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Becoming a Wilderness First Responder

I have led over 2 dozen wilderness destination trips and countless instructional lessons and have been fortunate to never have a serious medical emergency occur to a student or myself. As a guide most often I am required to have only a basic knowledge of First Aid and CPR which sadly often means watching a few hours of video and answering a dozen multiple choice questions. This December I had the opportunity to travel to Landmark Learning an affiliate of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) and take part in a 9-day intensive Wilderness First Responder (WFR or pronounced 'woofer') course, which blew any of my previous training out of the water!

The main focus was on patient care management and how to prevent injuries and illnesses before they appeared. In the event that something should happen the course covered topics head to toe (literally) from issues on the outside: bumps and bruises to rashes and impairments to things internal such as broken bones, heart and lung issues, stomach pain, wounds, general illness and more. Coming from a rather naive medical background myself the instructors shared stories of events they had to remedy on the trail. I was amazed and shocked at the things that could happen in the outdoors and realized that so far my guiding experience had been fairly well bubble wrapped from injuries. Not that I am now an advocate of injury and mayhem I am thankful that so far the worst injury I have encountered is some severe sunburn and skinned knees.

The training involved a series of lectures indoors outlining common symptoms and treatments of each ailment as well as when and how to consider evacuating a patient. There were also many outdoor scenarios where we each played victim and rescuer and got a playful and very practical experience. The culmination of the training was an outdoor rescue situation where we worked in teams of 4. I (chosen by our instructor) was secretly set up to be the victim. Our scenario was that a group of us got lost in the woods after swimming at a waterfall and our map and compass got wet and became useless. We were trying to hike out of the woods when I ‘fell’ and compound fractured my shinbone. (Apparently I have a good career in acting because my teammates actually turned around to our instructor to alert them to my fall) With stage make-up blood and bone sticking out of my leg my teammates put my leg into traction, dressed my wound, and splinted my leg until further medical treatment might be found. A second teammate then had a seizure (which was also part of the training) and to the amazement of my last 2-team mates they now had 2 patients to deal with in the woods in the middle of the night. Imagine…. about 40 degrees, no moon, a flickering headlight, shirts and gear strewn about, a ‘gushing’ wound, a flailing man, and 4 people wondering what in the &*$ is going on… that about sums up the scene! All 4 of us managed the scenario and huddled together for over an hour while our instructors waited in the shadows watching and taking notes. In the end ‘help’ did arrive and we safely made it home.

The biggest impact this course taught us was that no matter how prepared you are with a 10lb medical kit and all the knowledge in the world strange and unique things happen in the wilderness. The best ‘medicine’ you can have is a calm mind and great improvisational skills. As a paddler, hiker, cyclist, skier, or a person who enjoys a walk in the woods injury can happen to anyone and at any time. Though I will never be 100% prepared for what can happen I will get you out of the woods! So next time you’re on a trip with me just know that out of the corner of my eye I’ll be searching for supplies I need in case of an emergency.

WFR Class Picture

Our group of 12 newly certified Wilderness First Responders

* For more information on NOLS please visit

* For more information Landmark Learning please visit

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