Other Things I Learned at Wilderness First Aid

I expected to learn first aid in the Wilderness First Aid course, but I did not expect to learn so much about planning and teamwork.

I first took Wilderness First Aid (WFA) in 2009 and I’ve taken the course again three times since then to recertify. The material hasn’t changed much, but I always learn or re-learn something.

Our WFA class uses a lot of practical scenarios. All of them require teamwork, and they are planned to stretch your skills. That means that you kill the patient most of the time. We learn a lot more from failure than from success.

A lot of our older Scouts have taken WFA. They are high-achieving youth and are not used to failing, so killing the patient every time was really unsettling for them. It made them think and made them more aware about risks in the backcountry.

WFA taught me that you can always evac. If you don’t like the situation, pack up and walk out, even in the middle of the night. We’ve aborted a few outings, for example at Sky Camp in Point Reyes, an exposed location on the side of Mount Wittenberg. It was planned as a two-night outing with a hike to the summit. A storm came in during the night with 40º temps and 40 mph winds. The lighthouse recorded an 80 mph gust. We had trail food for breakfast, packed up, and headed home. Afterwards, I put a dozen patches on my Walrus Aero Tarp 150 because it had pulled out stakes and banged against the charcoal grill all night.

WFA in the field uses incident command skills—organized decision-making and teamwork in a high-stakes situation. A back-country emergency often means choosing the best among several bad options. Open communication can save lives, another important message.

A good WFA course is a great team-building course. Half of our 2010 Philmont crew was WFA-trained and it was the best shakedown we had.

I practice incident command skills in other areas. I volunteer in amateur radio emergency communication (ARES/RACES), where we are always part of an incident command structure. The Incident Command System (ICS) was developed in response to failures fighting California wildfires. It is now a national system for responding to any emergency, whether there are three or three thousand responders. Learn more with the online FEMA ICS-100 course. Hint: The person wearing the white hat is the Incident Commander.

What happens when there is an earthquake and you are at work? ICS is a good first step.

I’ve learned confidence. On a 50-mile Sierra trek, one of our Scouts had a neck injury. They’d tied a rock to a rope, thrown it into a tree for bear-bagging, and the rock got stuck. When they pulled it loose, it slammed into the neck of one Scout. The other Scout ran to me, panicked. I took time to grab the first aid kit, hustled over there without running, determined that it was a soft tissue injury (a bad bruise), and started treating for shock. I deputized the Scout’s tent-mate to watch over him while he recovered in his sleeping bag. I checked on him every 15 minutes.

This could have been a lot worse if the rock had hit somewhere else on his neck or head. Even so, we had a shocky Scout for the evening and he couldn’t turn his head for a couple of days. Later, the injured Scout (now a Philmont Ranger) told me how impressed he was with my calm response. Of course, I had been full of adrenaline, but I had practiced what to do, so I could go down the checklist.

The scariest part about the first course was being retroactively terrified at how unprepared I had been for previous outings. Please, take WFA as soon as possible to spare yourself this grief.

Any time that I did the right thing, I owe it to the course. We usually don’t perform up to our potential, but rather down to our training. Get trained.


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