Don't underestimate distances in Alaska—especially the distance from expert medical care. It's just one reason to make safety and injury prevention a top priority when travelling in the Alaskan wilderness. It may take several hours before assistance can reach you, even under the best circumstances. Being prepared and capable of responding to emergencies in the backcountry is not only important—it may save someone's life.
Minimizing risks and maximizing prevention begins with trip planning. Choose your partners wisely, pack appropriate clothes and gear, carry enough first aid, pick a safe route, and make conservative decisions in the field. A broken tibia is a lot more serious when you're four miles from the nearest possible landing strip.
First off, of course, it's essential to have an appropriate first aid kit and know how to use it. And the more hands-on medical training you have, the better you can learn to assess situations and improvise solutions—whether that involves stabilizing a sick or injured person, or identifying the best way to get people to safety. You can find everything from one-day CPR training to 80-hour Wilderness First Responder courses. Try the Wilderness Medical Institute (nols.edu/wmi), Wilderness Medical Associates (wildmed.com), and Wilderness Medical Training Center (wildmedcenter.com).
A Wilderness First Responder curriculum includes basic life support, responding to sudden illness, and treatment of wounds, burns, fractures, sprains/strains, dislocations, head and spinal injuries, and more. You'll also learn a structure that helps guide your response to trouble. Reading Buck Tilton's book “The Wilderness First Responder” is one way to start increasing your awareness of potential backcountry emergencies and learning how to handle them.
First Aid Kits
Everyone in the group should know where the first aid kit is (and what's in it). Everyone should also be aware of any medical conditions in their group, and where people keep their inhalers, heart pills, epi pens, or other essential medications.
Distance from care, duration of trip, group size, and particular medical conditions or pre-existing injuries all influence the size and contents of the first aid kit you pack . Cold temperatures may warrant more than one emergency blanket. Maybe you'll pack a heating pad if you have a history of lower back pain. Bring additional gauze and tape if you may encounter lots of uneven, rocky hiking. You'll find lots of pre-assembled kits, to which you can add or remove items depending on your group's needs. Packing a practical, adequate kit is another skill learned through a wilderness education course.
Carrying a cell phone, satellite phone, VHF radio, or other emergency communication device allows you to contact civilization, request resources, and expedite a rescue.
- Satellite Phones provide the best chance of reaching assistance when you need it. These are available for rent in Alaska and can be shipped via mail to your location. It's important to write down relevant numbers, such as air service, guide service, hospital, park headquarters, etc . Keep these numbers with the phone in a waterproof place, and always bring two fully charged batteries. Satellite Coverage (AK Factor) – It's important to research and clarify coverage access and limitations for your particular trip area. Companies such as Globalstar and Iridium will often claim coverage, while also acknowledging a greater likelihood for coverage lapses due to weather and/or satellite positioning.
- S.P.O.T. is a small beacon allowing you to e-mail short messages, accompanied by your exact location. S.P.O.T also has two emergency notification messages: one calling for help but indicating no life-threatening situation; another an SOS calling for urgent help.
- Personal Location Beacon (PLB) - This small beacon sends a distress signal to emergency responders and initiates a rescue. This is an all-or-nothing signal, to be used only when the need for rescue is without question. Unlike S.P.O.T., you can't e-mail or send different messages; you only activate your PLB when it's a dire emergency.
- VHF Radios are used primarily for contacting overhead planes. They require line of sight to work, and when weather is poor there may be very few, if any, planes. It's important to know the frequency that pilots use.