NOLS Wilderness First Responder course

NOLS Wilderness First ResponderEarlier this month I took a 2 week vacation so I could take a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) class put on by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). My wife, of course, thought taking a first aid course was a dumb idea. (“Gee, if something ever happens we can just call 911.”) Whatever. We talked it over and agreed that I wouldn’t get any grief from her about spending money to take the class. I’ll say right off the class wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t learn what I thought I would, but I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t expect. Basically it cleared up a lot of misconceptions I had. I’d definitely recommend this course to anyone who spends time in the woods or anywhere off the beaten path. In other words, it’s a great class for a backwoodsman or backyardsman.

Day One – NOLS Wilderness First Responder

The class started on a Tuesday. That was nice because I had all day Monday to get reacquainted with my home town (I drove down on Sunday). The first day was kind of intimidating. First order of business was introductions.  Most people taking the class were younger, in better shape, and working in outdoors or wilderness related jobs. There were 3 police officers, but I was the only old, fat IT worker in the bunch. Thankfully that turned out to not be a problem. Everyone was friendly and I didn’t feel out of place.

Urban vs Wilderness First Aid

The first thing talked about was the differences between wilderness and urban first aid. Basically it boils down to this: In an urban setting, you call 911, try to stabilize the patient, then wait for the pros to show up in 5 or 10 minutes. Once the pros show up (EMT or Paramedic) they’ll be taking over patient care.

In a wilderness setting, the pros might not show up for 2 or 3 days. That means you might have to treat the patient yourself. For example, say you’re out hiking and your buddy takes a bad fall and ends up with a compound fracture. If you’re looking at 2 or 3 days for a medical team to show up, guess what? You’re going to have to do something about it. If you wait 2 or 3 days for the pros to show up, that open wound is probably going to get infected. If you know what to do though, you can help your buddy to not get an infection, maybe even saving the limb.

Besides spending more time with a patient, there are other differences between urban and wilderness first aid. Because of the time, you might have to think about the patient’s condition changing. You’ll probably need to think about the environment – hot, cold, windy, raining or snowing? You might need to improvise treatment methods or an evacuation plan. You’ll need to make decisions regarding patient treatment sometimes with no help from a medical professional. All of these issues were well covered in the class.

Lots of hands on practice

The best part of the course was all the hands on practice we got. I’ve had first aid classes before where you get to do one little practice exercise and then you’re supposedly “good to go.” That doesn’t really work well foe me. i need to practiced things a few times before I feel confident doing them. In the NOLS WFR class we had 4 or 5 outdoor scenarios every day, including the first day. Groups were 2 rescuers working on 1 patient. The first day, the instructors just watched and pointed out obvious mistakes. On the second day, they nitpicked more and also had the patients critique the rescuers. By the third day, everyone was picking it up pretty good so we switched to 1 patient to 1 rescuer.

On the fifth day, we did a simulated river rescue that took up most of the afternoon. It involved multiple patients, then packaging one f the patients in a litter and carrying him by hand back to the school, about 1 mile. Lots of fun. Oh, and the simulated rescue was on an actual (real) river. The night before final, we did a simulated bouldering accident rescue in a real boulder field. For me, the hands on scenarios were the best part of the course, especially the simulated rescues.

Things I didn’t learn…

Well, I didn’t learn to be a combat medic. OK, I wasn’t expecting to anyway. I was kind of hoping they’d talk about suturing, and they did, just not in they way I’d hoped. I wanted to learn how to do it. According to NOLS, suturing in a first aid context is a definite no-no. They did explain why in a way that makes total sense, and they trained a really good method of wound closure, so I’ll call this a cleared up misconception.

Things I did learn…

I did learn a lot of things that probably aren’t taught in standard first aid classes. How to recognize and treat frostbite and hypothermia. What to do about a compound fracture. Dealing with a head or spine injury. Recognizing and treating shock. Treating heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Different types of altitude sickness and how to treat them.

When to stop CPR even if the patient hasn’t been revived. Yep, that’s a decision you might have to make in a wilderness first aid situation. It’s also a decision I hope I never have to make…

Some of the best things I learned were prevention. A lot of injuries and illnesses in the back woods can be prevented if you take just a little care. I think all of this is useful to a backwoodsman or backyardsman.

More to come…

I really can’t recommend the NOLS Wilderness First Responder course enough. Anyone with even a remote interest in wilderness first aid would benefit from taking this course. IMO that should include anyone who likes to spend time in the outdoors. As for me, I enjoyed it enough that I’m going to try and take the NOLS Wilderness EMT course next year. I’ve also decided to retire from my current job much sooner than I’d been planning to (more to come on that later). Until next time…

Peace out,

Related Links:

NOLS WFR Course Outline
NOLS WFR Course Dates (2019 – 2020)