Fall foliage with a blue overlay

Skills Session: Wilderness Medicine

July 23, 2020

Imagine this scenario: You and a friend are running on your favorite forest trail when, suddenly, she trips! Her knee catches her fall on rock, creating a severe gash that reveals her dislocated knee cap. In a matter of seconds, a simple fall has turned into an emergency situation. This scenario is a true story; an event that happened to me and my friend. When an emergency strikes in the backcountry, would you know what to do?

That’s what two New Hampshire outdoorsmen asked when they founded Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities, more commonly known as “SOLO”. Back in the 1970s, there was no standard of care for wilderness emergencies. So, they created a system of care through their backcountry experiences. Their mission, to provide aid to the sick and injured in remote environments, led them to create a school emphasizing hands-on learning and scenario-based role play.

Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is the home of SOLO’s Southeastern branch. Situated at the intersection of the Nantahala River and the Appalachian Trail, NOC is the perfect location for such specialized training. Each course centers around SOLO’s original principle of hands-on learning. Students actively learn to calmly communicate with patients (your fellow hikers, climbers, runners, cyclists, boaters, etc.), assess vitals, create splints and litters, perform rescues, and work as a team, all while improvising with their own gear, or environmental resources.

SOLO Classroom Learning
Students spend portions of each course in a traditional classroom setting.
SOLO’s new outdoor classroom is a great place to learn and practice new skills.

Start with the most basic certification, Wilderness First Aid, where you learn to recognize, react to, and treat common ailments, from simple blisters to severe anaphylaxis. Build more complex medical and leadership skills with Advanced Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness First Responder, and Wilderness EMT courses. As a bonus, each course is certified and recognized by major organizations and can fulfill some professional requirements! Beyond medical courses, SOLO also offers Wilderness Survival, where students can learn bushcraft skills to make fires, shelters, and tools, should your emergency require an extended stay in the woods.

During Advanced Wilderness First Aid Courses, students practice building splints, slings, and tourniquets. Here is an improvised splint using items I would carry on an overnight backpacking trip, like trekking poles, p-cord, a sleeping bag liner, and rain pants.
An instructor examines a student’s first aid kit. SOLO instructors can help you build a better first aid kit for any outdoor activity.

As for me and my friend, we were extremely lucky to be on a trail near the Blue Ridge Parkway, just miles away from a hospital. I was able to quickly take action to make sure the situation didn’t get worse as we prepared to leave the trail to get to better care. It was very clear my friend was conscious, and understandably a bit panicky. Our resources were also extremely limited – just the clothes we had on – since we did not pack any water, gear, or other first aid items for our short run. We insured the bleeding from her wound wasn’t an issue by having my friend apply direct pressure on her wound for several minutes, then “bandaged” it with her shirt.  A passerby stopped to help with our brief hike out to the road and stayed with my friend while I returned to my car in order to transport my friend to the hospital. This process took about 20 minutes, with most of the time taken to get back to my car.

The reality is that accidents or illness can happen at any time, and to anyone. These emergencies can be made more challenging with the remoteness of the wilderness. So, whether you’re an avid outdoorsman, professional guide, a weekend warrior (like me), or generally a good samaritan, SOLO courses will teach you how to prepare for, and act quickly in nearly any situation the backcountry throws at you.

To sign up for a SOLO course, visit southeastwildnernessmedicine.com.

Contributed by Sara S., Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Graphic Designer. Sara can often be found hiking trail systems throughout Western North Carolina, learning new skills with SOLO and NOC Paddlesports, running, cycling, playing soccer, practicing photography and art, and overall being a very busy and adventurous person tackling the world one mountain at a time.


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