By Holiday Staff & Katie Woods
At The Confluence of Wilderness and Medicine
At Holiday River Expeditions, our guides go through yearly wilderness medicine training to make sure they’re ready for any type of medical emergency that might pop up while going with the flow. But, this crucial knowledge isn’t only for professionals — 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 question a lot, especially when people ask what I do for a living. For folks that are newer to the topic, they might think it has to do with wilderness survival or knowing which berries to forage in the wilderness. It’s not quite that — although the knowledge and skills learned on course definitely help an injured or ill patient survive!
Our wilderness medicine courses focus on teaching students how to recognize and rank patient problems from more serious to less serious. Without knowing what you’re dealing with it’s hard to make a plan to get a patient out of a remote environment. This pairs with the other huge part of a wilderness medicine course — especially at the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) level. We teach and implement rescue-related critical thinking skills to make the best 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 super simple. Because in real-life situations, coming up with your problem list should be the easy part. The hard part will be justifying a plan for your patient when you’re dealing with the nature of your scene like darkness setting in, difficult terrain, non-injured bystanders, environmental threats, etc. So, we also spend a good amount of time using general principles of rescue medicine to help students cultivate these decision-making skills.
In a regular 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 an urban setting. While that’s ideal, getting extra medical resources is not as likely in a wilderness context. Wilderness medicine education prepares students to treat patient problems in an extended, remote environment that lacks resources — and how to best prevent these issues from occurring in the first place.
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. In general, wilderness medicine courses are a more practical alternative to an urban first aid course anyway. You get to practice thinking through scenarios you might actually experience in real life.
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. You don’t need a background in health care or other specific prior knowledge to enroll in any level.
So, Wilderness First Responder, also known as WFR and pronounced “woofer”, is the most comprehensive training in wilderness medicine. 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 plus in-person work) and our 7- or 8-day in-person-only 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!
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 less class time means 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.
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 certification itself is good for three years. Because medicine is so dynamic and many of the hands-on skills you learn in class perish over time, we recommend recertifying before your three years are up. You can recertify a WFR via 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. When you adventure outdoors, you never know what you’re going to get. I don’t want my students to only “memorize” what they’re learning on course. Or do something 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!
I also encourage students to try to let go of being perfect and be okay with making mistakes on course — as long as they 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 matters.
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… 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 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. You can learn more about WMA Licensed Training Companies here.
In the world of wilderness medicine, a WMA cert carries a lot of weight. When you take one of our courses, you’ll gain exposure to a top-notch curriculum that’s continuously updated with the latest and greatest research in wilderness medicine. All WMA Licensed Training Companies are owned and operated by 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 on my website, www.barefootwildmed.com/courses. If you don’t see a course that works, let’s chat! I’m always looking for new places to teach and can create a course that will meet your individual or group needs.
For Spring 2023, I’ll be teaching a few 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!
- Wilderness First Responder Recertification: April 21 & 22, 2023*
*If you have a current WFR from WMA, you are eligible for the 2-day course. If you are recertifying your WFR from a different company (WMI/NOLS, SOLO, DMM, etc.) you are eligible for the Hybrid 2-day Recertification. Message me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details and to make sure you’re eligible!
- Wilderness First Responder (WFR): April 25 – May 3, 2023*
*This course is held over nine days with one day off on April 29th.
- Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA): April 25 – 28, 2023
- WAFA Bridge to WFR: April 30 – May 3, 2023
To reserve your spot in one of the 2023 Wilderness Medicine Courses at Holiday River Expeditions contact Lauren Wood at (801) 266-2087. They can also any questions regarding logistics, like camping on-site.
If you have any questions about the courses themselves, please reach out to Katie Woods at email@example.com
Katie Woods, owner and lead instructor of Barefoot Wild Med. I’m an educator and lover of learning new things, licensed health care provider (athletic trainer, WEMT, and ski patroller), and outdoor enthusiast (primarily boating, hiking, camping, biking & skiing). in I’m born and raised WV, lived in Salt Lake for quite a bit, and currently call Hamilton, MT home. I’ve lived there since June 2021 with my husband Taylor and our two pups, Shiner and Kari. My career in wilderness medicine began at Massanutten Resort (woot, woot) outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia as a ski patroller in 2006. Since then, I’ve applied my personality, knowledge, and skills to other fun challenges like white water raft guiding, volunteer search and rescuing, assistant professor-ing, and as an athletic trainer in various settings. I love school and, along with a BS in Athletic Training from James Madison University (go Dukes), earned a MS in Exercise and Sport Science with a concentration in Sports Medicine and a M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Educational Technology, both from the University of Utah. My teaching journey with Wilderness Medical Associates International (WMAI) began in 2014 and I started Barefoot Wild Med as a WMAI Licensed Training Company in fall 2020. As such, I’m authorized to teach WMAI’s wilderness medicine curriculum and certify students under their name. That means, when you graduate from one of my courses, your cert comes from WMA but you are supporting my small business at the same time. Teaching is my passion and I’m proud to share the WMA wilderness medicine curriculum with you. I am so incredibly grateful to be able to combine my multiple interests into a fulfilling career.