Wilderness First Responder


Become a Wilderness First Responder. This intensive class includes 80 hours of top-notch training designed to teach you to manage medical emergencies in the backcountry.


Instructors of the world-renown National Outdoor Leadership School/Wilderness Medicine Institute, the leaders in wilderness medicine, will teach the class. Not only do they know their stuff, they know how to TEACH their stuff. There will be two instructors. To maintain quality instruction, class size will be limited to 30 students.


May 7 through May 16, 2006 - 10 days of action-packed instruction.


Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park 6239 State Road 21, Keystone Heights, FL 32656

For more information
or to register
call 866-831-9001

Or go on line to wmi.nols.edu

All photos credits above belong to the Wilderness Medicine Institute.

Okay, the WMI Wilderness First Responder class advertised above is over. But you should know...it was outstanding!

It happens.

You and your friend are backpacking cross country through the Big Cypress Swamp. It’s a sunny spring day and you’re both sweating heavily as you lug your pack across the hot, sunlit prairie. You’ve been doing your best to stay hydrated, but your hiking buddy hasn’t been drinking a whole lot because he says he’s not particularly thirsty. He ran out of Gatorade powder a while back, and doesn’t really like the taste and smell of plain, disinfected swamp water. In spite of your encouragement to drink more, he insists he’s fine, except for a headache. Some time later, he complains that he’s dizzy and tired, and would like to rest a while. As you sit under the sparse shade of a sabal palm you notice that he’s sweaty, pale as a ghost, and cool to the touch. He’s now a bit irritable, and says he feels lousy, and quite scared that something serious may be wrong.

Now, what?

Would you know what to do next? If you’re a Wilderness First Responder (WFR, pronounced “woofer”) you would. WFRs are trained to deal with medical emergencies in the backcountry, where calling 911 may not be an option.

When you care enough to send for the very best.

Since I travel a good bit in the backcountry, I wanted WFR training for myself, and I wanted to be taught by the best in the business. Considerable research led me to the conclusion that the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) was who I was looking for. WMI, prestigious in its own right, is part of the equally prestigious National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) based in Lander, Wyoming. These guys have trained over 40,000 students in places all over the world. They know their stuff, and they know how to teach their stuff.

Although I’d had emergency medical training in the past, my skills were rusty. So I figured a WMI WFR course would be a good idea. As it turned out, it was a GREAT idea.

Searching WMI’s web site WFR class schedule I could not find a WMI WFR class offered anywhere near Florida, so I called WMI and told them I wanted to sponsor one. Besides being able to take the class myself, I thought it would be good to bring some high-quality wilderness education to the Sunshine State.

If you sponsor it, they will come.

Eventually, thirteen students (myself included) registered for the class. Together we sweated through 10 challenging but enjoyable days of intensive top-quality training at Gold Head Branch State Park. We all started out with various skill levels. The class included park rangers, adventurers, college students, Americorps volunteers, medical professionals, a wildlife officer, and yours truly.

Our instructors, Mark and Dave, were top-notch and brought with them a wealth of training and experience. Mark spent 22 years in the U.S. Air Force PJs (the guys who rescue our downed pilots) where he learned medical skills, specialized skydiving, SCUBA diving, and a bunch of other stuff. Dave has worked as a firefighter and an EMT in New Mexico. He guides mountaineering, climbing, and backcountry snowboarding trips throughout the western United States. I found it particular cool that he’s been to Everest base camp and worked at a clinic in Kathmandu, where he assisted trekkers, climbers, and the local sherpas on their way to base camp. Point is, when it comes to medical emergencies, these guys can truly say “Been there, done that.”

Cost in money: A few hundred bucks. Cost in time: 10 days. Knowing how to help an injured friend: priceless.

