What You Should Know Before Enrolling in a NOLS Wilderness First Aid Class

When I’m out hiking on the trail, I am generally in my happy place. I’m usually thinking about puppies, rainbows, or what I’m going to cook for dinner when I get home. However, my mind will occasionally slip into visions of the macabre: a bear waiting around the next bend waiting to maul my face off, a giant tree limb falling on my head, slipping on a banana peel and plummeting off a cliff, etc.

While none of these things is likely to happen to me, accidents do happen in the backcountry. For my own peace of mind (and my Mom’s), I decided to enroll in a NOLS Wilderness First Aid class so I could be prepared for when they do.

NOLS, founded in 1965 as the National Outdoor Leadership School, has grown to be a worldwide leader in outdoor skill and leadership training. In the outdoor community, the name is pretty much synonymous with wilderness first aid and medicine. I figured if I was going to learn from anybody, it should be these guys. 

Having zero prior first aid training, I had no idea what lay in store for me as I entered the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, GA for a two-day seminar. After my experience, here’s what I think you should know before enrolling.

Be prepared to learn…a lot.


After some brief morning introductions that included everyone naming their guilty pleasure song (mine was “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” by Jermaine Stewart if you’re curious) we hopped straight onto a runaway freight train of learning that would not slow down until 5PM the next day.

I furiously scribbled down notes, hoping to retain something. The course covered so much ground—spine injuries, shock, musculoskeletal injuries, wounds, lightning, anaphylaxis—that it did feel like information overload at times.

But no matter what the situation, the Patient Assessment System, a systematic series of procedures that was the foundation of the course, would help us handle it.

You will get really hands on.

taping an ankle
This poor woman was forced to maneuver around my giant hobbit foot while learning how to tape an ankle.

My favorite part of the class were the real world “scenarios.” These were exercises where we would break up into groups and take turns acting out the part of patient and rescuer.  It’s not everyday you get to pretend that you are a ten-year old would just got kicked in the stomach by a horse, or act like you are completely unconscious while someone tries to wake you (harder than it sounds). 

Of course on the flip side, being the rescuer involved physically examining someone to determine their mechanism of injury (MOI). Now, I’m not in a business where I have to make physical contact with people, plus I have personal space issues to begin with. When it came time to give a full body exam to the middle-aged man that I had just met sitting next to me, let’s just say things got a little…awkward.

But wilderness rescue is no place to let my personal phobias surrounding physical contact with strangers get in the way of saving someone’s life, so I manned up. By the end of the weekend I was confidently touching strangers without a second thought, always doing my best to avoid the dreaded “creepy touch” (as one of our instructors put it) and any bikini zones. 

Always lookout for number one.

Carnage after a mass ATV accident. Luckily, there we no fatalities.

The very first step of the Patient Assessment System is “I’m number one.” Aside from giving yourself a boost of self-confidence, this rule is a reminder that your own personal safety is the most important thing in any situation.

I never really thought about before, but throughout the course I learned  the importance of assessing a situation from a distance before rushing in to save the day. A hurt or dead rescuer is no good to anyone.

Don’t be afraid to talk about number two.

About midway through the Patient Assessment System you get into the nitty gritty- asking the patient about their bodily functions. It may sound trite, but I had a hard time asking strangers about the last time they made a poopy (again…awkward).

But small details like these play a big role in determining a patients injury. It could change a diagnosis from internal bleeding to mild constipation. Don’t be afraid to get personal with your questions; it could save someone’s life.

A lot of wilderness first aid is just common sense.

Making a “human burrito” out of a patient suffering from hypothermia

Traditional first aid relies on the assumption that an injured person will be in a hospital within 15-30 minutes. The goal of wilderness first aid is to stabilize the patient until you can safely get them to help, or get help to come to them, which could take hours to several days.

This involves a lot of improvisation with items that you can find in your backpack and just “doing the best you can.” And while there are certain skills I learned that might come in handy—knowing how to tape an ankle, make a splint, relocate a shoulder—most wilderness safety relies on common sense.   

Getting that certification is pretty sweet.

NOLS Wilderness First Aid

I left my NOLS Wilderness First Aid Class with a notebook full of information and newfound appreciation for all the terrible things that could happen to me in the woods.

But I did also leave with a sense of accomplishment. It was a pretty great feeling when I received my official Wilderness First Aid certification card a few weeks later. I can now head out on the trail with a little more confidence, knowing that if a situation arises, I can handle it (fingers crossed I don’t have to touch anyone).

For more information on NOLS Wilderness First Aid classes and expeditions, check out www.nols.edu.