Wilderness Medicine: Prepare Yourself for Living Abroad

Bryan and Deb Simon - Why not be prepared?

So you want to ‘live where you want to live and live how you want to live,’ but are worried about the uncertainties of a home abroad?  Moving overseas is an exciting and adventurous decision but also one that comes with many concerns.  One of the chief worries that many have with living full time in another country is access to adequate health care.  Some of these apprehensions can be alleviated by gaining basic medical skills that will help prepare you for any health crisis that you may face while enjoying your piece of paradise, wherever on the globe that may be.


While researching prospective countries medical systems is crucial in preparing for your move, educating yourself in first aid and other basic medical skills can bring peace of mind.  After all, if you are willing to pick up and move to the other side of the Earth than most likely you have the independence and ‘can do’ attitude to prepare for any eventuality that may arise.

Having lived abroad for extended periods throughout my life I have often been confronted with non-emergency self-care situations.  A perfect example occurred while riding down the Amazon River on a local ferry.  While attempting to open a can of peaches, I cut my finger rather deeply.  As there were no medical facilities on the boat, I used my own first aid kit to staunch the bleeding, clean the wound, and dress it until we reached Manaus, where I promptly received three stitches from a very nice and professional doctor.  While not an emergency, knowing that I had the knowledge to care for myself in a variety of situations allowed the freedom to explore off the beaten path.  Accidents happen to us all, but with knowledge and preparation, we can care for ourselves until able to reach proper medical facilities.

A second, but equally compelling reason for educating yourself medically is the chance of natural disasters throughout the world.  We have just witnessed the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan.  This technologically advanced nation struggled for weeks to provide the care needed to its citizens.  The recent tornadoes in the southeast United States are yet another example of how quickly mother-nature can turn paradise into chaos.  Why not be prepared?

Learning the Basics.

An education in rudimentary first aid is a great start for anyone with concerns about health facilities and access while living overseas.  There are many organizations that provide basic courses for a small fee.  The American Red Cross offers cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic first aid courses to the general public.  The CPR course focuses on resuscitation in case of cardiac or respiratory arrest.  The First Aid course discusses some common household emergencies to include heat and cold injuries, cuts and scrapes, as well as muscle and bone injuries.  These courses cost little, usually between $35 and $65 and are a great place to start your personal medical education.  Visit www.redcross.org for more details and to find a local chapter for course schedules and locations.

Another provider of quality basic medical education is the American Heart Association (AHA).  This organization provides classes to the public with a focus on CPR.  There is even a study at home option that is available for those who do not need or care to have a certification card.  This home study course costs only $35.  The group course varies based upon location but is generally very affordable.  For more information regarding the courses offered by the American Heart Association, please visit there website at www.heart.org or contact a local provider.

What is Wilderness Medicine?

Know the basics and want more information?  There are many more challenging and in-depth courses available that address various medical issues that can arise while living and traveling abroad.  Wilderness medicine is a developing field that focuses on providing care in limited resource environments.  This is often defined by the time it takes to reach definitive medical care, often calculated at between one and two hours.  There are many rural locations within the United States and abroad that fall within this definition.

One of the basic tenets of wilderness medicine is to improvise and use whatever equipment is available to care for the sick or injured.  This translates easily to living overseas where medical facilities and infrastructure may not be as robust as here in the United States.  You may not have access to a well-stocked local drug store and the importance of a first aid kit, accompanied by the know-how of wilderness medicine, and use of common household items such as safety pins, clothing, and tape may make the difference when responding to an emergency.

Within the larger scope of wilderness medicine there are a large variety of topics that are applicable to overseas living whether you plan to reside at a quiet villa in Italy, a home on the coast in Thailand, or a retreat in the highlands of Panama.   Topics range from exposure to environmental extremes and treatment of traumatic injuries to disinfection of water supplies and identification of edible and medicinal plants.  Some courses focus on a particular aspect of adventure travel or sports such as diving injuries or altitude illness.  A topic that is universally included in these courses is the stocking of a first aid kit and how to use a variety of items to care for you and your loved ones.

How can I learn more?

There are many organizations that teach various aspects of wilderness medicine.  While some are non-profits, the majority of companies are for profit entities whose main focus is instruction in the field.  The two most common courses for the individual seeking a foundation of knowledge are the Wilderness First Aid and Advanced Wilderness First Aid courses.  These programs are generally taught on a weekend and include 16 hours of instruction with time outdoors practicing techniques.  The next step up in training is the Wilderness First Responder course.  This course is a week in duration and includes a CPR certification.  While geared primarily for instructors and guides for outdoor companies and summer camp counselors, the information is definitely applicable to anyone planning to live overseas and has more hands-on practice time than the weekend first aid courses.

Some of the organizations that offer training include the Wilderness Medicine Institute of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA), and Stonehearth Outdoor Learning Opportunities (SOLO).   Two non-profit organizations where you can learn more about wilderness medicine include the Wilderness Medical Society (WMS) and the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine (ACWM).  There are also books available from a number of resources that cover the topic and allow for home study of techniques.


A study of basic first aid and wilderness medicine is worthwhile for those considering a move abroad.  A small amount of instruction in this field can provide the training necessary to care for loved ones and insure their safety and health while providing peace of mind.  As Benjamin Franklin so aptly put it, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

About the author: R. Bryan Simon, RN, CNOR, FAWM, a former US Army infantry officer and Army Ranger, is an active lecturer, author, and instructor of various facets of wilderness medicine both within the United States and overseas.  He and his wife travel extensively in remote and wilderness areas around the world and he has acted as a consultant to outdoor guiding companies, participated in rescues both here and abroad, and currently serves a Board Chair of the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine (http://www.appwildmed.org).

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