NOLS Wilderness First Aid

This past weekend we took the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness First Aid course offered through REI. We’re planning a weekend backpacking trip on the Ouachita Trail this April and weeklong trip on the Ozark Trail later this year so we want to be prepared.

We really enjoyed this course. The instructors did a wonderful job of creating a respectful, engaging, and constructive environment. There was a lot of hands on practice throughout the weekend which was especially beneficial. Neither of us have had any sort of medical training before, even CPR, so this was a lot of new information over the course of 48 hours.

On the first day we went through the Patient Assessment System. That basically included being able to evaluate the scene, check the patient for immediate life threats (blood loss, labored breathing, loss of consciousness), and getting vital signs. There was a strong emphasis on spine trauma and knowing how to hold the head while examining the patient without causing further damage. These kinds of injuries are more common in high velocity sports such as ATV, climbing, horseback riding, and high speed biking or skiing crashes. We practiced physical examinations of patients by rolling them onto their back and side, with a partner as well as solo. The physical examinations included doing a thorough head to toe “pat-down” to check for injuries. This also included taking vital signs and doing a patient history (if the patient is conscious).

On the second day the course got more into the stuff that we feel like will be more applicable/useful for the activities we plan. We got to learn how to tape a foot in the event of a rolled ankle. It was surprising how supportive and, really, how comfortable that was for several hours (except to get off, we lost some hairs). Kaila got to make a forearm splint for Kirk using a tent stake hammer and two jackets with the sling made from two triangle bandages. Some of the specific topics that will be relevant to us hiking in the backcountry are burns, blisters, abrasions, and rolled ankles. We’ve read about several types of blister protection during the course of our research into backpacking preparedness but had never seen any of them before. This course gave us an opportunity to handle these items and see how they are applied. Our favorite was absolutely the tincture of benzoin (aka sterilized tree sap).
Some other topics we covered that were relevant but hope to never use include: dislocations, heat stroke, severe hypothermia, frostbite, and severe altitude sickness.

Overall this course was extremely informative and enjoyable. We feel more prepared and confident in our abilities to deal with unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances in the backcountry. After taking this course we are excited about the more advanced courses NOLS has to offer, especially the Wilderness First Responder course. We also plan to get CPR certified this year.
We hope the most severe injury that we have to help with is taping an ankle but now we have the tools and knowledge to deal with more.

Patrick says to always keep the little patient with the big patient!

If you want to learn more about NOLS visit:

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