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A Few Words on Paddling Safety

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

It is too easy to be prepared – a few words on paddling preparedness. Whether you’re stand up paddle boarding in the Dominican or canoeing in Canada, practicing good paddling safety is easy to do and prepares you for whatever comes your way.

paddling safety gear

What paddling safety equipment do you regularly pack?

Accidents Happen

On a recent trip, I was reminded of the importance of paddling safety. I should have known better as I passed a group of less than thrilled women wading without their kayak. I was paddling to the Atlantic on a janky stand up paddle board (SUP) that I rented from the Dominican Resort we were staying at. As I approached the breakers, I watched a few Scuba instructors pull a sunken Ocean Kayak Fenzy from the bottom onto an old wooden skiff. Apparently the drain plug was missing in action… scary.

A few waves in, I had forgotten about the sunken kayak and was having a blast. On the next set, I saw a decent-size wave coming and started paddling hard. Before I knew it, I had out run the wave and gotten too far ahead of the breaker. The board started to nose dive, and I was swiftly bailing out. I jumped off, thinking I was clear of the sandbar, but I quickly hit the bottom in waist-deep water and got a pretty nasty cut on the bottom of my left foot.

As I paddled in, I pondered the fastest option for access to a medical kit. There was an overwhelmingly large line at the rental stand, and after seeing the quality of the boats, I could only imagine the medical kits.  I opted for walking all the way back to my room for a Mountain Series kit that I had packed in my checked bag. I had to walk a quarter mile back to the room barefoot, as I had left my sandals with my wife back at our chairs in the opposite direction. By the time I got back, my feet were black and the wound was covered in sand. Not good.

Are You Prepared for “What If”?

While my foot did not fall off (and I miraculously made a full recovery before happy hour started), it could have turned out much worse. And I could have been more prepared. What if it was worse? What if the bleeding was not easily controlled? What if I was not at a resort but on a remote lake, solo, deep in the Maine wilderness? Would it have been the same outcome?

Even minor injuries, left untreated, can become major issues in the backcountry

My point is accidents happen, and they can happen to anyone venturing into the outdoors. While experience helps, the outcome can be the same whether you’re a seasoned pro or a newbie who just rented a canoe for a short paddle. Think of all the times growing up or in present day when things could have gone bad but didn’t. Could you have easily been prepared if they had gone wrong? Let me help with some scenarios where a little paddling safety gear would go a long way.

Scenario 1: Family Canoe Trip

It is Memorial Day weekend and you decided to take your kids out for a paddle near the public campsite you rented. You rent a canoe from a teenager who barely got off his phone long enough to hand you the old life jackets and warped plastic paddles. It has been misting off and on all day, so you leave your bags in the car.

Ask yourself: How far do I have to go to reach my medical kit?

You paddle up the quiet, tranquil creek until you reach a large tree with a rope swing. Your overzealous teenager’s canoe reaches the bank before you get there. By the time you paddle up, he is halfway up the steep approach to the swing. Before you even realize what is happening, he is screaming and running back down the sandy slope to the water. As he gets closer, you see the swarm of angry bees converging on his head and shoulders. You think to yourself “at least he’s not allergic.” As the swarm dissipates, you can start to see noticeable swelling. Do you have some diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help with swelling? Do you have some acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain? What if he got a large cut on his foot on the run back to the water? While this was likely not life-threatening, having a small medical kit would have made the paddle back much more comfortable for your teen.

Scenario 2: Post-Work Paddling

One more example for good measure. It’s a beautiful summer day in Banff, and you unexpectedly get off work early. You rush home, grab your SUP, and head down to the canoe club for a late afternoon paddle on the Bow River. You paddle a few miles up the gentle current, when you spot an osprey in a tree near the bank. You do your best to quietly paddle over and pull out your iPhone to snap a picture.

Even stand up paddle boarding has its dangers

As you use your second hand to zoom in, you lose your balance on the board and plunge toward the chilly water. In an effort to save your phone, you hold it above your head as you hit the shallow water.

Good news: you save the phone. Bad news: you hit your head pretty hard on a submerged rock. As you run your hand through your hair, you realize it’s bleeding a lot. By the time you get your board on shore, you can feel the blood running down your neck. You take your now-soaked shirt off and tie it around your head. By the time your back to the dock, the blood is soaking through your shirt.

Thankfully, the dock is near the center of town, and you have quick access to a medical kit/professional attention. What if you had been farther up the river? What if you had been in a more remote area? A half-ounce QuickClot gauze pad would have gone a long way.

