Anyone who spends time outdoors should take a wilderness first responder course

Wilderness First Responder students practice “the burrito” hypothermia wrap as part of their skills training. In a medical context, wilderness is defined as being more than an hour from the nearest hospital. (Joshua Berman, Special to The Denver Post)

You’re mountain biking down a fast, technical trail. As you come round a corner, you see somebody crumpled against a boulder, and he doesn’t answer your shouts. His bike is 20 feet away, the front wheel bent in half.

You’re cheering for your friend (who is allergic to bees) as she nails a bouldering problem you’ve both been working on all morning. She reaches up and over a blind spot of rock, screams that something stung her then falls horribly on her outstretched arm. You hear something pop.

You’re driving down a state highway, late in the day, and you see a car rolled upside-down, tires still spinning.

Stop for a second and think: Is it easy to imagine one of these scenes while traveling in Colorado? Would you know what to do? We live in a unique state, where mountains, plains and deserts provide all kinds of potential environmental hazards – often far from definitive medical care. “Wilderness,” by the way, in the medical context, is defined as being “an hour or more” away from a hospital, a very easy situation to imagine in Colorado.

The above scenarios are just a few of hundreds that my instructors have created during my 16 years of training as a wilderness first responder. WFR (pronounced “woofer”) is the industry standard for outdoor professionals such as firefighters, search and rescue teams and wilderness-trip leaders – all seasonal jobs in which I’ve dabbled over the years. I’ve taken the 80-hour intensive WFR course twice, and I’ve taken the recertertification five times. These days, I don’t spend as much time in the backcountry, but I maintain my WFR certification because I work at a K-12 school and have three daughters who I am trying to raise in the outdoors.

So, I’ve built this tradition into my life: Every two years, I take a WFR recertification, a “three-day scenario-based course to review and practice evacuation and decision making guidelines,” offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Medicine Institute. The weekend class also includes a renewal of my CPR skills.

Not everyone has 10 days to spare for the intensive course, however, so there is a shorter certification you should consider: Wilderness first aid (WFA) usually is taught over a weekend in a two or two-and-a-half day format. In a WFA course, you’ll still learn how to care for the ill and injured when you’re far from an emergency room. They will teach people a number of medical procedures that could save an individual’s life, especially if medical professionals are unavailable. One of the most important things that is taught is CPR. That could restart someone’s heart, so it’s extremely important. These courses would teach those sorts of skills.

“We never know when we might be in a position to help another individual,” said Ryland Gardner, 52, one of my instructors, who is also an EMT and firefighter for the Lyons Fire Protection District and a mountain guide, “and there is nothing like knowing what needs to happen in a time of crisis and having the capacity to contribute to a successful outcome.”

I agree. This is a case where just a few days of effort and practice can save lives – maybe even your loved one’s.

To find a wilderness first aid class, go to

Joshua Berman is the author of “Colorado Camping.” Find him at

This article originally appeared in The Denver Post on May 31, 2016.

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