How to Become a Wilderness First Responder

Last Updated: December 2020

The Wilderness First Responder (WFR) is the definitive course in medical training for outdoor guides or educators and those who work or recreate in remote environments.

TL;DR - Here's a quick guide of what you need to know:

If you spend enough time outdoors, your chance of encountering an emergency becomes less of a matter of "if" and more of a matter of "when." 

For most, a cell phone and a basic first aid kit may be enough for managing most emergencies. However, the adventurer heading out into the wilderness may be left to their own devices.

Keep reading to discover how to prepare yourself for outdoor emergencies in your personal or professional life.

There are ways to protect yourself when engaging in peak adventure.

First, before heading outside, be sure to plan and prepare with sufficient food, water, equipment, and resources. To learn more what to prepare for a trip, check out our 10 Backcountry Essentials Guide and our guide to Building your own First Aid Kit.

Second, but perhaps just as important: know your limits. While you may have been climbing in the gym for decades, heading outdoors requires physical fitness, technique, and skill. 

Just like physically training for a big trip, preparing yourself with medical training builds your skills, knowledge, and experience for medical emergencies in the field.

But is a basic first aid course sufficient? Is it really necessary to pursue medical training for a weekend in the backcountry?

Wilderness medicine refers to the study and practice of "vital emergency care in a remote setting."

The "remote setting" is the key here. This is because it depends on the use of basic materials and natural resources to care for injured patients.

Whereas, a basic first aid class may be sufficient for time spent in the "frontcountry" or within 2 hours of definitive care.

Blonde jeans hiking ankle injury

What is a Wilderness First Responder?

The gold standard of medical training for outdoor recreation is the Wilderness First Responder. Lovingly referred to as the WFR (i.e., "woof-er"). A WFR certification places you smack dab between the training from basic first aid and EMT certifications.

As previously stated, the response to various emergencies is augmented by the presence of a "wilderness context." This is defined as "two or more hours from definitive care." 

When in a wilderness context, a WFR certified individual can engage in higher-level medical care than when out of this context. In fact, a WFR certified individual may be charged with negligence if they provide unnecessary care outside of a wilderness context.

For example, in a wilderness context, a WFR certification holder is certified to provide care for spinal injuries. This process is called a focused spine assessment or FSA. If out of a wilderness context, a WFR certification holder were to assess a spinal injury incorrectly resulting in further harm to the patient, this certified individual may be charged with negligence. WFR courses often include brief instruction on the legal ramifications of your certification and how to practice your medical training safely.

For this reason and many others, the WFR certification is particularly important for professional guiding companies. If you're looking to spend your career in the outdoors, a WFR certification is often the first step.

Furthermore, a WFR course not only prepares you for professional endeavors but also builds your network. This makes it easier to find opportunities in the field.

man first aid stretcher

Why Become a Wilderness First Responder?

While you may just be heading out for a weekend in the outdoors, a medical emergency in the backcountry is no joke.

How might you react to a protruding flesh-wound, paired dislocation, and fracture in your camping buddy's left leg?

Gearing up with a WFR certification can help seasoned outdoor recreators and aspiring outdoor professionals to prepare for backcountry emergencies. This is true not only for how to administer necessary care but also how to plan and prepare to ensure that these kinds of emergencies simply don't occur.

Having a WFR certification might be the difference between saving or losing a life in moments when reaching a doctor isn't feasible. 

So why choose to be a Wilderness First Responder? 

Because you want to turn your passion for the outdoors into a lifelong pursuit, and an emergency shouldn't be a set back to your success.

wilderness first aid responder cpr training

How to Become a Wilderness First Responder 

Find a Course Provider

Taking the first step is often the hardest. So, where to begin your search?

World-wide organizations that have been providing wilderness medical training for decades. Perhaps the most notable is The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). NOLS is often rated top among professional outdoor training world-wide.

In the early 2000s, NOLS founded the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI). The WMI has quickly lead the way in medical training for outdoor professionals.

Today, a WFR certification from WMI is globally recognized as a professional level of instruction rooted in the core values of outdoor professionals everywhere.

NOLS has also partnered with Recreation Equipment Incorporated (REI)  to offer wilderness medical training via their outdoor school across the US.

In addition to WFR certifications, WMI provides access to Wilderness First-Aid (WFA) and Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT). Each with varying levels of complexity in professional medical training.

A WFR cert from WMI is sure to sparkle on a fresh resume. And to provide you with the skills and knowledge to stay prepared and safe in emergencies. WEMT courses are typically for outdoor guides or medical professionals looking to lead groups well into the backcountry.

WMI operates primarily out of Lander, Wyoming. One of the best access points for the North American wilderness. However, WMI travels across the country, presenting at universities, outdoor programs, and local outdoor-focused organizations in your community.

Can I choose a local company?

The short answer is yes.  There may be a local outdoor guide school, outfitter, retailer, or even climbing gym, which may provide access to a WFR course.

Local courses will typically be a similar cost and course length to those offered by National Organizations. Local companies may ascribe to other organizations, such as the Wilderness Medicine Association (WMA). The WMA is "dedicated to the development of remote medicine around the globe."

Many local WFR course instructors have experience with WMA or WMI, depending on their career focus in the outdoors.

man bandage first aid

Wilderness First Responder FAQs

How Much Does it Cost? 

A NOLS course of any kind is not cheap. WMI courses are likely to set you back between $600 and $1,500, depending on the context of your course.

How Long Does it Take?

Courses typically last 7-15 days. And they require time spent in the classroom and the field. Certifications usually last three years and need a re-certification course.

What Will You Learn?

CPR, basic Life support, and the emergency treatment of anaphylaxis and asthma. How to treat altitude illness, hypothermia and heat illness, frostbite and cold injury, lightning, submersion, bone fractures, and dislocations. Wound management including open fractures, lacerations, burns and blisters. How to splint, bandage, litter package and medical kit preparation.

How Old Do You Need to be to Take the course?

You must be aged 16 years or older.

How Long is the Certificate Valid for?

Two years.

Where Can I Find More Information?

Final Notes

First aid training is essential for anyone working or recreating in the backcountry.  There are a lot of course options avaible, but the Wilderness First Responder remains the definitive course.  It is a time and money investment that you won't regret.

Happy hiking!

Stay Safe out there!

This post may contain affiliate links. Read the full disclosure here.

Related Posts