What to Expect from a NOLS Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Course

This February, Sean and I decided to expand our outdoor education by taking a 9 day Wilderness First Responder (WFR, commonly called Woofer) course accredited by the internationally recognized National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Although not required by our upcoming guide jobs in Alaska this summer (!!), we wanted to expand our knowledge and get ourselves ready in case future jobs have a WFR requirement.

I started this course with zero education in the medical world. And although this course just scratches the surface of medicine, I learned a lot.

Here’s what to expect from a WFR course…

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You’ll learn how to do a patient assessment.

The patient assessment is the foundation of this course, and it begins on Day 1. Our instructors introduced us to the Patient Assessment Triangle explaining each segment in fuller detail as the course went on. Patient Assessments include the following:

  • Scene safety and size up
  • Airway, breathing, and circulation tests
  • Decision on spinal injury or disability
  • Exposing chief complaint
  • Head to toe examination
  • Taking vital signs
  • Getting a sample and pertinent medical history
  • Creating a problem list and plan of action
  • Noting interventions and treatments
  • Continuous monitoring of the patient until transfer of care has occurred
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NOLS Pocket Guide
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Our course curriculum from Landmark Learning in Cullowhee
Source: https://www.landmarklearning.edu/course/nols-wilderness-first-responder/

You’ll take part in many scenarios, sometimes as a WFR and other times as a patient.

The class was split to about half lecture and half scenarios. These scenarios had us practicing our patient assessments in a hands on manner.

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Neato props 😁

You’ll spend about 40% of the time outside, no matter what the weather brings.

February in North Carolina brought some pretty regular rainy days which didn’t stop us from doing some muddy scenarios. Come prepared with the proper layers to be outside.

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You’ll learn how to speak a little medical language.

There is somewhat of a standard for how medical professionals communicate to one another. We learned a bunch of medical acronyms and shorthand helpful when transferring care to the next stage of treatment.

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You’ll learn backcountry specific patient management techniques. And what requires backcountry evacuation.

A Wilderness First Responder can use some techniques in the backcountry that an urban first responder wouldn’t do. For example, a WFR may perform traction in line and create a splint for a broken bone to assist in safely removing a patient from the backcountry. In an urban environment, traction in line would be saved for a hospital setting. Each illness or injury we discussed also included evacuation guidelines.

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You’ll learn how to react to potential dangers in the backcountry.

What should you do in a lightning storm? What are the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness? What do you do for a snake bite? The WFR course answers all of these questions among many others.

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You’ll learn how to use the contents of your backpack for medical emergencies.

Got a base layer and two backpacks? We can make a collar and stabilize the head and spine. A base layer and a jacket can become a sling and swath. A stick and shirt can be used as a tourniquet.

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You’ll spend about $800 and 9-10 days in class and leave with WFR, CPR, and Epinephrine injection certifications good for 2 years.

I graduated college 6 years ago, so it had been awhile since I spent several hours in a classroom setting. Class was somewhat intense and quickly covered a lot of topics. Courses are 9 or 10 days. Ours was from 8-5 every day with two evening sessions. The course is offered basically year round all around the US with several international opportunities as well. We opted for the course in Cullowhee, North Carolina, due to proximity and time availability. When picking out our course, we noticed that tuition in the US is pretty consistantly at $775. Many locations offer on site housing for an additional fee. Most of our classmates stayed on site while we were lucky to have a friend in the area who hosted us (thanks Katie!!).

If you’re currently in college, you can grab 3 semester credits for this course. (I’m not certain if extra fees apply, be sure to check). If you’re in the medical field, you can get continuing education credits for this course.

The WFR, CPR, and Epinephrine certs are good for two years from the day that you complete the course. NOLS offers a WFR re-cert course that’s 3 days and about $220. You are eligible to take this course when your WFR is close to expiring and up to a year after the cert is expired. If you wait until after a year past your WFR cert expires, you’re required to take the entire 9/10 day course over again.

You’ll take a written and practical exam at the end of the course.

The practical exam is pass / fail and consists of successfully completing a thorough patient assessment with a partner. The written exam requires a 70% or above to pass. If you fail either test, there is a second chance test option to be taken at a later date.

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Official WFRs and our instructors

You’ll want to bring what you’d typically have for an outdoor excursion.

After enrolling, we were sent a list of mandatory gear which included a watch, a daypack, and a few other miscellaneous items. We were encouraged to bring what we’d typically have in a backcountry setting. I recommend bringing whatever your standard setup is so that you’re able to practice with your gear you would tend to have on hand.

Ultimately, you’ll learn how to properly respond.

Again, I went into this course with zero medical knowledge. With over 8000 miles of backpacking experience, I really didn’t know what I’d do if one of us had an accident or came across someone else in trouble. My confidence and peace of mind has exponentially increased in a backcountry setting.

If you’re outdoor enthusiast like myself and especially if you participate in more extreme outdoor activities like white water rafting, climbing, or mountain biking, I highly recommend the WFR course to sharpen your skills and boost your resume. If you’re looking into jobs in the outdoor industry, the WFR cert is a common requirement and can only help in the application process.

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We are Bekan and Sean, new WFRs and Triple Crowners. Follow our life in motion here, on Facebook, and Instagram.Β 

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