Passing Out In First Aid Class

So I guess I’m more squeamish than I thought I was.

In preparation for hiking the PCT, I thought, “I should really take a wilderness first aid class.” When I saw that REI was going to have a class a week before I leave, I signed up without hesitation.

I would have been better off hesitating, though, because about a week later I realized that weekend was also Easter weekend, and since I worked Thanksgiving and Christmas, I kind of wanted to be with my family. Fortunately, they offer the class nearly every month in the Portland area, so after a brief period on the waiting list, I managed to get into one last weekend instead.

The first half hour was mainly business details: sign these papers, tell us why you’re taking the class, don’t be a creeper when you touch people, the usual. They gave is some snazzy stickers and a pocket guide to take on our journeys. Then they showed us how to do a patient evaluation system.


“Suppose you come across an injured mountain biker in the woods. Here’s a poem to help you remember remember what to do.” A poem!! And that said the English major would never pay off…

Everything was great. I resolved to begin frequenting mountain bike paths just so I could show off my about-to-be-developed skills.

That resolve cracked when they showed us how to check for spinal injuries.

Imagine this: you find an injured stranger in the woods. You don’t know exactly what’s wrong with them, so you do a patient evaluation. You’ve evaluated head, thorax, and extremities, and the only thing left to do is…risk paralyzing them by rolling them over and pushing all their vertebrae.

It’s much more technical than that, of course. You hold their neck still and keep them aligned so that their potentially fragile spines won’t snap in 2, but I didn’t know that and all I heard was, “You want to look for crunchy spots along the spine.”


Oh no.

The nausea hit me first, but I fought it back with some deep breaths and a sip of water. The room began to pixelate, then go black. Our instructor’s voice sounded like she was talking out of a tin can. I folded my arms on the table and laid my head on the back of my hand, only to pull it back moments later dripping with sweat. I pulled my coat on, even though when I’d walked in the room had felt too warm. I looked up at the instructor, who was continuing her speech on crunchy vertebrae while glancing frequently at me. When the room began to swim again, I put my head back down, knowing that if I did pass out, at last they had a nifty poem to help them remember how to care for me.

“You’re so not cut out for this,” a voice in my head declared. “Better to leave now and forfeit the money than to spend the whole day blacking out.”

A stronger voice in me answered. “That’s a great idea, except you’ll pass out before you get to the door.”

So I stayed. With a few sips of water and a change of topic, I managed to cling to my consciousness and soon felt normal.

It turned out to be a really useful and interesting course, and I would totally recommend anyone heading into the mountains to take it. After a mere 16 hours of instruction, I’m officially certified in Wilderness First Aid.

Feel free to sound the trumpets and throw a parade in honor of the occasion whenever you have time. Just do me a favor and call someone else if your spine feels crunchy.

Beaten by the Bearvault

Question: Which bear is best?

Is that a ridiculous question? Are there basically two schools of thought? If that’s your answer:

  1. Let’s be friends. I always need people to finish my quotes from The Office, otherwise things get kind of awkward.
  2. False. The best bear, at least when backpacking, is the one that doesn’t come into your camp and eat your food, and/or you.

With this in mind, and in preparation for a future PCT thru-hike and a more imminent trip to Glacier, I set out last week to buy a bear canister.

A what?

  • Bear Canister. n. An often bulky container designed to keep bears out and your delicious snacks in.

Okay, I don’t work for Merriam-Webster. But you get the idea. 

Bear canisters are important for several reasons:

  1. No one wants to get two days into a four-day hike and have all their food disappear down Bongo’s gullet.
  2. Bears who get used to eating people-food can become so aggressive that the parks service has to kill them in order to keep people safe.
  3. They’re required in Glacier National Park and several areas on the Pacific Crest Trail. 

As Linus said in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “Those are good reasons.”

Because I am mildly indecisive and never make a gear decision without consulting a trillion online sources, I compared four different models and eventually settled on one that looked coolest was lightweight and came highly recommended.

That is how I settled on the Bearvault.

Feel free to click that link. Look at that Bearvault. It’s beautiful. The clear blue plastic evokes visions of icicles and intergalactic travel at the same time. It has a black lid that practically screams, “Turn this for Nutella.” It has ridges that help the Bearvault stay secure on your pack. At least, that’s what the super helpful REI saleswoman from my previous blog entry said.

She also said I could take it out of the box and test it out. 

