Wilderness First Aid: Important Training Considerations

by Shawn O'Neal
wilderness-first-aid

There are important differences between medical situations in the wilderness and those same situations when you’re closer to home. Sprain your ankle in your backyard garden and it’s a painful inconvenience. However, the same injury on a week-long trek in the Wind River Range could prove to be a dangerous situation. With the limited resources, unreliable communication, and extended travel times associated with backcountry adventures, knowledge is critical. Adequate training in wilderness first aid is a worthwhile investment for yourself and anyone you encounter in the outdoors.  

What type of training is most valuable?

There are many resources available to individuals seeking to expand their knowledge and ability to address medical situations in a remote, outdoor setting. Online videos and articles abound. Wilderness medical books are plentiful. They range from the academic to the practical and include specialty considerations like mountaineering or SCUBA. It’s helpful for the novice to know where to begin approaching this new skill set. More importantly, first aid is a physical act, requiring more than book-knowledge to be effective. That’s why the hands-on approach to instruction, offered by many organizations in the outdoor medicine field, is a valuable investment for any would-be adventurer.  

An in-person wilderness first aid (WFA) course can provide practical information for hunters, hikers, and campers with no previous medical experience. Usually, taken over the course of one weekend, WFA skills include those most often encountered by travelers venturing into the backcountry. Courses address sprained ankles, blisters, and sun burns along with more intimidating challenges like abdominal injuries and diabetic concerns.  

The most valuable aspect of wilderness first aid training is the emphasis on realistic situations. Students are typically introduced to topics in classroom settings. They then get to practice using the new techniques for assessment and treatment in designed scenarios. Instructors and classmates assume the role of “patients.” That means plan on mimicking illnesses and injuries with stage makeup often used to add realistic details like blood and bruises.  

Outdoor Medicine Educators

There are several established schools whose credentials are recognized by organizations who require wilderness medical training for their employees. NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, has been taking students on a variety of backcountry adventures since 1965. NOLS Wilderness Medicine has courses designed for everyone from weekend backpackers to outdoor professionals. Their WFA training includes Epi-Pen instruction, important for severe allergic reactions, and CPR on some courses. NOLS offers these classes nationwide and often in partnership with local REI stores, making them easier to access.  

Wilderness Medical Associates International is another respected organization with decades of experience delivering this training. They host two-day WFA courses throughout the United States as well as internationally. They also offer more advanced programs for medical professionals and foreign travelers. The American Red Cross also offers a Wilderness and Remote First Aid Course.  

Wilderness first aid training- with an emphasis on practical, scenario-based instruction- can help provide both skills and peace of mind to outdoors-people of all interests. On your next adventure, the most valuable items for your first aid kit might just be the knowledge and experience you gain.  

Some of the programs mentioned here have adjusted their courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consult their course policies and updates for current details. 

[H/T NOLS, WMAI, REI, Redcross

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