had suffered serious bruising which limited her ability to carry a pack, and eventually to walk at all.
The afternoon of the fourth day had got the better of her and with an hour of steep rough descent until Kia Ora hut to go, and the cold of night quickly approaching, making a stretcher was the best option. An immediate evacuation from a clearing was theoretically possible, but the stretcher allowed another night of rest amongst family as well as a much easier evacuation via helipad in the morning.
Given that it is such a simple skill, very easy to remember and has the potential to save lives, I thought I would share with you the design of a wilderness stretcher so that it many be stored in the back of your mind somewhere in case it is ever necessary.
The first and perhaps the most difficult step is to find two lengths of timber (or any thin, long and strong material) to serve as the major structure of the stretcher. Obviously, the younger and more lively the wood the better. Old, dead branches may break under the strain of the patient. (Which unfortunately, our first model did, sorry Helen!) Clear any branches off the poles to make them easy to thread and so that they don’t poke the patient or the mattress. The length of the poles should be around 2 foot longer than the height of the patient to allow room for the porter at the front and back to grasp the poles and walk freely. In my case, I was extremely lucky to find my patient in the midst of a tea tree forest, which happens to be the perfect material for a stretcher.
Gather 3 garments that are made of strong enough material to support the weight of the patient. I have found that the best material are 3 strong gore-tex rain jackets that are zipped up. With the weight being distributed between all three, it will be strong enough in most cases to not break the zips. It’s important to let the person know that you are borrowing the gear from that it may be damaged in the process. Luckily, in my case, this didn’t happen and the jackets lived to see another day.
Invert the sleeves of the jacket, so the sleeves run on the inside of the material as shown. Line the three jackets up in a row and begin to thread the right hand sleeve of each jacket, starting with the strongest end of your pole. Then repeat the process of the left sleeve of the jacket, beginning with the weakest end of the pole. Doing this will ensure that the stretcher is better balanced in terms of both weight and strength.
An optional step, for the comfort of the patient is to pad the stretcher and add a pillow. This is most easily done by simply laying a camping mattress along the length of the stretcher. So much of Wilderness First aid is making the patient comfortable and reassuring that they’ll be okay, I’m sure the comfortable mat helped the situation a lot! I was particularly impressed by my Sea To Summit Mat which managed to stay undamaged and inflated despite the incredible beat down it was given as we pushed through thick scrub on the descent to Kia Ora hut for an hour and a half.
With the help of the stretcher and a few willing porters to take turns in doing the hard yards of carrying a patient over, steep, rough and wet terrain, we eventually were able to deliver Helen to the comfort of the Kia Ora hut where she was air lifted to safety and the Royal Hobart Hospital the following morning. I’m told by her family that she will make a full recovery.
Throughout this is experience, I have learned a great deal, the most prominent learning being that we only appreciate the knowledge we have until we actually need it, and only then is it’s true value recognised. It may not be irresponsible to go into the wilderness without completing a course like Wilderness First Aid, but it can potentially be something you will regret if it comes to the crunch, and we never know when this can happen!
I completed my Wilderness First Aid Course through Wilderness First Aid Australia in Queensland at Mount Barney Lodge. Courses are held in most states throughout the year and range from 1 to 9 days and vary in skill set. I would encourage any regular visitor to the wilderness to do this course and practise the skills and retain as much of this life saving information as possible!