Oh SH*T! When Trouble Strikes: Impromptu Backcountry First Aid Tips

When trouble strikes: impromptu backcountry first aid tips

words :: Bianca Adolf

The alarm goes off, but you’re already awake after tossing and turning all night from “stoke induced insomnia.” Nothing a little coffee can’t handle. Your pack is triple checked and waiting at the door. You, my friend, are set to shred, and shred you shall. I hope you packed your snorkel, it’s gonna be deep!  

But first, a little safety meeting. No, not that kind. We need to talk about how to keep that beautiful body of yours in one piece out there so you can live to slay another day. Maybe you’re a solid skier with thousands of days under your belt, maybe you’re even a Safety Sam (or Sally)—but shit happens… and even the great ones don’t always walk away from tomahawks and mandatory cliff drops.

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Kye Petersen receives some impromptu first aid in the backcountry. Photo: Mason Mashon

I’m going to skip things like those nagging little blisters or that headache from the night before—you can handle those. I’m talking about the show stoppers. The ones we prefer not to think about. And because we don’t like to think about them, there’s a good chance we didn’t prepare for them (or maybe they did cross your mind, but you chose to pack brews over band aids). In any case, there are ways to use the gear you already have in your pack to patch everyone back together in the backcountry so you can have both whisky and wound care. 


You don’t need to know how to diagnose these issues but you should know how to treat them. Because where you’re going, there’s no patrol. Just like the snowpack, stability is key. So, grab whatever padding you can find—jackets, sleeping pads, clothing—and give that limb some love. Make sure to pad all the empty spaces. Pair that with some form of splint; maybe you have a SAM splint but if not, ski poles, shovel handles or even a snow saw will work. Hold it all together with ski straps, belts, webbing… you get the idea. Just make sure you don’t wrap it too tight. Circulation is important. Your patient/partner should be able gauge what’s comfortable. If not, watch for any changes in colour or temperature in the limb and check for a pulse beyond the bandaging.

Necessities of a big tour. Photo: Steve Ogle


Ski poles and jackets may work for damaged extremities but they’re not gonna cut it with something like a broken pelvis. This is a scary one, but stay calm while you empty one of the backpacks. Make sure your injured buddy is lying on their back. Flip the pack and gently slide it underneath, fastening the hip belt around the pelvis, making sure it’s snug (this will suck for everyone involved). Now use the chest straps to bind their legs together.


When you call for help, there a few things you can do to ensure the rescue process goes smoothly. If you’re carrying a SPOT or similar device, you know about that terrifying little SOS button… well, go ahead and push it. What you may not know is that your alert does
not go to a local call centre (SPOT’s is in Texas) so it can take up to two hours to be redirected to the right Search and Rescue (SAR) team. Not ideal, but you can speed up this process and keep time on your side by directly messaging a local contact who can alert local authorities. And because you are smart, responsible and proactive, you provided someone with a copy of your trip plan before heading out on your epic. (Always do this, I’m serious.)

Once you’ve made that call, stay put. It’s natural to want to move, but unless you are in immediate danger, you want to avoid sending SAR on a wild goose chase. Be patient and when you finally hear that heli, don’t rely on that flashy $700 outwear of yours to score a ride home—movement is what’s going to catch that bird’s eye. Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care and that uber air should find you in no time.

There are ways to use the gear you already have in your back to patch everyone back together in the backcountry.


No matter what went wrong, if you can’t self-rescue, your number one priority should be hypothermia management. Hypothermia can turn even the smallest injury into an epic, and aside from the obvious (like covering the person up with warm layers) the most important thing is getting them off the snow. If you’re on an overnighter, that sleeping pad will do the job perfectly. Otherwise, some backpacks come with a foam insert that will work nicely. You may also have HotShots in that pack (if not, get some!). Give them a shake and put them to work. Never hesitate to rewarm someone. We all have that one friend who packs hot fluids—if your injured party is alert enough, allow them to take small sips.

And finally, remember what your momma taught you—we lose a lot of heat from our noggins, so get a toque on.

Much more can go wrong out there, so consider taking wilderness first aid training… and if you already have, take another one! Yes, training can be expensive and may mean having to resist buying that new piece of gear, but if shit hits the fan out there you will be happy you did. Remember, “Safety third! FIRST!”—ML