#summitsafely week 15 - First aid kit, the essentials

first aid

It's week 15 of the 20 week #summitsafely campaign. This week’s #summitsafely top tip – always carry a first aid kit with you when out on the fells.

With a bit of thought and planning, it is easy to pack a first aid kit which will provide you with the equipment you need to deal with most situations for a fraction of the cost, size and weight of many commercially-available kits. Many items can be used for more than one purpose, and a number of situations can be dealt with by improvising with items you would normally carry in your pack anyway.

Minor injuries are fairly common in the hills. It is a rare person who has never had a blister, cut or sprain, and although not serious many minor injuries can make your day miserable. They are often easily treated though, and it's worth considering carrying a few things to deal with often-seen problems:

  • A tiny pot of vaseline stops chafing before it causes problems and is ideal to prevent blisters from worsening after they have been dressed.
  • Elastoplast tape can be cut to size to cover small to medium cuts and scratches without having to carry lots of different sizes of plasters.
  • A pair of tweezers is useful for pulling out thorns and insect stings.
  • Antihistamine tablets are tiny and cutting one or two out of a blister pack can be useful for itchy insect bites or minor allergic reactions.
  • A couple of over-the-counter painkiller tablets (paracetamol and/or ibuprofen) will help you deal with any aches or minor sprains before they become a major problem.

Although more serious injuries don't happen nearly as often as the above cuts and scrapes, there are a few things which can help to look after a “walking wounded” casualty whilst you help them get back to safety:

  • Wounds which are bleeding a fair bit need dressings to protect them and absorb blood. Field dressings will do this but are expensive, heavy, and can only be used in a limited number of situations. Sanitary towels are a cheap, light and easily available substitute, though you might not look like much of a hardcore tough guy with one stuck to your oozing head wound.
  • Duct tape can be used to hold dressings in place, secure makeshift splints, and for many other purposes – it will stick to anything and is waterproof to keep blood in and germs out.
  • Particularly when climbing there may be a risk of eye injury. Small pods of sterile water or saline can be bought from most pharmacies and these are useful for washing bits of grit or chemicals out of the eye; they can also be used to wash out wounds.
  • Triangular bandages to support injured arms are often found in first aid kits. They do work, but are a bit of a hassle to tie and again aren't much use for any other purpose. It's easy enough to tie an extra base layer or jacket into a makeshift sling which will support an arm perfectly well.

First aid training

Although rare, sometimes more serious incidents involving people with serious injuries or illnesses do happen. Usually these people will not be able to walk back to safety and the main priority in the UK will be to keep them as safe, warm and stable as possible until help arrives. Undoubtedly the most useful thing to have in these situations is training in first aid and basic life support.

If you have never learned these skills, or were taught them many years ago, seriously consider taking a course such as those taught by St John Ambulance, Rescue Emergency Care or Wilderness Medical Training. You do not need to be an experienced doctor or nurse to carry out some of the basic procedures which will hugely improve the chances of a very sick patient before the emergency services can reach you – simple things like learning how to keep an unconscious person's airway open can mean the difference between life and death.

Summoning help

If you do need help from mountain rescue or other emergency services, there are two things to consider – how will you attract attention; and what do you need to tell them? Many of us carry mobile phones on the hill, but these are never foolproof and problems with reception and battery life are often an issue in upland areas. 6 blasts on a whistle, or 6 flashes of a torch or mirror, are useful alternative ways of attracting attention. In some areas it may be quicker to send another member (or ideally two) of the group to the nearest house or farm to get help. Also remember that on many fells a mobile phone signal is better the higher up the hill you are, so it might be worth climbing a little further to make that emergency call, rather than heading downhill to a house or farm.

When you do manage to get in touch with the emergency services, they will be able to get appropriate help to you if they know a few key pieces of information:

  • Where are you? Give a grid reference, and mention nearby landmarks. There is a very useful free app for Smart Phones called OS Locate, which gives you a grid reference so you can tell the emergency services your location. It’s not a subsitute for a map and compass when navigating, but in an emergency can save time. Also, if you have a Smart Phone and a good mobile signal, Mountain Rescue teams can access your GPS data from your phone, with your permission, using a service called SARLOC, which shows them via digital mapping your location. The person you speak to from the Mountain Rescue team may ask you if you have a Smart Phone for this reason.
  • Who is affected? How many people, ages, and names if you know them.
  • What has happened? Nature of the accident or problem, what injuries are involved.
  • How unwell are any casualties? Conscious level, and measurements of pulse if you are confident taking it are often useful.
  • How will the emergency services get in touch with you? Your mobile phone number and that of any others in the group, radio channels if you are carrying them.

If you don't have any prior training, or you're a bit rusty, it might boost your confidence to have a small laminated card with emergency instructions in your first aid kit. The BMC have also published a sample accident report form which can be printed onto waterproof paper and kept in your first aid kit. An emergency might not seem like the time to be filling in paperwork but in a stressful, unfamiliar situation it often helps to gather your thoughts, ensuring that you can give the emergency services all the information they need.

Everyone has experience and skills in the hills, and what you carry in a first aid kit will depend on what your activities; training; and group size; but hopefully the suggestions above will be a good starting point. Confidence in basic first aid and life support are things which you can take with you and don't add any size or weight to your pack: if you could do with more training consider contacting the organisations below for information on courses.

Blog post courtesy of the BMC