(What to do when someone dies in the backcountry.)
Deaths in the backcountry are rare, exactly how rare is up for debate. Much depends on how you define backcountry and where you get your numbers (outside of the National Park Service, accurate statistics are hard to find). That said, a few hundred people appear to die each year while recreating in the outdoors. Given the number of people who play outside annually, statistically, death is pretty rare. While the order often changes annually, the top ten causes of death in the backcountry appear to be:
So what should I do if I'm with a person who is dying?
There is no single answer that applies to all people other than support their process to the best of your ability. For many, this means holding their hand and simply being present. For some, it may include praying with or for them. If the person is awake, it may mean taking notes to share with relatives and friends. The specifics vary from individual to individual.
How do I know when a person is dead?
They will not have any signs of life: no pulse at their carotid artery, no chest rise, and no air coming from their mouth or nose. Over time their body will cool until it reaches the ambient air temperature and rigor mortis and liver mortis will set in.
Rigor Mortis: When energy is no longer being produced, muscles contract and stiffen beginning with the small muscles of the face, neck, arms, and shoulders and gradually encompassing larger muscles until the person's body is completely stiff. Rigor is typically fully set within eight hours and remains in place for roughly eighteen hours before reversing itself to pre-rigor status, starting with the large muscles.
Liver Mortis: When a person's blood stops circulating after death, gravity causes the red blood cells to settle leaving dark "bruising" in areas of the patient's body that are in contact with the ground. The process begins roughly thirty minutes after death and is fixed after approximately six hours.
What should I do after a person is dead?
Keep in mind that your first priority is yourself and the living members of your party. Make sure everyone is safe. Then, if possible, note the GPS coordinates of the body's location and notify the local authorities via radio, cell phone, satellite phone, or other communication device and follow their instructions. If the dead person was your patient, complete a SOAP note. If they were a client or student, also complete your program's accident/incident report form. Take pictures of the site and body, especially if the mechanism was trauma, and do your best to preserve the scene for the authorities; most states prohibit moving a dead body from the scene of the accident without the authority of the coroner. Of course, some scenes cannot be preserved due to weather or terrain. If you can't contact and receive direction from local authorities and find you must leave the scene, your photos become evidence and part of any subsequent investigation. If you decide to leave the scene and the body, do your best to protect the body from scavengers and clearly mark its location both visually and on a map. Although rare, some expeditions have decided to transport the body of the deceased out of the backcountry. Treat the body with respect and be sensitive to the cultural mores of the deceased and those around you.
Our public YouTube channel has educational and reference videos for many of the skills taught during our courses. Check it out!