Wilderness First Responder: First Aid meets MacGyver

For a long time we have been interested in taking a course in wilderness first aid. Not only do we travel in countries where medical care is less than widely available, but we also spend a lot of time outdoors. Knowing what to do in case of emergency and knowing how to self-treat minor injuries is an extremely useful tool anytime you are going to be off-grid.

The biggest driver of our initiative to get training was a climbing accident we witnessed. A few years ago we were in Tahoe at Big Chief and an unlucky guy climbing next to us had a hold break on him. His foot was in a pocket and as he fell his ankle wedged in the pocket and caught him before his rope did. Ouch. He had a compound fracture, bone sticking out and everything.

Everyone at the wall rallied together to move him to shelter (it had of course, started to rain immediately after he got hurt). Nobody knew what they were doing but the hive mind knew enough to keep him relatively comfortable and call for help.

Even though we had cell service it still took one and a half hours for the medics to reach him. Big Chief is down a long dirt road and then about a 2 mile hike, a portion of which is over pretty rough terrain. Had there been no cell service the response time would probably have doubled.

We kept in touch with the guy and he had to have surgery but made a full recovery. The whole incident got us to thinking about how vulnerable we are when we are out in the woods and how useful it would be to have even a little bit of knowledge about what to do if someone gets seriously hurt.

Choosing a Course

After talking to a few friends who are mountain guides they recommended the wilderness first responder or WFR “woofer” course taught through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). This is the mid-level course taught by NOLS. They have a more basic wilderness first aid (WFA) course and an in depth wilderness EMT course.

The WFA is only 3 days of which one whole day is on CPR. The WEMT on the other hand is a full month-long professional course which includes EMT certification. The WFR is a 10 day course tailored to supplying you with a useful yet manageable amount of knowledge and was perfect for our needs.

Wilderness First Responder

In the WFR course you learn about different injuries and illnesses including a severity spectrum of everything from blisters to internal bleeding. The course is designed to help you quickly assess the severity of the problem and to give you tools to know how you can help someone.

It is designed around the most common injuries experienced in the wilderness and includes important knowledge about what can and can’t be done in the event of serious injury. Additionally, it gives you the tools to improvise splints and and other tools using the equipment that you have.

A few of the topics include wound management, dealing with broken bones and dislocations, chest and abdominal illness and injury, cardiac problems, temperature related illness like heat stroke, hypothermia, and frost bite and many others.

The class is taught half in a lecture format and half in a practical format in which you and your classmates play out scenarios of wilderness treatment. The practical portion of the class is extremely helpful for solidifying the facts learned in lecture and getting you more comfortable interacting with patients and feeling confident in your knowledge.

As an added fun factor they also use fake blood and other makeup to make the injuries look more real and to help add gravity to the exercises.

Here are some photos from when Kyle played the victim, check out that fake broken leg and head wound.


Finding a Course

NOLS runs courses all over the US and a few internationally. They are taught in different locations throughout the year. You can find all the details and a schedule on the NOLS website.

4 Responses to “Wilderness First Responder: First Aid meets MacGyver”

  1. Ben said:

    Oh man – I remember that guy in Tahoe… narsty.

    Do you guys feel more comfortable alone in the woods now, or do you think you would prefer more training? I took first aid and CPR, but that was about it and would feel pretty out of my league if something serious came up…

    April 18th, 2011 at 2:03 pm

  2. Briana said:

    That’s something we have talked about a lot. Looking back on that one event, there are definitely things we could have done like keep the exposed bone moist and help him to the trail (assuming we couldn’t reach the real medical technicians). In general I would say that the course makes me feel much more prepared even for a worst case scenario though I do know that my knowledge is extremely limited. The great thing about the WFR course is it is designed to give you some sort of tool even in the worst of situations. With only this much experience you’d be pretty out of your league if anything bad went down, but in a wilderness setting you may be the only one around and that little bit of knowledge could really help.

    April 18th, 2011 at 3:31 pm

  3. Clayton said:

    did they give suggestions on how to improvise with gear? e.g., makeshift tourniquet or sling using runners/webbing (if climbing)?

    June 2nd, 2011 at 9:57 am

  4. Kyle said:

    They did give a lot of info about improvising. After about the first week you were expected to bring a day pack with gear you usually carry with you when out in the wilderness. Then during scenarios you are encouraged use your own gear to improvise splints and such.

    June 2nd, 2011 at 3:46 pm

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