A WFR, pronounced “woofer” for those that want to sound like a pro, is a Wilderness First Responder. WFRs make up a niche group of emergency responders that are capable of dealing with medical emergencies in a wilderness context. What does this mean exactly? The definition of “wilderness” to WFRs is “a setting that requires extended patient care”. Wilderness First Responders are trained beyond general first aid to provide care to a patient for an extended period of time; picture places where hospitals are further than just an ambulance ride away. So WFRs are kind of like EMTs, but for the backcountry.
That sounds pretty dope, sure, but why should you become one?
- You love being outdoors. If you are a backcountry junkie and can’t get enough time outside, then this course is a must for you. It prepares you to deal with countless medical situations ranging from cardiac events to altitude illness while out on a wilderness jaunt. WFRs are trained to observe for worsening signs and symptoms of illness or injury and determine whether or not that patient needs evacuated and how quickly that should happen. Even if you’re not an extended-period backpacker and just love taking day hikes, you should still consider this course. Remember that one time you almost twisted your ankle on a 14er or when you saw a rattlesnake on that river trip? What if you broke it or what if that snake had bitten your friend? This course prepares you for those freak situations. You or your loved ones will be glad someone was prepared when, as my instructor says, “feces hits the oscillating rotary device.”
- You travel often. Similar to being outdoors, traveling brings you to wilderness environments more than you might have originally thought. Maybe that hostel on your trek to Machu Picchu isn’t in the middle of nowhere, but chances are it is pretty far from competent medical care. A WFR knows how to take care of a patient that won’t see a physician for hours or even days, a real life consequence many travelers have experienced on the road.
- You’re ambitious af. Getting a WFR opens the door to a myriad of opportunities whether it’s furthering your studies in emergency medical response or beginning a career as a guide. Want to lead kids on environmental hikes? Great, you have your WFR. Want to confidently go into search and rescue? A WFR is a fantastic way to start. Who knows, it may even spark a dormant interest in medicine and you could find yourself pursuing a Wilderness EMT or even medical school.
- You need to network. I can’t tell you how many badass folks I met taking this course. Every single person in my class was someone I admired for one reason or another. One girl was a guide on the AT. Another dude, a guide on the Grand, and multiple mountain guides based around the PNW and Alaska. There were too many wilderness therapists to count and even a guy who casually dropped that he had climbed K2. If you need a few like-minded individuals to take on your next rafting/climbing/backpacking trip, look no further. Chances are you are enrolled with about 20-30 other people that are as obsessed with the outdoors as you. In fact, on our one day off, four of the students got lost while hiking and had to sleep out in a snowstorm. FOUR DIFFERENT STUDENTS!
- You want to help people. Preparing yourself for emergency medical situations isn’t just a wise thing to do for yourself, but especially for those around you. It ensures that at least one person in your group has the necessary training to deal with whatever is thrown your way. If you enjoy being the leader that people can depend on and you thrive off that positive buzz you get when helping others, you’d love this course.
- You enjoy a good challenge. This course is not easy. It is NOT one of those classes you can just show up to and pass. It involves a dynamic 80-hour mixture of classroom sessions and hands-on practice. Critical thinking and problem solving are constant staples throughout the day. One evening, we battled hypothermia as we rescued fellow students out of a freezing river. Another night we plucked cactus needles out of each other’s hands in the dark while running a mock rescue in the woods. The motto our instructor ingrained in our heads was, “You do not rise to the occasion; you fall to your level of training.” So thus, we worked damn hard and were trained damn well.
- You’re a believer in the zombie apocalypse. Or any apocalypse for that matter. Getting your WFR will surely prepare you to deal with the inevitable chaos that comes with the end of the world. You will feel competent and confident when dealing with exhaustion from the elements or patching up wounds… well, except if it’s a zombie bite. In that case you might want to either chop off the affected extremity or accept the fact that a WFR isn’t going to be of much benefit when you’re an undead corpse surviving off the flesh of warm-blooded humans.
Getting up the gumption to actually take this course and working my ass off to pass it was one of my proudest accomplishments since graduating college. Becoming a WFR means more to me than just receiving a certificate and the three letters behind my name.
A Wilderness First Responder is trained to respond to medical emergencies in a wilderness context. This person will splint your broken femur when you spill on your bike. They will stabilize your spine when you smack your head on a river rock. They will monitor your vitals when you’re experiencing hypoglycemia or acute mountain sickness or anaphylactic shock. They will help evacuate you even if it means carrying you out on a backboard through six miles of wilderness. This person will stay by your side and hold your hand and breathe with you on one of the worst days of your life.
So what does it really mean to be a Wilderness First Responder? It means taking care of your fellow man and showing empathy to those around you. But you should just go find that out for yourself.