Australia has vast wilderness areas with some of the most staggering views and breathtaking natural beauty to be found anywhere in the world. Australians are a hiking culture, and going on a bushwalk is an incredibly popular Australian pastime – both for locals and for the droves of tourists that visit our shores.
Unfortunately, the Australian bush can also be a deadly place for the unprepared, claiming around 40 lives every year due to unexpected disasters and poor planning.
So what are the dangers of the bush? Why does it claim so many lives? What can I do to prepare, and how can I help if someone gets sick, injured, or incapacitated while out on the trail?
What Are The Dangers Of A Walk In The Bush?
People sometimes find it strange how much veteran bushwalkers tend to urge caution on tourists and backpackers looking to hike in Australia. But the truth is the bush can be a dangerous and unforgiving place. Let’s start by getting a little perspective, and asking “What are some of the risks when hiking the bush?”
Would you know what to do if someone was injured on a bushwalk? A first aid course
would give you the skills to help.
Getting Lost – The Australian wilderness is rugged and beautiful, but it’s also deceptively easy to get lost in. Terrain that looks easy to navigate from a lookout or map can be very disorienting on the ground. And because Australia is also vast, it can be difficult for rescue teams to locate you – unless they already have a good idea where to look.
- Exhaustion, Heat & Dehydration – This also covers things like fatigue, hyperthermia and hypothermia. Australia is mostly rocky desert, and conditions get pretty extreme. The record temperature in Australia (in two different towns) is more than 50°C (123°F), and a few years back, the city of Adelaide had 11 straight days of temperatures over 35°C (95°F). The terrain tends to be rocky and rugged, and under those conditions, the normal hiking risks of thirst and overexertion become even more significant, and heat stroke becomes a real risk. Temperatures can also plunge at night (like any desert), meaning Hypothermia can be a factor for people hiking in light, cool clothing caught out after dark. Make sure you keep a look out for heat exhaustion symptoms.
- Dangerous Wildlife – Although many Australian creatures can be dangerous (including spiders and insects), snakes are the biggest risk here. The majority of the world’s top 12 most venomous snakes live in Australia, including the aggressive and bad-tempered Eastern Brown Snake, and the world’s most venomous – the Inland Taipan.
- Falls and Injuries – With rugged, rocky terrain and an abundance of dry, cracked and jagged wood, the potential for falls and other injuries on a bushwalk is quite high. And in a remote location – potentially without phone reception – even a relatively minor injury can be a serious problem.
- Medical Incidents on the trail – This covers medical problems that aren’t accident-related, such as heart attacks, strokes, and other illnesses. Some of these can be life-threatening when help is only minutes away, let alone when you’re hours from the nearest ambulance! Even minor illnesses can be a serious problem if they prevent someone from walking back to civilisation.
- Floods and Fires – Although they don’t happen all the time, floods and bushfires are a reality in Australia and can place hikers in serious danger. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the news and weather reports leading up to a hike and not to ignore warnings for your area.
How Should I Prepare For A Bushwalk?
A large proportion of hiking related deaths in Australia are preventable – meaning you can do a lot to protect yourselves from danger with good planning.
Before you go on a walk, you should do your homework. Have a look at maps – and make sure you have a way to navigate when you’re on the trail, whether that’s a map or something more advanced (and sometimes less reliable) like a GPS. Know the kind of terrain, and have a good idea of your own fitness and physical limits – and those of your group. Remember that some trails are easier to travel one way than the other (such as downhill slopes). If possible, get a sense of the terrain and the challenge involved from people who’ve walked the region.
Know what risks are in the area – such as dangerous wildlife, hazardous or unstable terrain, and seasonal watercourses (such as creeks and streams that might be harder to traverse at some times of year).
Pay attention to relevant information, such as trail closures, fire and flood warnings, and weather reports.