But really, what sort of person needs to test out a container for food? It’s not like it could be, say, mildly confusing to open! It’s not like anyone could be so weak that even when they figured out how to open it, they couldn’t push the tabs in far enough to actually accomplish the task!

Or maybe both those things could happen. 

Did happen. 

To me. 

To my surprise, I discovered the directions are really important on things like this. After five minutes of frustration at not being able to get that stupid black lid off that beautiful blue cylinder, I pulled out the instruction pamphlet that I had thrown across the room earlier. Turns out my fingers were about a centimeter above where they needed to be. Two seconds later, my two-year-old nephew, who had been trying to help but was now crying from frustration (or maybe because auntie kept taking this really cool looking thing away from him), started clapping as the lid spun off easily.

I felt so accomplished at being able to unscrew that lid, I tried it a few more times with nary a hitch. Two main takeaways from this experience:

  1. Since I did manage to open the container, I must not be a bear.
  2. If I see a bear with reading glasses on the trail, I must hide the Bearvault directions. The state of my snacking depends in it.

Embarrassment at REI

I’ve spent 4 years obsessing over backpacking gear and planning a future Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.

I’ve been backpacking three times.

I’ve read dozens of trail blogs, gear lists, and books of backpacking wisdom.

So when I went to REI to jump on the bandwagon of the Osprey Aura AG 65, (the AG stands for Anti-Gravity! How cool is that!) I was hoping to not feel like a total dunce.

As if fate would be so kind.

It began when the extremely helpful saleswoman asked if I wanted to try the pack on.

Well, yes, I suppose I would.

She measured my torso, found me to be right between a medium and a large, then gave me a medium to start off with.

I swung it confidently over my shoulders.

“Crap!” I muttered as my arms became entangled in the straps. What is this, a backpack for ants?

“Maybe you should loosen the shoulder straps,” the saleswoman suggested.

Of course! This pack was still configured for shipment! All the straps were tight as could be!

I loosened the shoulder straps and slid my arms comfortably through. THIS was how a pack should feel! Built for an adult-sized human, not my two-year-old nephew!

“Looks good,” the saleswoman muttered. “Now, you want the belt to sit on your hips.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, buckling it onto my hips like I’ve done on all my previous trips.

She paused. “It looks like it might be a little high,” she suggested.

I froze. I recognized that voice. That’s the voice I used when my roommate would try to wear leather boots with sweats on her walk to the cafeteria. It’s the voice that says, “If you think that’s a good idea, fine, but the rest of the world knows better.”

I refuse to be outsmarted by the rest of the world!

“Yeah,” I agreed, shifting the pack down an inch or so, “I’m just needing to adjust it a little. That’s better,” I said, looking up for affirmation.

I received none. “Still a little high. You want it to be on your hips,” she repeated.

At this point I was regretting bringing my sister on my shopping expedition. She wasn’t as adept at keeping a straight face as the saleswoman. I could practically hear her wondering how I would survive a five month trek if I couldn’t even make it to footwear. This, commingled with that particular joy that only comes from seeing your sister harmlessly embarrassed in a not-too-permanent fashion.

“Oh, right,” I mumbled, trying to save face and shifting the hip belt still further down.

“Do you know where your hips are?” the saleswoman asked gently.

“I thought I did,” I whimpered.

“Let me—do you mind?” I nodded. She moved forward to loosen the belt, then lowered it a full three inches and settled it where packs are apparently supposed to be.

It was at this point I discovered my error, though I was too embarrassed to state my case.

See, I had always thought that, “Your hip belt should be on your hips,” meant, “Your hip belt should be on top of your hips.” There is a crucial difference, however. If I had to write directions on how to wear a hip belt, I would say, “It should be around your hips.”

But no one asked me to write these instructions. Thus, I’ve been carrying my pack’s load on what most people would call my waist, or, not where it’s supposed to be at all.

In my defense, I’ve never seen a woman with a baby “on her hip” that carried it so low as REI and the rest of the backpacking world say a pack is supposed to be.

Embarrassment aside, the pack did feel incredible when worn properly. And the saleswoman was amazing and managed to not laugh throughout the entire episode, while giving me really useful advice. Unfortunately, I now have no idea if I actually need a new pack, or if my old one hurt my back simply because I was wearing this incredibly simple device entirely wrong. I’ve got two weeks to decide before my coupon arrives… And, should the upgrade be unavoidable, there are three other REIs I can go to to avoid having to meet that same salesperson’s eyes. Although with how helpful she was, I should probably go back and give her the sale anyways.