COVID-19 Notice: Barton Health remains prepared to care for those with COVID-19. Please read our up-to-date information, including how to access to care and current visitation policies. Learn more.
  • 530.541.3420 | 2170 South Avenue, S. Lake Tahoe, CA
Tamara Burns in the Tahoe wilderness.

Safety in the Wild: What to bring, and what to know, when you’re headed to the great outdoors

Many of us love to play in the wilderness. After all, it’s called wilderness for a reason – it is simply wild. Even with the beautiful views of the crests and Lake Tahoe, cool critters, fresh air, and glorious lakes, knowing what’s behind the trees, where you plan on trekking and what precautions you should take is essential to any wilderness adventure. While not everyone has the luxury of having a medical specialist by their side, taking a class or carrying a small first aid book is wise.

It is essential for the everyday hiker, climber, mountain biker, paddler, hunter and cross-country skier to have the 10 essentials with them. This list came from the original mountaineers of the 1930s, and the purpose of this list is to answer two questions: First, can you respond positively to an accident or emergency? And second, can you safely spend a night – or more – outdoors?

The classic 10 essential supplies:

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. Sunglasses and sunscreen
  4. Extra clothing
  5. Headlamp/flashlight
  6. First aid supplies
  7. Firestarter
  8. Matches
  9. Knife
  10. Extra food

It’s important to pack these items for every outing. You will probably never fully appreciate their importance until you really need them. Since the 1930s, the list has been updated further:

Navigation and a map
A topographical map should accompany you on any trip that involves anything more than a short, impossible-to-miss footpath or frequently visited nature trail. This map can also assist you in finding a water source. A compass, combined with map-reading knowledge, is an important tool if you become disoriented in the backcountry. A GPS is great – when it is working. A compass is a reliable backup.

Sun protection
Sunglasses, sunscreen (for skin and lips) and clothing are essential, as are quality sunglasses that block UVB rays, which cause cataracts over time. Choose sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Lightweight, synthetic sun-protection clothing comes with ultraviolet sun protection.

Conditions can turn wet, windy or chilly in the backcountry. Be sure to carry an additional layer of clothing in case something unexpected prolongs your exposure to the weather. Some options to consider are a synthetic jacket, extra socks and the most important layer – a hat.

Headlamps are an excellent light source. They are hands-free, have a long battery life, are low in weight, compact and have a flashing light mode that can be used for an emergency.

First aid supplies
Any first aid kit should contain treatments for blisters, bandages (all sizes), gauze pads, cloth tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, writing pen, paper, zip ties, safety pins and a compact first aid/ emergency guide.

A fire should only be used in an extreme emergency due to the hazard of wildland fires. Grab some waterproof matches or place them in a waterproof container.

Repair kit/ tools
Knives or multi-tools are handy for gear repair, kindling, food preparation and first aid. Duct tape is a favorite. Strips of tape can be wrapped around bike frames, ski poles, kayak paddles – even cuts and blisters!

Nutrition (extra food)
Always pack enough food for an extra day. Freeze-dried meals and no-cook options – such as energy bars, nuts, dried fruit or jerky – are good choices. Digesting food creates energy and can help keep you warm.

Hydration (extra water)
Carry at least one water bottle, a collapsible reservoir, and a water filter system or a chemical treatment.

Emergency shelter
Mountaineers planning to stay overnight usually have a tent and tarp; however, many day-trippers are not prepared to shelter overnight in the backcountry. A compact space (emergency) blanket, bivy sack or a large trash bag can even be enough to protect you from moisture.

If the worst happens

Even if you do prepare ahead of time, you may not be totally ready. In case of emergency, keep these things in mind.

Stopping bleeding and preventing shock take priority. Direct pressure on a wound, however painful, for 10 to 15 minutes can stop bleeding. After that, dress the wound with gauze. Try to elevate the extremity and immobilize the injury.

Wound care is also an essential skill. Most wounds can be cleaned with small Betadine packets or stream water, treated with antibiotic cream, and then dressed. If the wound is gaping, you can close the wound with little butterfly bandages or strips of (my favorite!) duct tape.

Assume shock exists until proven otherwise. Some of the symptoms are pale skin, sleepiness, clammy and cool skin, a rapid pulse, anxiety, restlessness, and nausea and vomiting. Try laying the person flat with their legs elevated, keeping them warm, preventing blood loss, and relieving pain by splinting injuries.

A head or spinal injury can halt everything. Prevention is better than treatment, and wearing a helmet or hard hat could save your life. Even a mild or moderate head injury, like a concussion, can cause a loss of consciousness that lasts from a few seconds to minutes. Serious head injuries usually involve the neck and spine. Immobilize the neck and head until help arrives.

Fractures and dislocations need immediate medical attention. Some basic measures can be taken to help the injured person, such as restraining the injured area from moving using the most practical material you have. Keeping the joint immobilized both above and below the injured area will help relieve some pain. Ski poles, snowshoes, hiking sticks, an ice ax, bike fenders or bike pumps, along with duct tape and some sort of padding, can all be used for immobilization.

Overuse injuries can be treated with duct tape, wraps and the use of anti-inflammatories. The use of insect repellent, two-way radios, a cellphone and a whistle can add a measure of safety and comfort in many situations. 

When your equipment or clothes need repair in the wilderness, you can put a roll of duct tape to use. It’s handy for taping up cuts and immobilizing sprained joints, too.

Injured? Sore? Get back on the trail sooner. Call Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness at (530) 543-5554.