Updated Standards for Wilderness Medicine Certifications

By: Nadia Kimmel, Desert Mountain Medicine

The Wilderness Medicine Education Collaborative (WMEC) was formed in 2010 to provide a forum for discussing trends and issues in wilderness medicine education. Our discussions led to the development of the first WFA Scope of Practice published in the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in 2013. In 2022, the WMEC started a project to revise these documents to respond to requests from the outdoor industry for increased detail and concerns about trends that dilute the value of these certifications.

The revised documents, completed in 2023 by the WMEC, are now called the Standards for WFA, WAFA, and WFR certification or standards documents. The WMEC recently expanded its work to include related white papers and position statements to help explain how we arrived at these consensus-driven standards. The WMEC's mission is to Elevate wilderness medicine education and set standards for common field certifications.

While wilderness medicine course providers are not legally bound to follow these standards, the WMEC believes they have a professional duty to consider them to uphold the value of these field certifications and, ultimately, the care rendered to trip participants.

The following companies are members of the WMEC:

  • Aerie Backcountry Medicine

  • Desert Mountain Medicine

  • NOLS Wilderness Medicine

  • SOLO

  • Wilderness Medical Associates International

  • Wilderness Medicine Training Center International

WMEC Standards for Online and Hybrid Wilderness Medicine Training

The innovation of shorter in-person hybrid and online-only (synchronous and asynchronous) courses has increased in popularity during the last decade, with a marked uptick in response to the pandemic.

Consequently, learning outcomes, skills competency, and overall confidence to respond to an emergency in the backcountry are often subpar in graduates who have completed courses that do not meet the standards for certification (i.e., courses with shorter or no in-person hours); furthermore, these certifications may not fulfill requirements for employment nor will they be eligible for recertification among WMEC members schools and other course providers that adhere to the standards for certification.

The WMEC's standards documents recommend that "the recreational public, outdoor program administrators, and other consumers of wilderness medicine courses refer to these documents and recommendations when choosing an appropriate course and credential level for themselves, their program, or their service. Users are encouraged to compare the standards documents to an individual provider's course curriculum to ensure their course meets the minimum standards. Because the needs of students and organizations vary by location, population, and experience, some schools may choose to exceed these standards".

The new industry standards include:

  • Presentation of all core topics, as found in the standards document

  • All core skills are practiced in class

  • In-person evaluation

  • The minimum in-person hours for each course must be met


Many outfitters raise the bar by requiring their guides to have wilderness medicine training appropriate for their organization's needs over the State minimum requirement of urban BFA/CPR. Guides have specialized medical training needs. They care for clients in remote locations with limited equipment and unreliable communication and make independent decisions about patient care. Outfitters and guides realize that wilderness medicine training addresses their needs and elevates their risk management plan.

Wilderness-specific basic life support skills (BLS) are practiced repetitively during stress exposure simulations to train guides to respond confidently. For example, they include administering five consecutive breaths with any suspected asphyxia patient, followed by rescue breathing, or following guidelines for intermittent CPR while transporting patients with severe hypothermia to definitive care. These are examples of the many wilderness-specific skills that are not learned nor practiced in urban BFA/CPR courses.

The bottom line is that wilderness medicine training is much more well-suited for outdoor professionals than urban BLS/CPR courses, and how a rescuer responds during the first few minutes of emergency matters. EMS cannot respond to a drowning incident by the roadside of a river in time to administer basic life support and treat life threats in time. The industry standard wilderness medicine skills and guidelines can make the difference between permanent disability, life, and death.

About the Author:

Nadia founded Desert Mountain Medicine (DMM) in 1998 under the premise that wilderness medicine education should not be limited to an indoor classroom. She is an active contributor to the field of wilderness medicine education as an instructor, curriculum writer and as a founding member of the Wilderness Medicine Education Collaborative (WMEC) established in 2010. Over the last thirty years, Nadia has worked as a guide, SAR volunteer, outdoor educator, EMT, and emergency room nurse throughout the American West. Today, she devotes herself full time as DMM's Executive Director.

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