Expert Tips for Safer Tromping

by Andrew Juiliano

John Taussig founded Backcountry Medical Guides with the intent of creating a safer, smarter outdoor recreation community. BMG’s medically focused educational programs draw upon Taussig’s 12 years’ experience providing emergency medical services in remote places—from ski patrol in Big Sky, Montana, to his current gig as a flight medic in Monterey and Fresno counties. He took some time between critical care life flights and Wilderness First Aid curriculum development to outline five key considerations for responsible backcountry recreation.

Bring the Right Gear and Know How to Use It
Pre-trip preparedness remains the single most important backcountry consideration, according to Taussig. “Without the right tools and skills, you expose yourself to unnecessary risks.” And you have to know how to use the tools. From first aid kits and water filters to tents and stoves, he says, “If you’re busting it out of the package on a trip, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” Become familiar with the specific gear pieces prior to departure and receive the proper training to use the gear. “Realizing the water filter is broken when the canteens go dry is not only a critical mission failure but an immediate emergency.”

Select Trips Appropriate for The Group
“No one ever wants to say no to a fun day in the mountains with their friends,” says Taussig. But adventuring beyond a member’s skill level slows the entire group. When one person lags behind, he or she becomes the rest of the group’s burden. Says Taussig, “It’s up to the trip leader to know the skill level, experience and capabilities of those going on the trip and act accordingly.”

Respect The Feet
Blisters remain the least glamorous yet most common of all backcountry injuries. Severe blisters can become debilitating and stifle a trip’s progress. “When your feet are unhappy, you’re unhappy. Then everyone else in the group is unhappy,” explains Taussig. Prevent blisters by wearing well-fitting hiking shoes that have already been broken in. Consider bringing along a spare set of socks in case the primary pair becomes wet. Duct tape is also a common prophylactic practice, though no specific medical literature backs up its utility.

Read Good Wilderness Medicine: Backcountry Medical Guides

Leave An Itinerary
“When you’re alone, you’re alone,” says Taussig, “and a sprained ankle can become a life-threatening problem if no one knows where you are.” Sure, it’s fun to hike five miles, but try hobbling back out on one leg. If no one knows you headed to Wilder Ranch, then fell off the Woodcutters Trail, the search and rescue effort could stretch from the San Mateo County line to the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds. Taussig asks, "Do you want to saw off your own arm after 127 hours of dehydration, hunger and delusion? Or do you want search and rescue to come find you the next day based on an itinerary’s predetermined route?”

Don’t Rely Entirely on The Devices
Before iPhone, Garmin and the Spot locator, compasses, maps and common sense accompanied the expeditions up Everest and across the North Pole. And they still work. “While GPS and cell phones provide great backcountry tools, relying solely on technology sets outdoor enthusiasts up for failure,” says Taussig. “Trip planning should extend beyond the safety net of such devices. The batteries never run out on a map.”

SUMMER 2014: BACKCOUNTRY MEDICAL GUIDES offers a Wilderness First Aid course in Santa Cruz June 28-29 ($215) and Wilderness First Responder courses in Big Sur June 19-27 and August 16-24 ($650). To register, email or call 831.295.8336.