Safety School

Safety school: New campus opens for wilderness medicine training

Say you are hiking, deep in the woods. You come across another hiker with a broken leg.

What would you do?

Kelsey Dayton

If you’d been trained as a Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT), you’d be ready. You’d know that the leg might be the obvious problem, but there might be other issues. What do you notice? What do you learn? Perhaps the hiker is diabetic. How does that change your treatment plan?

Since 1990 the Wilderness Medicine Institute has trained more than 130,000 people how to treat injuries and illness in the backcountry through various courses ranging from two-day basic wilderness first aid, up to month-long WEMT training, said Shana Tarter, assistant director.

The institute, which the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) purchased in 1999, relies on public land and rented buildings for most of its 645 courses taught around the world.

But in November the program opens the doors to the Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus. The $6.5 million campus includes seven buildings and had to fit into the school’s carbon reduction plan. Every detail of the campus takes into account ways to minimize the carbon foot print. Windows are designed to light the building during the day without electricity. The roof is designed to funnel rain that is stored in cisterns below the school to provide irrigation water. There’s no septic system in the main building, but there are composting toilets. The small student cabins are outfitted with high efficiency plumbing.

The campus will be used primarily for the bulk of the institute’s WEMT classes. The institute usualy offers 15 WEMT classes each year, with 10 of them held in Lander at the Sinks Canyon Center, owned by Central Wyoming College, Tarter said. But demand for the classes has outgrown the facility. The campus can house 30 students and has two classrooms for a total of 60 students.

The Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus opens in November with a Wilderness EMT class and an instructor training course. The campus is located in Red Canyon near Lander. (Photo courtesy Lindsay D’Addato)
The Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus opens in November with a Wilderness EMT class and an instructor training course. The campus is located in Red Canyon near Lander. (Photo courtesy Lindsay D’Addato)

A WEMT course provides the same training as an urban EMT course. It’s about stabilizing a sick or injured person until they can get to a hospital, Tarter said. The difference is, in the wilderness it could be hours, or days, before help arrives, instead of the minutes when an ambulance is called in town. If an ambulance arrives to a person with a wound in town, it is likely covered by the EMT and then cleaned at the hospital. In the backcountry the wound might need to be cleaned long before help can arrive.

If a patient has a neck injury, the goal is to immobilize them, Tarter said. But if they are going to be waiting days before evacuation, it’s unrealistic that they don’t move. They’ll need to eat and go to the bathroom.

Training has to include risk analysis. Sometimes just figuring out how to get the patient to a hospital is part of the challenge.

If a student has abdominal pain in the middle of the night, is it worth trying to get them out, or can it wait until morning?

A WEMT class takes 200 hours of training. About 50 percent of that time is lecture and 50 percent scenarios. Students also spend time in the hospital.

Students range from those hoping to work on ambulances, to ski patrollers and outdoor leaders, as well as members of the military and firefighters. There are some college students because they get nine hours of credit, and some retired folks participate, too.

Casey Pikla, now the “Word of Mouth” coordinator with NOLS,  took a WEMT class in June 2010 through WMI at the Sinks Canyon Center. The then-Texas resident was hoping to work on an ambulance. An outdoorsy person, he decided to take a wilderness EMT training instead of the regular EMT training. He’d never encountered a serious injury in the backcountry but he’d heard stories and knew the risks of backcountry travel.

“It was having the knowledge that I didn’t have the knowledge,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I was prepared.”

He also wanted the medical training for day-to-day life, such as when a woman collapsed in the grocery store and no one, including Pikla, knew what to do.

In the course he not only learned lifesaving skills, but also preventative measures, like how to treat minor injuries so they don’t turn into larger problems. He also learned logistics, like setting up an incident command and delegating responsibilities.

The core of the class is the scenarios where students are dropped into staged situations and must treat pretend patients from assessment to evacuation.

Students practice stabilizing an arm injury while keeping the patient warm during a Wilderness Medicine Institute course scenario. WMI courses blend classroom work with hands-on experience and staged scenarios where students must treat staff and other sudents as patients in the field. (Photo Courtesy Brad Christensen/WMI of NOLS)

“It’s very real how instructors are able to construct it,” he said.

At the Sinks Canyon facility Pikla and his classmates often had to travel to areas for the different backcountry scenarios. At the new facility in Red Canyon they’ll be able to do everything on site.

Right out the door is an area for practical scenarios.

The 243- acre campus has enough topographic variations, like the Little Popo Agie River and the Red Rock Cliffs, to allow for various scenarios on site, Tarter said.

That’s how they’ll learn sometimes a broken leg is more than a broken leg, but they’ll still know what to do.

Click here to find out more information on WMI courses.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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