Make sure other people know where you’re going and when and where you’re expected to arrive. This might be a challenge for people who like spontaneity and the chance to explore, but it’s important – the worst-case scenario here is a medical emergency out on the trail with no way to seek help and no one knowing where you are or when you’re due back. DON’T hike alone, as there’ll be no one to help if you get sick or injured. Four people at least is optimal, meaning that if someone is injured and can’t walk back to safety, someone can be left with the person while the other two go for help.
Packing Your Kit
Taking the right equipment is very important when hiking. You’ll probably want to make a list of key equipment you’ll need. Below are some essentials you’ll want to make sure you have handy.
- Weather appropriate clothes – For hot weather, this should include cool, breathable clothes (preferably cotton in light colours), a “hiking hat” (something with a wide brim for the sun), and sunglasses. For cold weather, this should include warm but breathable clothes (such as a fleece top) and wet weather gear. Even in warmer weather, it’s best to have warmer clothes handy – in case the weather turns, or something happens to keep you out after dark. Multiple layers are often the best approach, as it allows you to adjust your outfit to the conditions. Choose breathable fabrics which wick moisture away from the body. A plastic rain poncho is also a good idea – it’s compact, lightweight, and can be used as part of a shelter if needed),
- At least one large piece of bright clothing – If you get lost or need rescuers to locate you, you’ll want something that’s easy to spot from a distance. The brighter, the better – fluorescent yellow or orange is ideal. Fashion doesn’t matter much when you’re lost in the bush.
- Hiking boots & good quality hiking socks – Boots should be sturdy, waterproof, good for walking, and pre-warn. It’s best not to go hiking in brand new boots as they can give you blisters before they’re worn in. Longer boots (above the ankle) are good, as they provide better support and protect the feet. Hiking socks should be breathable and cushion the foot – moderately thick wool is surprisingly one of the best choices for longer walks, as it cushions your feet and protects your ankles.
- A phone with emergency numbers saved – Note that phones may not have reception in some areas. For long walks in remote regions, it may be worth borrowing or hiring a satellite phone (which isn’t dependent on phone towers). Also consider a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which are available for purchase or hire in many locations.
- A watch or timekeeping device – don’t just rely on your phone, as they have a very limited battery. A physical compass is also an excellent idea. Some mobile phones have a compass function, but this is again dependent on your phone’s limited battery power. You should also take some method of easily signalling to rescuers – such as a whistle.
- A Map, a torch, a knife, matches and firelighters – The knife should be sturdy but preferably have other tools built-in. Matches & firelighters should be stored in waterproof containers or ziplock bags (separately). Don’t count on your phone for light, as that will drain your battery fast.
- A lightweight first aid kit – Make sure you’re familiar with the kit’s contents and know how and when to use them. Some first aid supplies have use-by dates, so it’s worth checking your kit before you set out (if you haven’t done so recently). Also, don’t forget essential medications such as asthma preventers or hayfever tablets.
- Garbage bags – For waste, dirty clothes, and emeregency use as a shelter.
- Food – including lightweight, high-calorie snacks – such as nuts, dried fruit, or dark chocolate. Take more than you need for the trip – keep some in reserve for emergencies.
- WATER!!! – Take at least 2 litres per person per day. Water filtration tablets (or a compact water filter) are also handy for emergencies. Remember, you need more than normal when you’re exerting yourself.
It’s worth remembering that large ziplock bags are handy when packing for a hike. They allow you to store similar items together so you can access them easier (without having to take things out of your pack one at a time), and they’re waterproof. You can also squeeze the air out of them before sealing them, meaning they take up less room in your pack.
What Should A Hiking First Aid Kit Contain?
You’re not looking for a full comprehensive first aid kit for hiking, as they’re generally too heavy. Many companies sell specialised hiking first aid kits, but it’s also possible to build your own, or pull essentials out of an existing kit and pack them in a sachel or zip-lock bag. At the very least, your kit should include:
- Prescription medicines
- Hand sanitiser
- Insect bite / anti-itching lotion
Some other valuable resources (of you can get them) would be antiseptic wipes, tweezers, disposable latex gloves, an irrigation syringe, antihystamine tablets, antibiotics, a notebook and pen, and a CPR mask.
