10 Reasons to Take a Wilderness First Aid Course

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Wilderness medicine is simply urban medicine practiced in an austere and inconveniently distant environment – like out on the trails or at a race aid station. But there are a number of important differences between the two. In wilderness medicine:

You spend more time with the sick or injured person. It’s not just a matter of waiting 10 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. You might have to care for someone for an hour, a day, overnight or longer. The job is not just basic care like stopping bleeding, but possibly cleaning a wound to prevent it from becoming infected. It’s not just making sure someone with a dislocated shoulder doesn’t move, but also reducing the dislocation and splinting it. A patient’s needs will also change and expand the longer you’re with them. They might get thirsty. They might get cold. They might become scared or anxious. How will you help them? The scope of care is simply more challenging (and more fun) in wilderness medicine.

There are environmental challenges. It’s easy to care for a rolled ankle in an air-conditioned building, but wilderness medicine asks you to provide care when both you and your patient are drenched in sweat because it’s so hot, or alternatively, shivering because it’s so cold. Wilderness medicine requires you to provide care while sitting in the dirt on a mountain pass or near a bunch of cactus and fire ants.

You have limited resources. Ambulances are stocked full of supplies. In wilderness medicine you are challenged to figure out how to make a good splint from of a hydration pack, trekking poles, a buff and a bag of pretzels.

You may have limited communication. In the urban world, you can rely on 911 operators to direct your care. We often don’t have that luxury out on the trails. Wilderness medicine providers must decide whether someone needs to go to a hospital, how urgently, and how to get them there.

Prevention is paramount. Wilderness medicine focuses on preventing injuries and illnesses. We shouldn’t be treating heat exhaustion, frostbite, lightning injuries and blisters because we helped prevent those things from happening in the first place.

The most basic wilderness medicine course, Wilderness First Aid, has three objectives:

  • Learn how to gather information.
  • Learn how to make good decisions with that information. Specifically, does someone need to go to a hospital and if so, how urgently?
  • Learn how to care for common injuries and ailments.

Wilderness First Aid is a 16-hour course that’s usually taught over a weekend. I’ve taught this course and others for NOLS Wilderness Medicine for the past 16 years, and I always tell my students to volunteer at trail races to practice their skills. I also tell them they’ll be invaluable volunteers. Lately, I’ve had more trail runners in my classes and I hope the trend continues, because the information and skills are undeniably useful to trail runners and their family members.

10 Reasons You Should Take a Wilderness First Aid Course

  • To be able to spare someone from a DNF who has a sprained ankle: “I can tape that and get you back on the trail!”
  • To make a good decision about whether your runner should drop due to their horrible headache, nausea and vomiting.
  • To know what to do if your trail running buddy has an allergic reaction two hours from the trailhead.
  • To know what to do if your friend slips off an icy wooden bridge and breaks her arm five miles from the closest aid station.
  • To be able to clean a cut so well that it won’t get infected.
  • To be able to decide whether a runner who feels lightheaded should finish a race.
  • To be a god of blister prevention and treatment.
  • To learn how to improvise (I’m talking to you doctors, nurses, PAs, NPs and EMTs).
  • Because it’ll be meaningful for you to be able to help others.
  • Because you want to have fun!

Wilderness First Aid courses are offered all over North America and internationally. Use Google to find a course near you. NOLS Wilderness Medicine, Wilderness Medicine Associates and SOLO are the industry leaders. Contact me if you have any questions: lizahoward401@gmail.com.

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About Author

Liza Howard is a long-time ultrarunner and harried mom living in San Antonio, TX. Her racing highlights include winning the Leadville 100 twice and winning the USATF 50-mile Road Championships in 2017 and the 100k in 2018. She divides her time between teaching for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, directing the Band of Runners non-profit and coaching for Sharman Ultra and being a busy mom.

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