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The Importance of Wilderness First Aid (WFA) Training


One morning last summer I received one of those calls we all hope to never get.  A good friend had been involved in a climbing accident and the injury was serious.  He had taken a 20+ foot fall while climbing and hit his head on a rock at the bottom.  The fall resulted in a fractured vertebra and a gash that required hundreds of stitches to close.  Thankfully he was by a road and passers-by were able to rush him to the local hospital, but the incident served as a reminder to me that the possibility of injuries is always just a few seconds away in the outdoors.   Incidents like this serve as a reminder that good wilderness first aid training is essential.  They are also why The WEST Institute offers a Wilderness First Aid course each August.

Over the last 5-10 years various jobs have required me to sit through the Red Cross first aid training multiple times.  The techniques I learned were valuable but the biggest lesson I learned was to call 911 ASAP and try to hold on until the professionals arrive.  The question the outdoor adventurer must consider is “could I handle a serious situation myself if medical help was hours if not days away?”   

Traditional first aid training has been offered to lay people since the 19th century, but in the 1950’s outdoor adventurers began to realize that the training needed to be revised to be practical for backcountry emergencies.  Though the traditional first aid training is very beneficial, the reality is that it is geared for individuals who will provide care for a maximum of 10-15 minutes and who often have large supply kits available.  While this is beneficial training, it doesn’t prepare you to handle a serious situation in the backcountry.

If you spend time in the wilderness for any reason, it would be a great idea to consider taking a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or even a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course.  Since the late 1970’s, Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO) and National Outdoor Leadership School  (NOLS) have been offering first aid courses specifically designed for emergencies in the wilderness.  Their training differs from classic first aid courses in that it is designed to prepare students to provide care to an injured person for anywhere from a half day (WFA) to multiple days (WFR) and to do so with limited supplies. 

Both the WFA and WFR courses are designed as hands-on courses that teach the basics of providing care in the backcountry.  A WFA course combines in-class training and realistic scenarios (with mock patients and often wound makeup) in a two day format.  The WFR course is a more in depth class that involves 70-80 hours of training.  If you spend time in the outdoors I would highly encourage you to at least take a weekend and take the WFA course.  Both SOLO and NOLS offer courses throughout the summer, and between the two organizations there is a good chance that training is available somewhere near you.

To learn more about the annual WFA course offered through The WEST, please visit our Wilderness First Aid Course page.


Jimmy Carter is a former graduate and current communications director with The WEST Institute.  He is an active member of the outdoor community, and passionate about climbing.