The Hiking First Aid Kit: Australia Version
When building a first aid kit specifically for Australian conditions, One essential item to include is sunscreen – SPF 50+ for preference. Aloe Vera gel can also be useful for if you did get too much sun.
Another item particularly relevant to Australian conditions is a compression bandage in case of snake bite – or even a specialised snake bite bandage (available from some Australian pharmacies). Snake venom often travels through the lymph system (rather than the bloodstream), so applying pressure to the region with a compression bandage can sometimes slow the poison.
How To Prevent Hiking Injuries?
The best solution to a medical incident while on a bushwalk is to prevent one from happening. There are a number of things you can do to stay safer out on the walking trail.
- Plan ahead well, and be well informed about where and when you’re walking.
- Let people know when you’re going and when you’re due back. Check in with them on your return.
- Follow the map and stay on the trail – don’t explore side paths or try to find off-road short-cuts. Stick to the plan.
- Be careful as you walk – don’t run or move too quickly over treacherous ground.
- Stay with your group – don’t get out of sight of the others. Your group should move as slow as the slowest member.
- Stay clear of ledges and high places, even if they offer the “Perfect Selfie”.
- Pace yourself (pay attention to your body), and ensure you stay well hydrated.
- Watch out for snakes. Make noise as you walk to warn them someone is coming (most snakes avoid humans).
Bushwalking Casualties: The Worst-Case Scenario
So, what if the worst happens, and someone falls sick or gets injured on a bush walk near me? Well, in some ways it’s like any first aid situation. Start by assessing the danger and removing any threats – you’re no good to the injured person if you get injured yourself. Then, try and determine the type of injury or illness and what may have caused it. This often overlaps with the first step, as the way a person was injured might tell you a lot about the dangers nearby.
Then, determine the extent of the injury and what type of assistance the person needs. Checking if they’re awake and responsive is also part of this process. At this point, you might start breaking out the first aid kit – or possibly applying CPR.
If someone is unable to continue hiking due to an injury or illness, it’s time to signal for help. If possible, call in help with a phone or Personal Locator Beacon (dial 000 if the person’s condition is serious). If this isn’t possible, leave someone with the casualty while others in the group go to get help – the person shouldn’t be left alone. This messenger group should have at least two people – to make sure nothing happens to them on the way.
Hiking First Aid
The steps of assessing the danger and determining the treatment for an injury are part of what’s called “DRSABCD Protocol” (it’s easier to remember as “Doctors ABCD”), and it’s a key component of first aid training. If you want to be fully prepared for a medical emergency out on the trail, the best thing you could do is invest a day in proper first aid training. This teaches you how to respond to many common injuries and conditions, including cuts, broken bones, shock, stroke, bites and stings, and heart attack.
But as a quick guide, if someone is injured with a cut or scrape while on a bushwalk (the most common type of injury), the critical elements to caring for them are:
- Control the bleeding – Stop blood flow by applying pressure with a sterile dressing (or clean cloth at least).
- Clean the wound – Clean dirt and foreign material from the wound to prevent infection.
- Dress & bandage the wound – Apply a more permanent dressing with gauze and bandages, using antibiotic cream if it’s available.
- Watch for signs of shock – Watch for pale skin, sweating, shallow breathing, and nausea which may indicate shock (sudden low blood pressure). Lie the person down (with legs elevated) and seek help ASAP if you see the signs.
If the injury involves a broken bone, then first aid looks a little more like this:
- Stop any bleeding – Stop any blood flow with a sterile dressing or clean cloth. But be wary of applying pressure to a broken bone.
- Immobilise the area – Minimise any movement of the broken bone – using a splint if practical.
- Apply something cold if possible – If you have ice in an esky or water bottle, make a cold pack and apply it. If not, a wet cloth used as a cold compress may help.
- Watch for shock – Again, watch for shock in the injured person. Don’t elevate a broken limb.
Ultimately, in a severe medical incident, while hiking, the goal is to stabilise the person’s condition, and get them help as soon as possible.