At the end of the 10 action-packed days, we all emerged with a newfound competency in rendering emergency care. We learned the importance of thoroughly sizing up the incident scene, protecting both yourself and the patient from disease transmission, and the basic principle of rendering emergency care--find and treat immediate threats to life before dealing with other things that aren’t as grave.

serious head injury

In WFR-speak this principle is reduced to the memory jog, ABCDE. The letters stand for Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, and Environment. If there’s a problem pertaining to any of these items, fix it now. This means your patient should be able to take in Air, he should be actually Breathing, and his Circulation should be okay (beating heart and no severe bleeding). Further, care for any possible spinal injury (e.g. possible Disability), and consider the patient’s Environment. Check to see, for example, if he’s lying on the cold, wet ground, or if a battalion of fire ants is chewing on his leg, or…well, you get the idea.

These concepts and much more were drilled into our heads both in the classroom and in various staged situations called scenarios in which the WFR candidates pretend to be in an actual emergency and practice on one another.

We soon became so involved in our training that we tended to lose track of the days. Instead of saying it was Thursday or Friday, for example, we’d just say it was Day 5 or Day 6.


Gold Head Branch State Park was a splendid setting for our training. In addition to a comfortable, air conditioned classroom, we had the entire park in which to conduct our wilderness rescue scenarios.

rescue party

The highlight of the course was on Day 8 when we conducted a realistic mock rescue at night. There were a variety of “injuries”, including a “patient” with a severely bleeding thigh impaled by a stick. To make our mock scenarios look realistic, WMI uses moulage (moo-lahj)--the same make-up used by Hollywood film directors to create the look of a serious injury. Also adding to the realism is that everyone stayed in character for the entire time. The whole scene is enough to get your adrenaline flowing.

During the “rescue” I realized just how much we had learned. We had been able to transfer our classroom knowledge into practical, life-saving skills. I thought to myself, I would be pleased to see any of my fellow students show up if I were severely injured for real.

night rescue

My expectations for the class were high. After all, I had contracted with the best of the best to teach the course. Well, my expectations were exceeded. The WMI WFR course was the best training I’ve ever received anywhere, bar none. They made teaching the course look easy, but you know a tremendous amount of work went into what they do.

a teachable moment

The icing on the cake was the way our group all came together in a few days to become friends. In the evenings, we socialized at our cabins (some stayed in the park’s rustic but comfortable accommodations, others camped), enjoying a complete Italian dinner one night and a barbecue pot luck another. The camaraderie led to a lot of fun, including some entertaining skits poking fun at ourselves and our instructors.

When Day 10 finally came, we demonstrated our competence with a final written exam and a realistic test scenario. Then after a few awards and final good-byes to our new friends, we went our separate ways knowing we had done our best so that someday, somewhere “others may live.”

Meanwhile, back in the swamp...

Now, back to your buddy. You notice he’s alert and oriented--a very good sign. He knows who and where he is, and he knows about what time it is. He also knows exactly what he’s been doing the last few minutes. “Check his vitals,” you say to yourself. You take his pulse and count his breaths. Both are faster than normal. His skin is cool, pale, and clammy. Based on what you’re seeing, plus the fact that he hasn’t drunk much today, you determine he’s suffering from heat exhaustion.

His vital signs indicate his circulatory system is having a hard time dealing with the situation. “Hypovolemic shock, too little fluid. He’s got to be at least a quart low,” you think to yourself. “Plus, his core temp must be up some.”

You help him remove his shirt, pants, and boots, then spread out a poncho in the shade for him to lie on. You then douse him with cool water--especially his head, which is like a big radiator capable of dissipating lots of heat. Next, you cut a large sabal-palm frond and use it to fan him vigorously. Cooling him down is your main objective.

Since he’s alert and able to drink on his own, you ask him to consume slowly over the next hour or so a mixture you’ve made for him--a liter of water to which you’ve added a pinch of salt and a couple of pinches of sugar. Drinking too little water surely helped bring on this problem in the first place. You know that getting some fluid back in his system will help overcome the shock he’s experiencing. You also know you must treat this condition aggressively, or it could progress to all-out heat stroke, an immediate threat to life. The last thing either of you needs way out here is a case of heat stroke.

After an hour or so, your buddy feels better. Since this is a pretty good spot, you decide it might be a good idea to make camp here. After a good night’s rest, a good meal, and some more hydration, he might feel more like continuing the trek in the morning.

Way to go, WFR.

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