By Holiday Staff & Katie Woods
At The Confluence of Wilderness and Medicine
At Holiday, we always do our best to avoid injury and illness while going with the flow. But, in wilderness playgrounds… we know anything can happen. That’s why you’ll find our guides revamping their medical skills each year before the busy season. This crucial knowledge isn’t just for the professionals though. if you breathe and move your body outside, it’s for you too.
We sat down to interview Katie Woods, lead instructor and owner of Barefoot Wilderness Medicine Education, to learn how wilderness medicine courses prepare us to deal with injuries or illness while recreating in the great outdoors.
HRE: What is wilderness medicine exactly? How does it differ from taking a regular first aid course?
KW: I get asked this a lot, especially when people wonder what I do for a living. Many folks assume it has to do with wilderness survival. Or, things like knowing which berries to forage in the wilderness. It’s not that — but the skills learned would definitely help an injured or ill patient survive!
Wilderness medicine education prepares students to treat patient problems in an extended, remote environment that lacks resources. More importantly, we focus how to best prevent these issues from occurring in the first place. Our curriculum trains students how to recognize and rank patient problems from most serious to least serious. When you don’t know what kind of a problem you’re dealing with, it’s harder to make a plan to best help your patient — especially in remote environments. We teach and implement rescue-related critical thinking skills so you can make the right evacuation decision for your specific situation.
Understanding how our bodies function does not need to be complicated. One of my major goals as an instructor is to keep the medicine simple. In real-life situations, coming up with your list of problems should be the easy part. Because, the hardest part will always be creating a plan for your patient when you’re dealing with the variable nature of your scene… things like darkness setting in, difficult terrain, non-injured bystanders, environmental threats, and so on. We also spend a good amount of time using general principles of rescue medicine to help students cultivate these decision-making skills.
Urban First Aid
In an urban first aid course, the extent of patient treatment is usually limited to providing basic life support and calling for help that can come right away because you’re in a front-country setting. While that’s ideal, getting extra medical resources, quickly at least, is not as likely in a wilderness context. Urban first aid courses are usually shorter (held over a day or half-day) so there’s less time to practice skills or work through scenarios you might actually experience in real life.
HRE: So, who should take a wilderness medicine course? Is it only for professional guides?
KW: Anyone who plays outdoors should take a wilderness medicine course! I like to say, “If you breathe and like to move your body, we have a course for you!” Most of the students that sign up for our courses have careers as guides or are students in outdoor recreation/experiential education programs because it’s a job or degree requirement. But, the knowledge gained from a wilderness medicine course can benefit anyone who is active and spends time in remote environments.
HRE: Is Wilderness First Responder the only certification available? How long does it last?
KW: There are actually a few course “levels” to choose from. And, none of these “levels” require a background in health care or other prior medical knowledge to enroll.
Wilderness First Responder (WFR)
Wilderness First Responder (also known as WFR and pronounced “woofer”), is the most comprehensive wilderness medicine training a non-medical provider can get. It’s ideal for guides, outdoor educators, wildland firefighters, disaster relief workers, or anyone who spends extensive time in the outdoors — especially if they are in a leadership role or responsible for the health care of others. Because the WFR is a 70-hour course, there’s plenty of time to practice how you would assess and manage medical problems for days or weeks in isolated and extreme environments. Different course formats for the WFR are available, like a 5-day Hybrid version (online + in-person work) and our 7- or 8-day fully in-person courses.
We also offer a Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA, pronounced “wahfah”) and a Wilderness First Aid (WFA, pronounced “woofah”). The abbreviated pronunciations can get silly. I usually say the whole thing so it’s not confusing!
Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA)
The Wilderness Advanced First Aid is a 36-hour course that’s delivered over four in-person days. It covers much of the same information as the Wilderness First Responder, but because there’s less time in-person, a smaller amount gets devoted to the decision-making aspect. It’s a great option for folks working as guides, outdoor educators, etc. that might not be able to commit more hours to getting their WFR. If you already have a WAFA, you can take what’s called a WAFA to WFR Bridge course. In that course, you’ll spend four in-person days building on what you learned in your WAFA to upgrade your training to the WFR level.
Wilderness First Aid (WFA)
Finally, the Wilderness First Aid is a 2-day introduction to general medical concepts and basic life support skills — with that same focus of not having help right away. It’s a great course for weekend warriors or anyone pursuing day trips or short wilderness adventures. I’ve been trying to teach at least one WFA a month where I live in Montana — it’s such great info that everyone should have access to.
Your training lasts forever; the certifications themselves are good for three years. But, because medicine is so dynamic and many of the hands-on skills you learn in class perish over time, you can definitely revisit a course before then. Options to renew your WFR include a 2-day hybrid course (some online pre-course work required) or as a standalone 3-day in-person course.
HRE: Why should folks choose to take a course with your company, Barefoot Wilderness Medicine Education?
KW: It’s important to me that my students understand why they are doing what they’re doing when it comes to patient care. If you understand why you are doing something it’s much, much more likely that you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to a new situation.
Transferable, Practical Knowledge
In the words of Forest Gump (sort of), “When you adventure outdoors, you never know what you’re going to get.” I don’t want my students to “memorize” what they’re learning on course. Or do something just because “their teacher told them to.” That’s not useful. I focus on encouraging students to be able to justify their decisions, especially when a situation is less than ideal. I also teach them how to use external tools, like the field guide everyone gets on course. It’s not cheating to use your field guide to find an answer – that’s called being smart!
Safe Learning Environment
I also encourage students to try and let go of being perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes on course — as long as you learn from them. I like to say, “The best place to kill a patient is during your course.” If you screw up in class, you’re less likely to make that mistake again when it actually counts.
Hands-on Skills Practice
The classes are a whole lot of fun — or at least I like to think so! I try to keep students moving as much as possible and avoid making them sit there the whole time, only listen to me, and stare at slides. Yuck. Let’s be real… just because you’re an adult does not mean your attention span is much longer than a kid’s. Being hands-on and taking lots of breaks is the norm.
Last, but not certainly not least, Barefoot Wilderness Medicine Education is a Licensed Training Company with Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA). (Sorry for all the acronyms!) So, the certification card you get at the end of your course comes from WMA. In the world of wilderness medicine, that carries a lot of weight. WMA takes pride in presenting the latest and greatest research in wilderness medicine. All Licensed Training Companies are owned and operated by WMA instructors who are healthcare professionals with real patient care and wilderness experience.
HRE: Katie, thanks so much for taking the time to let us pick your brain about this stuff. Where can we find more information about upcoming courses?
KW: You can always find the most up-to-date schedule at BarefootWildMed.com. If you don’t see a course that works or would like to host a course in your area, please reach out. I’m always looking for new places to teach! All courses can be customized to best meet your individual or group needs. I also offer full or half day Wilderness Medicine Workshops on whatever topics interest you most!
This spring, I’ll be teaching a bunch of courses on-site at the Holiday River Expeditions’ outpost in Green River, UT. If you’re interested, don’t wait to sign up — spots are limited and always fill fast!
For site logistics questions, email Lauren Wood at email@example.com. For any question you have about the courses themselves, please reach out to Katie Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org