Paddling Safety Made Easy

Accidents are bound to happen, but this should never stop you from exploring, adventuring, or just enjoying the lake with your kids. In this day and age, it is extremely easy to be prepared. While my preference would always be to have a full Mountain Series Kit in my dry bag, it’s not always practical. However, there are some other fantastic options out there that allow you to keep your paddling safety gear fast and light.

For the past 5 years, I have had a Watertight Pocket Medic kit stowed in the front pocket of my PFD. While I seldom took it out, I knew it was there, and it gave me the peace of mind when paddling out.

Recently, I upgraded this to the Ultralight/Watertight .3 Medical Kit. This kit weighs just over two ounces and can be a huge help when things go south. I couple this with a half-ounce QuickClot gauze pad, which is key for controlling bleeding.

I currently carry the Ultralight/Watertight .3 – it’s compact & waterproof

An even better option, which I think I will switch to, is the Ultralight/Watertight .5. While this kit adds an entire ounce (joking – it’s an ounce, get over it), it includes some key medicine such as diphenhydramine and aspirin. Bonus: the price comes in at just under twenty bucks.

Overall these Ultralight/ Watertight kits are perfect for stowing in a life vest, so you’ll forget they are even there until you need them (in which case, you’ll be glad you have it). When considering the weight, price, and stow-ability of these medical kits, there is really no reason to not be prepared by adding one to your paddling safety gear.

About the Author

Andrew Piotrowski is an all-around adventurer residing in Southeast Pennsylvania. He can commonly be found trad climbing in the Gunks, paddling the Chesapeake Bay, or trail running and backpacking in the Catskills. Andrew grew up running and kayaking but fell in love with the mountains on a few trips to the Adirondacks. Since then he has focused on alpine climbing and mountain running objectives in the Sierra’s, Bugaboos, and White Mountains. Andrew’s favorite training partner is his dog Calvin, who has helped him to log countless training miles. When not outside, Andrew enjoys Canadian Lager and gardening.

Anatomy of an Adventure: Solo Crossing the African Great Lakes

Monday, January 8th, 2018

This January, adventurer, biologist, and photographer Ross Exler will embark on the first ever human-powered solo-crossing of the African Great Lakes system in support of The Nature Conservancy. His journey will include approximately 1,000 miles of paddling across the lakes with 600 miles of biking between the lakes and will take him through remote parts of Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. We’re excited to support Ross as he seeks to raise awareness about the lakes and support conservation efforts. Below, Ross shared with us about his decision to make this journey and his plans for safety. – Adventure® Medical Kits

For many years now, I’ve been driven to go out and explore wild places around the world. In 2015, I paddled an inflatable kayak 1,000 kilometers through the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, staying each night in small villages. When I hit the Amazon River, I had a small motorized canoe built, which I navigated a couple thousand more kilometers through Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. To date, I’ve spent about 2 years of my life traveling in Africa, mostly solo expeditions, and have visited dozens of wilderness areas in East and Southern Africa.

My next expedition, which will commence in January 2018, will be the first entirely human-powered, solo-crossing of the African Great Lakes system. I will attempt to paddle a kayak across Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, traveling between the lakes via bicycle and along with all of my equipment. The journey will be over 1,600 miles and will take me through remote parts of Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. I’ll be doing the trip alone, and every mile will be earned through the fair means of paddling or bicycling.

When I tell people about this expedition, they usually ask me one of two questions:

  1. What are the African Great Lakes?
  2. How do you stay safe?

I find that first question to be rather tragic, serving as further motivation for my trip, while the second question certainly deserves considerable thought. I’ll try to briefly answer both.

What are the African Great Lakes?

I was first introduced to the African Great Lakes when I worked in a college lab studying several species of fish from Lake Tanganyika. I soon found out that these lakes have some amazing distinctions: Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, the second deepest (over 4,800 feet deep), and the second largest lake in the world by volume. Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world by surface area, and the second largest overall. Lake Malawi is the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world by volume. Altogether, the lakes comprise nearly 25% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater.

Further, the lakes are remarkably important for biodiversity. They contain thousands of species of fish, with as much as 10% of the world’s species of fish living in these three lakes alone. By some estimates, Lake Malawi holds the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world. Additionally, the shores of Lake Tanganyika include the Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream, both known for their populations of chimpanzees.

Unfortunately, the lakes are under threat due to overfishing, invasive species, climate change, and pollution inputs from deforestation and other human activities. These impacts are all contributing to ecological degradation of the lakes. One estimate suggests that over 200 species of cichlids found only in Lake Victoria have gone extinct in the past 30 years alone. These environmental issues also endanger the millions of people who live along the shores of these vast lakes.

