Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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A New Year's Resolution

This past weekend, I was speaking with a ski patroller friend, who told me that the ski season has started, and he's already taking people off the hill because they're drunk. Today in a totally different environment, I spoke with a lifeguard, who commented that he is seeing an increasing number of water rescues related to beer drinking on the beach. Taken together, these comments spell out a common recipe for disaster.

At the risk of sounding like a prohibitionist, let me take the position that alcohol has no place in the backcountry or in the midst of adventure sports. By that, I mean that drinking alcohol while engaging in any outdoor activity for which there is an element of risk related to decision-making, physical coordination or dexterity, mental alertness, and/or strength and conditioning is a poor choice. There is no benefit of alcohol that supercedes its potential deleterious effects.

For adolescents with limited experience of being "under the influence," the problems are confounded by even worse judgment. I know this to be true both as a physician and parent. Consider the following:

1. Alcohol-related automobile accidents are a leading cause of death. In the wilderness, alcohol figures prominently in drownings, boating accidents, falls, injuries from firearms, snowmobile accidents, skiing mishaps, and so forth.
2. Children model much of their drinking behavior from their parents. They are under constant pressure from their parents to drink alcoholic beverages.
3. By example, in the State of California, there is a "zero tolerance law," which in essence means that consumption of one-half a can or bottle of beer would put a teenager over the legal maximum blood alcohol level of 0.01% for a driver under the age of 21 years.
4. Alcohol markedly reduces inhibitions and leads to bad decisions about operating machinery, handling sharp objects (e.g., knives), staying on trails, handling burning objects, sexual promiscuity, getting into arguments that lead to physical altercations, and so forth.
5. A parent who provides alcohol or who permits it to be consumed by an underage individual is subject to severe financial penalties, and in certain circumstances, a criminal conviction.

At the end of the day, safely situated at the campground or at home and with no intention of being in a boat, negotiating a trail, or surviving a winter storm, I am delighted to sit safely distant from the campfire or fireplace and consume a single bottle of beer or glass of wine. I do this knowing that I do not place others or myself at risk because of my choice of beverage. My children and their friends will to some extent model their behavior after mine, so I must choose wisely. Without parental supervision, they would be all too delighted to contemplate making a poor choice.

Since it will soon be New Year's eve, I would be remiss if I didn't wish everyone "Happy New Year," with the admonition that if your celebration includes alcoholic beverages, please stay off the slopes and ice, and away from dangerous bodies of water. Hand the keys to the car, snowmobile, or boat to someone who is sober, and live to enjoy another day.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.