How to get trained for emergencies in the wild

Wilderness-First-Aid-VitalsWhen more than 300 inches of snow blanket the mountains around their hometown during the long winter months, the Scouts of Troop 187 in Breckenridge, Colo., don’t cut back on adventure. The older boys grab their skis and trek to backcountry huts on overnight campouts.

It can be tough for the troop’s adults to keep up. “I have to keep in pretty good shape,” laughs Chris John, committee chair of Troop 187, who also serves as the Western Colorado Council’s president.

Not only does John stay active, but he also prepares himself for emergencies that can occur when help is out of reach. “I have to keep up with their hunger for adventure, when the consequences can be high,” he says.

That’s when Wilderness First Aid (WFA) training comes into play. To earn his certification, John heads to the Western Colorado Council’s basic and instructor-training WFA course hosted at the scenic Steve Fossett Spirit of Adventure Ranch in Gypsum, Colo.

A WFA certification helps prepare both adults and older, capable Scouts with the knowledge and hands-on training that can mean the difference between life and death for someone severely ill or injured in the wild.

Real-life demonstrations — complete with fake wounds and blood — test participants’ knowledge and their ability to stay calm during a time of stress.

“Who likes burritos?” asks Lyn Bair, committee member of Troop 201 in Aspen, Colo., to 11 youth and adult students in a classroom at the adventure base.

Bair, a candidate for WFA instructor certification, points out how burritos’ layers retain heat. “Now that’s what you want to think of if you encounter someone who is showing signs of hypothermia.”

Bair asks for three volunteers, designating one as a hypothermia victim. Next, she asks the other two youth to run around in circles to raise their body temperatures.

“OK, now we’re going to wrap the victim in the sleeping bag, but you can use a solar blanket or tent flap,” she says. “It’s like a tortilla!”

The next step in the “burrito hold” is for the two warm Scouts to sit close and hug the victim to share their body heat.

This memorable demonstration is one of many during the WFA basic course’s in-depth look at treating

illnesses and injuries in the field. From insect bites and sprains to broken bones and head injuries, the two-day course covers a wide range of ailments.

David LeGaye (not photographed), a Red Cross instructor-trainer with Crew 911 of Conroe, Texas, adds a dose of reality to the Wilderness First Aid course by applying detailed moulage makeup to volunteer patients. From fake blood to broken bones and more, the wounds help dramatize the seriousness of injuries that can occur in the wilderness.

At the camp’s central fire pit, Nathan Free, Scoutmaster of Troop 231 in Vail, Colo., and Chris Conway, a volunteer from Breckenridge, Colo., run to the aid of a Scout lying on the ground with (fake) burns to his face and arms. This signals the start of a series of three learning scenarios in which students put their training to the test with volunteer patients.

The patients — like burn victim Andy Rohlf, an Eagle Scout from Summit County Troop 188 — wear Hollywood horror-film-worthy special-effects makeup created by Red Cross instructor-trainer David LeGaye of Crew 911 of Conroe, Texas.

“Learning by doing is an important step in this course,” says Mickey Chandler, an instructor and Venturing leader also from Crew 911. “[Students] have to step up and take action, just as they would have to do in the wilderness.”

While Free and Conway work as a team to calm Andy and address his wounds, mentor-instructors stand nearby to lend guidance when needed.

“We’re not doctors,” says Jay Walker, Red Cross WFA instructor-trainer and Advisor of Crew 911. “We’re here to evaluate and respond. If the person’s pain increases, your job is to escalate to evacuate the person and call for help.”

This last part of a patient’s assessment can often be the hardest, he says. In most remote places, you can’t simply pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1. One aim of the WFA course is to empower students with the knowledge of when and how to call for help. (Find more information on backcountry communication devices at

Wilderness First Aid students use gloves, gauze and more to treat volunteer patients in a series of realistic emergency scenarios.

The students must face three emergency scenes, including multiple patients with injuries ranging from a broken arm and burns to less-obvious injuries like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and insect bites.

Then they gather at the center of camp to discuss what went right and what went wrong.

Dripping with fake blood made from liquid latex, Hershey’s chocolate syrup and food dye, volunteer victim Ben Ronco of Crew 324 from Fruita, Colo., holds his ragged T-shirt to his stomach. Ben points at his injured abdomen and says, “The bear got me!” And, on cue, a strand of intestines made from paper towels falls from his shirt to the ground. “Ahhh!” he exclaims. “Lost a chunk!”

Dealing with medical emergencies is never a laughing matter. But the expert instructors in Crew 911 — a crew that has trained thousands of Scouts, Venturers, Sea Scouts and Explorers in WFA and other Red Cross courses — know that sometimes a little drama helps make learning more engaging.

The bruises, burns and wounds add a dose of realism to the event.

For Scoutmaster Glenn Blatt of Troop 353 from Grand Junction, Colo. — who is completing the course as a refresher — this kind of specialized training is what enables him to help Scouts reach further. His troop often ventures into the desert on backpacking trips.

“You never know what you might encounter when you’re out there,” he says. “The kids and the parents, especially, depend on me. I want to be sure I have the skills to bring everyone home in one piece.”

WFA Instructor Training
Nineteen adults, older Scouts and Venturers completed Wilderness First Aid (WFA) Instructor Training at SOAR during this session. Part of the four-day course requires instructor candidates, like Lyn Bair, committee member of Troop 201 in Aspen, Colo., to teach segments of the class alongside instructor-trainers from Crew 911.

For Bair and other newly minted instructors, this means they will be able to host their own WFA courses in their local districts, making the certification more accessible for Scouts and leaders.

Find a Wilderness First Aid course near you.

Consider Wilderness First Aid Instructor certification at Philmont Training Center. Find more information, including course dates, here.

Choose the best backcountry communication device for your next adventure using this guide.

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