Wilderness Medicine courses: are they worth it?

The post is the first of a series WildMed meant to show the value in getting wilderness medicine training if you are someone who spends time in the outdoors. Whether it’s a weekend in a national park or a month of mountaineering, knowing what to do in an emergency is critical.

Disclaimer: I am not an instructor for wilderness medicine courses, I have just taken a great deal of them and find them incredibly valuable. This purpose of these posts is not to be a substitute for training, but to show what you would learn by taking them and the value there is in getting training.

Wilderness Medicine

The first type of courses I’m going to address are ones that target wilderness medicine specifically. They are applicable to the majority of environments you will find yourself in, and during training you run medical scenarios like settings such as paddling rivers, mountain biking, climbing, hiking and more. The emphasis here is on treating injuries in the field.

I’ve done my training through The Wilderness Medical Associates; they have several levels of courses depending on the extent of training you require. While these descriptions are specific to the WMA courses, other organizations have similar levels of courses.

Wilderness First Aid (WFA) – Good for outdoor enthusiasts doing short trips who want the tools to make good decisions when faced with an emergency in the field. Courses tend to be done over a weekend and cover the basics.

Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA) – This level is often a minimum requirement for people working as guides in Canada, United States and similar countries. It is a 40-hour course that goes into more detail about treatments and procedures and is useful for anyone planning longer recreational trips to areas more remote.

Wilderness First Responder (WFR) – An extremely thorough 80-hour course that builds on WAFA. This course is especially helpful for those leading trips in remote environments due to its emphasis on prolonged treatment (managing major injuries when even high-risk evacuation could take significant time). For most people, the training in WAFA is sufficient, however if you’re looking for employment in outdoor adventure or doing highly skilled trips, this course is great. (This is the level of training I have).


Boreal River (the company I did my WFR course with) took this photo of us performing a litter carry. I did the course over 5 days in Costa Rica and will write more about this specific experience in a later post. (Costa Rica, 2017)

Wilderness EMT – This course is targeted at medical professionals looking to incorporate elements of wilderness medicine into their practice, and is especially popular among EMS, and search and rescue.

Activity Specific – Mountains, Rivers, Sea and More

Specific recreational activities entail different risks. For example, most of my guiding takes place on rivers, so it was necessary for me to get the Whitewater Rescue Technician qualification. This course taught me rescue techniques specific to running rapids by canoes and kayaks, like freeing pinned boats, swimming in rapids and rescuing people trapped in rapids. In addition, before engaging in high risk outdoor recreation, it helps to improve your skills to prevent emergencies in the first place. I got my Moving Water 1 and 2 qualification, which helped further develop my paddling competencies.


Scouting rapids and communicating with paddle signs are just the tip of the iceberg of the things taught in a whitewater course. Photo taken by Connor Furneaux, my co-leader on the trip. (Noire River, 2017)

Hundreds of qualifications and courses are available for whatever activities you engage in, and I can’t stress enough how important it is to be trained to handle whatever situations might pop up. Paddling, medicine, open water, alpine, rock climbing and dozens of other activities all have courses and qualifications you can get to improve your skills and be prepared.

Next post in the series: High-Risk vs. Low-Risk Evacuations

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