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Survival gear: Business specializes in wilderness preparedness

Survival gear: Business specializes in wilderness preparedness

Donna von Nieda
Donna von Nieda, director of Wilderness Medical Systems, shows the supplies inside a medical kit at her home near Nye. The business makes medical kits for outdoor enthusiasts and other travelers, or anyone who wants to be better prepared medically. Photo by PAUL RUHTER /Billings Gazette

BEEHIVE - When one of her clients rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, Donna von Nieda followed his trajectory via GPS, using her computer at home.

Von Nieda, who lives above the Stillwater River west of Absarokee, doesn't consider herself adventurous. But her wilderness medical kits have accompanied travelers on adventures to Kuwait and Afghanistan, Mongolia and Alaska and just about every place in between. Two were carried to Antarctica by a company that was extracting a plane from a glacier. And, of course, one made a slow trip across the Atlantic.

"The majority of our clientèle, traditionally, have been big-game hunters going to far-off places," von Nieda said. "But, as times have changed, more people have found us on the Internet. We've been found by the military, overseas contractors, adventure travelers and people wanting to be more prepared at home."

Von Nieda and her husband, Kurt, own Wilderness Medical Systems, an Internet-based business that promotes preparedness, particularly in remote places and in countries where medical services are sub-par or difficult to access.

In medical lingo, Donna explained, the term "wilderness" signifies any remote geographical location more than an hour from definitive medical care. So for Montana and some foreign countries, that could mean just about anywhere.

Wilderness Medical Systems is probably best known for its premium medical kits, the only medical kits featured at the annual Safari Club International convention. But the von Niedas promote more than their kits. They advocate an approach that encourages travelers to carry the appropriate prescription medicines and to pre-plan a means of evacuation.

"It's a little bit like insurance," Donna said. "And you can't leave one (piece) out."

Based on more than a decade of experience, she acknowledges that travelers are more likely to suffer minor medical problems, like blisters and sprains, than a major injury or illness. But even a blister, if allowed to fester, can create serious problems out in the bush.


As for the very few who do suffer serious emergencies in far-off locales, Wilderness Medical Systems kits and services could prove a godsend.

"Hopefully you'll never need it," Donna said. "But we hear all the horror stories."

The kits are designed to address the most likely medical emergencies, from lacerations to the often inevitable aches and pains that accompany outdoor adventures. Each is customized not only for the size of the party but its planned activities and the more exotic maladies typical of a specific destination.

"They can be configured however you want," Donna said. "We can tell you what it's like in the bush in Tanzania and what you'll find by way of medical infrastructure in Zambia or Namibia. The best use of our service is picking our brains and allowing us to put together a kit that meets your individual needs."

Besides the kits, Wilderness Medical Systems' website provides a link to a physician, who works directly with clients to prescribe medicines appropriate to their travel plans.

The third priority - having a way to get out - is addressed through another link on their website.

"To us, that's an absolute necessity," Donna said, recounting the tale of a man whose father developed a blood clot while traveling in Mexico. "Even before the jet left the tarmac in Miami to get him, they needed $41,000 in cash."

Kurt told of another misadventure involving a hunter who was hooked by the horn of a wounded Cape buffalo in Zimbabwe. The bill for the evacuation ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The von Niedas recommend Global Rescue for this kind of service because the company is prepared to evacuate anytime, from anywhere and for a charge that's surprisingly affordable. Both Donna and Kurt say it's a "no-brainer."

Donna concedes that their kits and services may never be needed. Nor do they come cheap. But the alternative could prove much more costly. If an infected blister means missing even a few days of a 20-day hunt in Africa, the kit has paid for itself many times over.

In fact, it was for similar reasons that the von Niedas first learned of Wilderness Medical Systems. The business was started several decades ago by Dr. Gilbert Preston, who was then practicing primary care in rural Montana. When the doctor was caught unprepared - his young son broke his wrist on a fishing trip and Preston had no medical equipment along - he vowed never again to venture into the wilderness without medical supplies. Frustrated with what he could find on the market, he assembled his own kit and began selling them.

The von Niedas learned of Preston's kits when Kurt prepared for a trip to Africa with their young son. As it turned out, their worst emergency was a paper cut. But the wife of their guide, who happened to be a nurse, marveled when Kurt pulled out his medical bag.

"She asked me if I knew what I had," Kurt said. "She told me I was better equipped than most hospitals over there."

So, in 1999, when Preston embarked on another career path, the von Niedas picked up the business.

"I didn't want those kits to go away," Kurt said.

"I knew how good they were."

Since then, Wilderness Medical Systems has evolved. Donna, an artist by training, lent her organizational skills to optimize the kits' efficiency and accessibility.

Now she's directing her focus to marketing. After several years of recession, she's gearing up with an updated website, an interactive blog and a Facebook account.

"This is so out-of-the-box for me," she said, laughing. "But we're so far from major commerce, the Internet is our shop. How else are people going to hear about us?"


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