Why Every Hiker Should Take A Wilderness First Aid C​ourse

For most ultralight hikers, first aid kits are pretty minimal – often containing nothing more than a few bandaids, a couple doses of vitamin-I, a pair of tweezers, and maybe a bottle of Goldbond. Although light, 90% of the time this kit is more than adequate.

This is because for many of us, accidents in the backcountry fall under the “what are the odds something like that would happen to me” ​category, but this ​way of thinking comes with risks. For backpackers especially, it could be days before we plan on emerging from the woods and have access to proper medical care. Knowing how to ​efficiently handle first aid situations ensures that your trip doesn’t have to get cut short because of mistreated medical issues.

Many modern backpackers are hesitant to put too many things into their first aid kit for fear of throwing a ton of weight on their back. After all, the general rule of thumb for thru hikers goes that “if you haven’t used it in a week, send it home”, and there is a chance certain first aid items won’t be touched at all during a trip.

If the first aid kit is going to be minimal, it not only needs to be effective, but the hiker needs to know how to improvise. Your sleeping pad and trekking poles can be used as a leg split, your rain jacket or backpack can be used as an arm sling, a rain tarp and sleeping bag ​can help hypothermia, and your water filter can be used to irrigate wounds.

Learning how to think creatively with the gear you already carry ensures personal safety, while not adding anything to a hiker’s baseweight. In taking a Wilderness First Aid Course (WFA), you can learn how to apply this creative thinking to a large array of on-trail medical issues. With topic ranging from heat stroke to broken bones, there is literally something for every sort of hiker or adventurer who attends the class.

Wound Management

While wounds are a pretty common and often less serious injury, but in the backcountry things can swiftly change. Learning how to properly clean and dress a wound can potentially make or break your trip. Mistreated wounds can lead to infections, slower healing times, pain, and scaring. While a properly treated wound can heal relatively quickly with very little pain. WFA can teach hikers which types of bandaids are most effective to carry, the appropriate amount of time and water to clean a wound, and the best ways to keep bacteria out. This ensures that a small tumble doesn’t have to be a trip ender.

Ankle Wrapping

Another common hiking injury, a badly twisted ankle has a good chance of not only ruining a backpacking trip, but making it difficult to leave the woods for help. Knowing how to correctly wrap and care for a twisted ankle can give you enough mobility to leave the backcountry to see a doctor, or even give you the possibility of continuing down the trail. Entering any expedition with the knowledge of which tapes to carry, and the proper way to support and wrap an ankle can give you a sense of confidence when crossing those rocky stretches of trail where twisted ankles run rampant.

Just look at all those rocks ready to attack your ankles!

Makeshift Arm / Leg Splints

Breaking a bone in the backcountry can be scary. You are in a ton of pain, potentially immobile, and there is a good chance you are miles from any medical help. Knowing how to use the items in your pack to stabilize the break can help with pain, and prevent any further damage. Rain jackets, sleeping pads, trekking poles, backpacks, and spare clothing can all be used in different ways to help form a makeshift splint or sling. WFA classes offer a place where proper splint techniques can be practiced, perfected, and modified to work with what you are already carrying in your pack.

Weather / Location Related Illness

Depending on location, dehydration, heat stroke, hypothermia, or altitude sickness are risks every hiker must take when entering the backcountry. Knowing fundamentals like how to use your rain tarp as a hydro wrap in cases of hypothermia, or how to properly diagnosis and treat heat stroke can be life saving information. With weather being one of the most unpredictable dangers when out in the wilderness, it is wise to know not only how to protect yourself from it, but how to get out safely if things go astray.

Patient Assessment Protocol

In the backcountry, getting help for medical situations is not only difficult, but it puts the medical rescue staff in potential danger. Learning how to keep your cool and assess situations for their severity can save time and panic for all parties involved. In the heat of the moment, a lot of injuries may seem worse than they actually are. WFA teaches hikers how to take a breath, give a quick head to toe exam, and how to decide if an emergency evacuation is actually needed.

Hot coffee? Learn how to handle burn injuries in a WFA class!

NOLS offers a fantastic 2-day Wilderness First Aid certification class, but there are tons of other places you can learn similar information. Keep your eyes out for classes taught at your local hiking club, outdoor retailer, state and national parks, or even your local community center.

Learning to be resourceful, and having a plan in place in case of accidents, can help turn a situation from an emergency to a minor hiccup, and keep our trails safe.

Happy hiking!


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Comments 3

  • John Edward Harris : Aug 29th

    Right on. I absolutely agree. I have taken both the SOLO WFA and the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute WFA course. They can not only help respond when there is an injury but help prevent injuries. Taking a WFA course not only makes one safer but more able to respond when others experience injury, thus adding a measure of safety to the group one might be hiking with and making the trail safer. REI offers more NOLS WMI WFA courses than any other vender and at a reasonable cost. Their sponsored courses also offer one the opportunity to meet other outdoor adventure sport enthusiasts in the area.


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