Outdoor hobbies have a reputation for being dangerous. Especially when it comes to hiking and backpacking, bear attacks are the first conclusions people jump to, but it’s the potential for many other injuries and lack of available medical assistance that makes it genuinely dangerous to get hurt out there.
We’ve definitely thought about this, and in preparation for our Pacific Crest Trail Thru Hike, we decided to take a Wilderness First Aid Course with the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS WFA certification.
Here’s our NOLS WFA certification review, and what you need to know about taking this two day wilderness first aid course.
Why Take a Wilderness First Aid Course?
Have outdoor hobbies? Like being in the backcountry? Or maybe you’re planning on being in the wilderness for more than just a few days at a time. Anything can happen out there, and a little bit of of knowledge and practice can go a long way towards minimizing injury, and maybe even saving a life.
Who takes a Wilderness First Aid Course?
Besides being a good idea for anyone with a penchant for “recreating outdoors,” as our course instructors were fond of saying, the WFA certification is a requirement for outdoor activity leaders like the Boy Scouts. There was a troop leader in our class, as well as a future REI kayaking and climbing instructor, and a National Park ranger.
About the Course
The NOLS WFA course uses a combination of classroom lecture and scenarios to teach wilderness first aid for common outdoor recreation injuries. The course is two days in length, and usually takes place on a weekend.
- Course Time: The course takes anywhere from 16 to 20 hours to complete, for us, this meant 9 AM to 6 PM on a Saturday and Sunday, with an hour break for lunch.
- Class size: 25 students
- Instructors: 2 instructors. One was a full-time EMT from Asheville, NC with ample wilderness experience and hilarious hippie-like demeanor and vocabulary (“remember to open up that can of calm, guys,”); the other was a gruff but very knowledgeable survivalist type from St. Paul, Minnesota. They complimented each other quite well and were both professional, helpful, and entertaining, making the 8 hour days go by a lot faster.
- Course location: I’m assuming that this varies from location to location, but our class was hosted by REI and taught in the actual stock room of a retail store. We sat in folding chairs amid boxes, mannequins, and sometimes REI employees going in and out. When it was time to practice scenarios, we went out through the loading dock.
What Is Wilderness First Aid?
An important distinction between regular first aid and wilderness first aid, is that treatment is often not an option, and the injury must be identified and mediated until legitimate medical attention (a hospital or ambulance) can be reached. One of the most important things that WFA teaches is helping students to understand when to evacuate.
Perseverance and determination are prized traits in our society, but in the backcountry they can be dangerous. From personal experience, I can say that when I’m out on a hiking trip, I don’t want to stop or even slow down the trip because of an injury, especially if it seems like a small one. The problem here is that even small injuries can spiral out of control into something much worse in the rough, unsterilized environment of the wilderness, and evacuation isn’t just a precaution, it’s necessary.
The NOLS WFA course is extremely helpful in expelling common first aid misconceptions that can be very dangerous in any emergency situation, but especially in a wilderness one. Misconceptions like removing an impaled object to treat the wound (don’t do it), or that touching someone who has just been struck by lightning will electrocute you (it won’t). While I had minimal first aid knowledge to begin with, I now have specific first aid assessment and treatment skills that take precedent over everything else.
What We Learned
I won’t go in to detail, but in case you’re wondering whether this will be useful to you, here’s some of our course highlights:
- How to treat and manage wounds in the backcountry (Hint: it’s not just with band-aids.)
- How to make splints for broken bones with backpacking materials
- How to manage hypothermia
- How to stay safe from lightning
- How to treat anaphylaxis
- Blisters are a “leadership issue.” Actual words from the survivalist type instructor. I know what he meant, but I still thought this was hilarious.
- How to prevent and treat blisters (I told you it was practical information!)
What We Didn’t Learn
As the course progressed, I began to see that there were lots of potential situations that my skills would not be able to treat. This course is in essence, basic first aid, with an emphasis on basic. Most of our scenarios involved helping patients who were mildly injured, and on flat ground.
If you plan on doing backcountry activities that are high risk like rock climbing, mountaineering or anything involving white water, this course won’t cover injuries that are much more likely in those situations, like a severely injured or incapacitated patient who must first be moved from a dangerous location to be assisted. The course also does not deal with watery scenarios, like drowning, and does not teach CPR (a skill that the instructors recommended we learn). I assume that most of what we didn’t learn is covered in the NOLS Advanced Wilderness First Aid or the NOLS Wilderness First Responder courses.
One thing I thought we should have touched on more than we did? Snake bites.
Snake bites are mentioned in the course handbook, but it’s not listed as a course topic and the instructors didn’t touch on it. Luckily for us, if one of us is bitten by a snake, we have a satellite phone to call for emergency help. That’s the best most situations in the backcountry will allow.
How to Get the Most out of the WFA Course
It can feel super corny to really dive into the scenarios, and I noticed that quite a few people had trouble taking the scenarios seriously. In one scenario where I acted as the patient, my “rescuers” practicing their first aid skills frequently broke the fourth wall by acknowledging me as a classmate, botched many of the steps and just provided really crappy patient care to me. Unless they went home and practiced the scenarios, which is unlikely, they missed out on one of the few opportunities to practice critical emergency skills.
Just remember that there’s a good reason that you’re taking the WFA, and if you’ve spent your own money on it, you’re doing yourself no favors by not fully engaging in the course and practicing skills in what might be the only opportunity where someone’s safety is not on the line.
Final Words on the NOLS WFA
- There is so much instruction so quickly, that information overload is expected. I’m a global learner, and the cramming of so many step-by-steps and checklists had me comatose by lunchtime on the first day. After the second day however, I was building off course basics and really felt that I had a handle on all of the concepts. That being said, bring coffee with you to help stay focused- especially after lunch!
- If you do a lot of “recreating outdoors” with one person, or people, in particular- take the course together! In a real life wilderness emergency situation, you might miss some important steps to providing first aid, and another set of trained hands, and minds, will help give optimal care. Plus, it’s not unlikely that you’ll be injured and need some assistance yourself.
- The course was not boring and was in fact highly stimulating and fun in some cases. Most of our classmates were pretty cool people, and the instructors were really, really great. I felt a bit sad after the course was over and everyone dispersed );
- Both Nikita and I felt that we learned a lot of very useful information for our outdoor recreating, and highly recommend the NOLS WFA course to anyone interested in being safer outdoors.