By Darryl Alder
Mar 16, 2016

Why Wilderness First Aid?

Last Saturday, I spent the day with four Varsity Scouts and Venturers and four trek leaders of a group planning a Philmont Adventure. I had been invited to teach them Wilderness First Aid. This is way beyond the merit badge and, in fact, has no badge. It readies youth and adults to respond to medical situations when they are far from help.

"When an emergency occurs in the wild, the goal must be to provide the greatest good for the greatest number in the shortest time, and do no harm in the process.”

When an emergency occurs in the wild, the goal must be to provide the greatest good for the greatest number in the shortest time, and do no harm in the process.

My own experience with wilderness first aid goes back to before it was a thing. More than 45 years ago, I was an Army Reservist training to be a combat field medic. Our unit was a general hospital on ready alert to leave to support the Vietnam War. Though I was a respiratory tech, like all unit personnel, I had to learn emergency field medicine. Out unit was never called up, but the ready alert status kept my first aid skills honed and up to date.

Learning a skill like that helps in many ways for the mission field. I had been trained to manage tough situations and make do with what I had. I had a kind of crisis time management training that gave me confidence to take charge.

After my mission our team built the Beaver High Adventure Base. During that period I was nearly always the medical officer; we were nearly an hour from a doctor and two from any hospital.


Searching our backpacks for supplies in a wilderness first aid simulation

Often, I had to make do in that remote location and my training nearly always gave me the confidence to care for others; it conditioned me able to respond almost without thought. This weekend I could see the youth in this course growing that direction and once again I was grateful for one of the many ways Scouting helps prepare youth for thier missionary service.

Part of BSA’s Wilderness First Aid training is to enable youth and adults to do hard things with confidence. IMG_1943 (1)During the course they learn to assess and treat an ill or injured person in a remote environment where care from a doctor or evacuation transport is not quickly available. It also means figuring out solutions to problems with what you have with you. In the end participants get more than first aid training; they walk away as problem solvers with a bit of swagger.

What is Wilderness First Aid?

When calling 9-1-1 is not an immediate option, or when help could be an hour or even days away, the task of managing the injured and the ill can challenge you beyond basic first aid knowledge and skills, like a Scout gains from First Aid Merit Badge. Long hikes, wilderness adventure and backcountry treks may separate someone injured from any medical facility.

In such environments, you may have to endure heat or cold, rain, wind, or darkness. The equipment needed for treatment and evacuation may have to be improvised from what is available, and communication with the “outside world” may be limited or nonexistent. Remote locations and harsh environments may require creative treatments. All these things may be a part of the world of Wilderness First Aid training.

Why is this important?

This course goes far beyond what you may know as “first aid.” While it contains substantial medical information and teaches skills required for medical emergencies in the wild, the deeper purpose is to train participants to manage acute situations. The bottom line is this: Better decision-making at the incident scene miles from base facilities can save valuable time and human resources. It can save lives, too. If you wish to download the curriculum, please register here to download Wilderness First Aid Curriculum and Doctrine Guidelines.

Who is it for?

Youth and adult Scout leaders are encouraged to take this first-aid course, which offers a management dimension that most curriculums fail to address. Scout leaders will likely find it the most valuable program they’ll ever take.

The first thing you’ll learn to do in this course is establish control

Emergencies, big or small, may be charged with emotion and confusion. Even minor chaos increases the risk of injury to rescuers and bystanders, as well as the risk of inadequate care for the patient. Emergencies most often call for a leader to be directive, at least until the scene is safe and the patient is stabilized. This is best accomplished by discussing leadership in case of an emergency with other members of your party before a potentially critical situation occurs.

During the course last Saturday and every time we teach it, we cover:

  • Patient Assessment
  • Chest Injuries
  • Shock.
  • Head (Brain) and Spine Injuries
  • Bone and Joint Injuries
  • Wounds and Wound Infection
  • Abdominal Problems
  • Hypothermia
  • Heat Problems
  • Lightning
  • Altitude Illnesses
  • Submersion Incidents
  • Allergies and Anaphylaxis
  • Wilderness First Aid Kits
Wilderness First Aid Field Guide

Wilderness First Aid Field Guide

Each subject is reinforced with practice scenarios during and after each section.

However, our main objective is to teach each other from the Wilderness First Aid Field Guide. I love the durable, water-resistant pages in this pocket sized guide. It has essential information that nearly every Scout understands in class and can easily access in the field.

The guide features:

  • Essential information for when medical help is more than one hour away.
  • How to signal for help
  • When to evacuate
  • Recommended personal and group first aid supplies
  • “What to look for” and “What to do” tables for injuries and illnesses
  • Prevention advice ranging from altitude illness and bear attacks to lightning strikes and tick bites
  • Heat index and windchill charts
  • Quick access to content using an alphabetical format that is a no-brainer when looking up solutions quickly

It was a good weekend. The training is solid. The youth and adults were eager learners. What a great way to get ready for a trek.

What are you doing to get ready for your adventure this summer?

Darryl head BW
Author: Darryl Alder | Strategic Initiatives Director, Utah National Parks Council, BSA. He was a combat field medic and respiratory tech with 328th General Hospital in Ft. Douglas, UT and teaches Wilderness First Aid.

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3 thoughts on “Why Wilderness First Aid?

  1. AvatarCorey McBride

    Could you please send me the information regarding the wilderness first aid requirement for camping that was presented last night? I was out of town and was unable to attend but I understand that it caused quite a stir.
    Thank you.

  2. AvatarCorey McBride

    April 12, 2016
    Re: Wilderness First Aid Requirement

    Any word on the Wilderness First Aid requirement? We have been looking at the BSA website and the “Guide to Safe Scouting” says that there is no unit specific requirement for Wilderness First Aid (WFA) right now. We also can’t find any reference to the 20min from medical attention rule anywhere. And there isn’t any real indication on the tour permits.
    Any help would be appreciated.
    Thank you.

  3. Darryl AlderDarryl Alder Post author

    Corey has asked some good questions. Here is what we found:

    The text there reads:
    “The BSA requires at least one person (two preferred) per unit to be WFA-certified for certain high-adventure camp and backcountry experiences. You may want to discuss the prescriptive requirements with the specific council, camp, or program you plan to visit.”

    Other links:

    The Tour Plan (paperwork copy) also states: “and Wilderness First Aid is recommended for all backcountry tours”. Notice that it states ‘recommended’ but references ALL backcountry.

    I think Terry Richardson sent you a response, but by way of background, an e-mail from the Orem Office said that Wilderness First Aid is required. It is if you are going to a National High Adventure Base, otherwise BSA recommends it for back-country treks. Someone last Thursday was carrying it to an extreme.

    Also regarding the 25 min rule for Wilderness First Aid was listed erroneously as a requirement. Someone was quoting from an older version of the tour permit. I teach BSA’s ESCI Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course and it defines the need for wilderness first aid when you are more than an hour away from “definitive medical help.”

    It seems like whatever happened at roundtable last week, was a “perfect” storm of misinformation. I hope we have put this to rest. Sorry for the concerns we may have caused.



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