wilderness medicine

Wilderness First Aid for Outdoor Families

When we take our kids outside, we always say “Safety First,” but don’t always consciously stop to think about what that means. Managing risk as an outdoor family is one of the most important jobs we have outside, but what does that mean? In an effort to help us keep our families safe, this post will break down wilderness first aid for outdoor families and how to educate ourselves.

Wilderness First Aid for outdoor families: Taking Risks

Parents evaluate RISK all the time.  “Is that log too high to climb on?”  “Is my child wearing their life jacket?”  “Is that a bee they are picking up off the ground?”  In fact, sometimes we get numb to all the risks we face, because our kids are curious and good at finding trouble.

As Mountain Mamas, we play outside despite the risks involved, because they are risks we choose to take.  There’s risk to everything we do in life, after all.  Heck, you could get in a car wreck driving down the street, or fall and break a leg on the sidewalk to school.  You might as well get injured doing something you love, right?

Risky play is also inherently important to the physical and emotional development of our kids.  Outdoor sports like hiking, skiing, biking, and climbing can help our kids develop self-confidence and good decision-making skills. 

See our Review of Just Let Them Be Eaten By Bears for more inspiration.

But are we ready to MANAGE those risks?  There are real and possibly life-threatening risks that we take, every single time we participate in those outdoor sports. Before we had kids, we might have been prepared with a first aid kit, or even with bear spray, but we usually didn’t worry about an accident happening. 

After kids, we suddenly have a whole lot of complicating factors, and have to plan for every little emergency: hungry kids, diaper blowouts, or missing stuffies.  Well, what if our kids actually get in a real accident and get hurt on the trail?  Or what if we run into a wild animal (tips on dealing with that here)?  What if WE get hurt. 

Sometimes, disaster strikes. Ginny has had her fair share of real injuries on the trail.

Parenthood makes us suddenly realize that in a serious situation, WE are the responsible adult.  We don’t like to think about the bad things that can happen, or we might think, “It’s only a couple miles, what could go wrong?”  Things CAN go wrong, even on a short trip.

Outdoor Family Risk Management

Risk Management is simply identifying risks, and having a plan in place to minimize our exposure.  For example, if we are going to an area with mosquitoes the size of ponies (I’m looking at you, Alaska), are we packing bug spray, treating our clothes with permethrin, or packing head nets? 

Do we have some cortisone cream, or benadryl for eventual bites?  If we don’t prepare, you can bet we will have a bad time.

Risks abound on literally any trail.  Slips trips and falls are the most common form of injury.  With little kids, who seem to bounce really well, that’s often just a scrape or a bruise.  It could just as easily be a sprained ankle, broken bone, or even a head injury. 

There’s also environmental risks, including hypothermia, cold injuries, heat illness, burns, spider bites, animal attacks, lightning strikes… it’s pretty much lions and tigers and bears, oh my! 

We SHOULD still go outside. I’m not advocating for us to all stay indoors, wearing bubble wrap.  We just need to know and understand the risks, not fear them.  Most importantly, we need to be prepared to manage those risks, should a fun situation go downhill.

The Girl Scout’s Motto:  “Always Be Prepared.” 

Being prepared has gotten me out of a bad situation more than once! 

That’s why I think it’s SO important for ANYONE, but especially for parents, to get a Wilderness First Aid (or higher) certification.  It prepares you for the worst-case scenario, and enables you to react with confidence and calmness when dealing with any situation in the wilderness, from scraped knees, to broken bones. 

I have been getting certified in Wilderness First Aid, or as a Wilderness First Responder since 2000. 20 years later, I still keep my certification current. 

I am SO thankful to have had this training. From something as simple as helping friends with blisters on their feet, to removing fish hooks, helping someone after a nasty fall on the ski slopes, cleaning abrasions after bike accidents, treating someone who impaled a chopstick in their hand, and even helping someone after an attempted suicide, I have used this training frequently over the years, often in situations where I least expected it.

Why get a Wilderness First Aid Certification?

You can go down to your local community center and sign up for a Red Cross class in First Aid.  Why in the world would you shell out a couple hundred bucks to get a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR)? 

“Wilderness Medicine” is defined as treating a patient who is far from “definitive care” (ambulance access), with limited resources. 

Standard First Aid certifications don’t cover a lot of situations you might encounter in the wilderness. Most classes have a lot of “If you see X, call 911,” which doesn’t help when you don’t have cell service, or are a long ways from help.  When you are playing outside, you also lack some standard supplies like ice packs and clean water. 

A WFA or WFR teaches you to prevent injuries and illness, assess and treat a patient, deal with shortcomings in supplies, recognize what kinds of injuries and illnesses are a big deal that should prompt you to cut your trip short, how to manage patients over a long period of time until help can arrive, and even covers evacuations. 

For example, learn to identify and treat spider bites, snake bites, treat lightning strikes, and warm someone with hypothermia. You’ll also learn useful “arts and crafts,” like taping a sprained ankle, and splinting a broken wrist. 