After having visited the African Great Lakes region and completing my solo Amazon expedition, I came up with the idea of enchaining the three largest of the African Great Lakes by kayak and bicycle. As I planned the expedition, one of my goals was to team up with a conservation non-profit who works within the region, to help increase awareness.

That’s when I came across the work of The Nature Conservancy’s Tuungane Project, which operates along the Tanzanian section of Lake Tanganyika. The Tuungane Project brings a multidisciplinary approach to conservation and addressing the extreme poverty that is the underpinning of environmental degradation in the region. Their efforts include introducing fisheries education and management, terrestrial conservation, healthcare, and women’s health services and education, agricultural training, and other efforts to increase the quality of life and understanding on how human activities impact the very resources that the local people depend on for survival. Without the buy-in of local communities, efforts to conserve this incredible region will likely be unsuccessful.

How Do I Stay Safe?

The answer to this question is a fairly straight forward product of preparation and experience with regards to the different dangers and threats I am likely to face.

Animals & Weather

As someone with a background in biology and having spent a lot of time in the African bush, I’m well aware of the animals which may be present, their habitat preferences, and behaviors. Much like traveling in bear country, simple behaviors such as keeping a clean camp, traveling only during the day, avoiding likely habitats, knowing the behaviors of species (such as predatory or territorial), and maintaining constant vigilance can go a long way.

The lakes themselves are often referred to as inland seas, where storms and large waves can be a threat. So, I will rely on my years of experience on the water and travel prepared with the right equipment: an extremely seaworthy folding sea kayak and a securely fastened PFD.

Criminal

People can also be a threat to safety, but in my experience people are generally good and welcoming, and some common sense, vigilance, and interaction with local people should keep me safe. I’ve talked with local people and asked about crime and threats to safety, and their advice is generally good. On the whole, the areas that I am visiting are mostly populated with small rural villages, which are generally extremely safe. I will have to be more vigilant around larger towns or cities, or if someone points out a specific threat.

Diseases & Injuries

The final threat to my safety on this trip is wilderness health. This poses a unique challenge on my trip because I will be traveling alone in regions that suffer from endemic tropical disease and have little or no medical infrastructure. Similarly to other threats, a combination of education, preparation, and a having a plan in place can diminish or neutralize most of these health dangers.

First, it is important to understand the diseases that pose a health threat and understand transmission, recognizing symptoms, and treatment. Prevention of infection is the single most important thing that I can do. Before I leave home, I will identify all diseases for which there is an option for immunization or prophylaxis and make sure to diligently follow through. To prevent infection from ingested diseases, I will only drink verifiably treated water and only eat thoroughly cooked or reputably packaged food. I use UV and filter treatment for water, always have the ability to boil water as a backup, and generally cook my own food.

The main routes of transmission for parasites in the region where I will be traveling include exposure to contaminated water (Schistosoma) and being bitten by insects which carry diseases (Malaria and African Sleeping Sickness). To prevent this, I will take Malaria prophylaxis, insist on wearing clothes that are treated with insect repellent chemicals, such as permethrin, use insect repellents such as Ben’s 100 DEET and Natrapel Picaridin, and attempt to keep my skin covered as well as possible. To prevent exposure to Schistosoma, I shall avoid contact with the water, especially near shore and around villages and vegetation. It is advisable to know what types of areas have a higher density of the insects, and what part of the day they are active, and avoid both if possible.

If I do fall ill or am injured, it’s important to know how to deal with it and be prepared with the necessary medicine and medical supplies to do so. I recommend taking a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course, and doing as much research as possible into first aid and tropical disease (or whatever diseases exist in the area where you are traveling). Another excellent resource that I always bring is a small wilderness medicine book, such as A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine by Eric Weiss, MD. I always carry a full range of medications so that I have some ability to respond to illness in the field. I am also packing a well-equipped first aid kit, in this case an Adventure® Medical Kits Mountain Series Guide Kit, which has supplies to cover situations including wound care, musculoskeletal injuries, cuts, bleeding, and over the counter medications.

Emergency Evacuation Plan

Finally, I utilize a satellite telephone and medical evacuation service in case of emergency. This service provides me with a final layer of protection, should the worst happen. I can call them and speak with a doctor who can talk me through diagnosis and treatment, and if necessary, they will extract me from the field and take me to a medical facility.

So, my advice to any adventurers or people of adventurous spirit is to seize the day and go out there, but make sure to be safe by going educated and going prepared

– Ross Exler

Picture Credits: Ross Exler Photography