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Word to the Woofah.

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

I recently did a two day Wilderness First Aid (WFA, pronounced woofah) training through Wilderness Medical Associates. The weekend long course was jam packed with general medical concepts and basic life support skills, geared towards the outdoor enthusiast doing shorter trips. This training provided information I'd spent years wandering through the wilderness without. Mainly because I'd approached hiking as I do with all things, by throwing myself in head first and learning as I go...through many, many mistakes. As my list of hiking mishaps grew, so did my growing respect for the inherent risks of backcountry adventures. I decided it was time for some formal education. This course was worth its weight in gold. Maybe you can't weigh a training, but I'll bet you can weigh a WFA instructor.

I'll share a few key takeaways, useful for hiking. If you're interested in the full training, visit:

Side note, this training took place at the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Center. I'd never been there and was blown away by this place. It's a gorgeous piece of property right on the water. They even own a causeway leading to a private island. Not a bad choice for a weekend of learning.

The most valuable lesson I learned from WFA is the importance of water, not just in hot weather situations, but also in cold. H2O kept showing up in treatment protocols for all kinds of scenarios, including: hypothermia, wound care, early frostbite, and heat exhaustion (that one is more logical). Here are some of the reasons water is your lifeline in the wilderness.

1. Heat Exhaustion - This can happen easily in the summer months. Signs are nausea, headache, and weakness. The treatment is to reduce exercise/exertion, find shade and replace lost fluids with water. Guzzling large amounts of water halfway through a hike is not the best plan, since the body can't absorb more than 1 liter of water per hour, even in extreme heat/humidity. The recommendation from the WFA instructor was to drink 4-6 ounces of water every 15 minutes throughout your hike. 4 ounces is equal to 1/2 cup. Seems doable to me.

2. Hypothermia - This one was a surprise to me. I learned that the body's effective cold response requires adequate food and fluids. Shivering is a helpful form of heat production, but it requires a large amount of energy to make that happen. Calories and fluids fuel shivering. In addition, body fluid volume through proper hydration is required to generate and distribute heat. If you suspect early hypothermia, dress the patient in extra clothing, insulate them from heat loss through the ground by placing a foam pad underneath them, and feed them simple sugars and water.

3. Early Frostbite - In this situation, you would want to cover the affected area, then feed and hydrate the patient to help maintain core body temperature. Of course you would want to move them out of the cold and into a warm shelter as soon as possible.

4. Wound care - Early wound cleaning helps prevent infection. And this cleaning requires, you guessed it, water. Clean skin surrounding the wound, then flush out the wound with copious amounts of filtered water.

5. If you run out of water...

This happens to the best of us, and has happened to me more than once. I now carry a water filter in my hiking pack at all times. I like the Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System. It's lightweight, easy to use, and does not give me diarrhea.

6. Lightning Storms - Nope. This may be the only time you'd want to avoid water. If you hear thunder and/or see a flash of lightning, get the flock out of the water. Here is what you would do in case of lightning:

- Get out of the water. If you are in a rubber raft, move closer to the shore to avoid isolation.

- Isolation and height determine the likelihood of being struck, so move to a lower, less isolated position.

- Ground current is the most common source of injury, accounting for 50-55% of fatalities, so move away from places likely to be hit. Avoid being near tall trees or rock outcrops.

- If travel isn't possible, stop and squat as low as you can on a foam pad or backpack, which may insulate you from ground current.

- Lightning currents follow cliff faces, so drop off of ridge lines and into the forest.

- If your car is close by (not likely, but ideal), find your way to it. Being inside of a vehicle is a safe place to wait out the storm.

I'll wrap this post up with bear safety. They didn't talk about this in the WFA training, but since we're talking about all the scary things, why not include it?

I always get confused about what to do around a black bear vs. a brown bear. Run? Tuck yourself into a ball? Make yourself look big and growl back at it?? Here's the answer from the National Park Service. For their full article on bear safety:

If you run into a bear, identify yourself calmly, stand still, but slowly wave your arms. Most bears do not want to hurt you, they want to be left alone. Do not make loud noises, scream, run, climb a tree or drop your backpack. Move away slowly and sideways. Always leave the bear an escape route.

If you are attacked by a brown/grizzly bear, PLAY DEAD. Lay flat on your stomach with hands clasped behind your head, spreading your legs to make it harder for the bear to turn you over.

If you are attacked by a black bear, DO NOT PLAY DEAD. If you can't escape to a secure place, fight back and aim for the face.

You could also invest in bear pepper spray, which can be used to stop an aggressive, charging or attacking bear.

One last thing. My friend Kerry responded to my post about Ticks with a link to this website:

There is lots of good info here.

Now that we've covered the business of safety, my next post will return to pretty pictures, cheerful messages, and happy campers. And if you decide to sign up for a WFA training, I highly recommend Wilderness Medical Associates. The course was hands on and the instructors included all kinds of stories and humor - the best way to learn anything, in my opinion.


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