Learning to identify and bandage a realistic-looking open pneumothorax.

Practice Makes Perfect

WFR and WFA classes are very hands-on and scenario-focused.  That means LOTS of practice with “patients.”  This practice builds your confidence and muscle-memory, to help you when dealing with these situations in the real world.

You’ll certainly get comfortable with the stress, and heart flutter you experience when you encounter an emergency after 2-3 days of practice.  Scenarios are designed to give you a safe place to experience a taste of that stress (usually with some humor built in). 

Ginny showing off some stage makeup used in her WFR Recertification Course.

The use of stage-makeup and props will make you feel like you are actually treating and bandaging a bleeding or injured patient.  During my first WFR certification in Port Townsend, WA, we actually pulled a “patient” out of the ocean when it was 35 degrees and the wind was howling. 

We treated her for pretend-hypothermia which she would have probably actually gotten, had we not been there. But it was a REAL lesson in treatment, timing, and long-term patient care. 

In the course of treating these “patients,” you’ll also experience a real camaraderie and make real friends within your class. I have friends from these classes that I still keep in touch with.

There’s lots of hands-on practice with patient assessments.

WFA vs. WFR

Wilderness First Aid (WFA): This is the most basic certification and usually a 2-day,  16 hour course that takes place over a weekend.  Courses are frequent and found all over the US.  REI, and local schools or outdoor programs often host WFA courses.

The courses usually cover basic emergencies you’ll find in the wilderness and extended patient management, and emphasizes patient assessments.  There is also an advanced 4-day version of this course, but I recommend just getting the WFR instead!

Wilderness First Responder (WFR):  This course is designed for people who will be guiding, ski patrollers, or folks using their certification in a professional setting.  The initial certification is a bit more intense, as it’s usually an 80-hour course over 9 or 10-days to get certified. 

Your recertification classes are shorter, at just 2-3 days.  You’ll get detailed medical training, including anatomy, physiology, and will gain the practice and confidence to deal with both major and minor medical emergencies in the backcountry. 

Wilderness EMT (W-EMT):  This is an add-on certification for an EMT professional, to teach them to use their urban medical skills in the backcountry with fewer resources and in less-than-ideal conditions.

Where to Take a Wilderness Medicine Course

I am personally a big fan of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).  They are the largest national wilderness school, and generally they set the standard for guides and other wilderness programs across the US. 

I have always found their courses to be the most thorough, and to use the most up-to-date research in their standards of practice.  That said, there are other great organizations out there, so just see what’s available near you.

I am always amazed by the level of professionalism a NOLS course brings.  My most recent WFR recertification in Flagstaff, AZ, at the Flagstaff Field Institute had Pete Walka, a professional rafting guide/firefighter/paramedic as the lead instructor. 

He and his co-instructor knew their stuff and could speak to real-life scenarios and the latest research.  They also kept some really scary and tough topics as fun as possible, through hilarious scenarios, jokes and open conversations. 

You’ll need to get recertified every 2-3 years to keep current, but honestly it’s a much-needed refresher by that point.  The latest research and standards of practice also change over time. 

Ginny practicing taping a sprained ankle, and packing up a patient on an inflatable back board for evacuation.

What to Expect

For any wilderness medicine class, prepare to be OUTSIDE, no matter what the weather is.  You’ll be sitting or kneeling in the dirt, sand, snow, or grass, pretty much all weekend.  There is, of course, classroom time too, but you’ll mostly learn the skills in the environments you’ll actually encounter in the real world. 

Bring a backpack with sunscreen, lots of snacks, a water bottle, extra layers, rain gear, and a pen for notes.  Pretty much bring anything you’d bring on a hike! A Crazy Creek camp chair is highly recommended for both listening to lectures and padding your knees during scenarios. Be ready to laugh, learn, study, and engage with others.

Working with classmates to treat a patient with a broken clavicle in a WFR Recertification Course.

These classes aren’t just full of die-hard adventure junkies or professional guides and ski patrollers.  They are also full of parents, people who just like to be active outside, and college students.  There is no judgement about your current skill level and everyone is always really supportive. 

I am not required to keep a current certification for my job any more, but I always keep it up to date anyways. The classes are FUN and make me feel really prepared for ANY emergency that comes my way in the backcountry.  As a mom, it helps me keep my family safe when we are outside, and makes me feel way more confident to handle both the proverbial poop and the actual poop, when it inevitably hits the fan.

Take a Wilderness Medicine Class! I can guarantee that the first time you have to use your new skill set, you’ll be glad you did.

Check out more of our Outdoor Safety Tips for Hiking with your Family.

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Wilderness First Aid for Outdoor Families

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1 thought on “Wilderness First Aid for Outdoor Families”

  1. Great article. I also am certified WFR and recert every 2 years. I am also a FEMA Teen CERT instructor, different skills for different situations. NOLS is the best IMHO. I am also a state certified Emergency Rescue Technician and a Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor. I ‘should’ be ready for any situation, and if my husband is with, he’s a nurse. Thanks for writing this!

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