Aerie Backcountry Medicine

Spring Semester in Wilderness Medicine: Now Accepting Applicants!

Costa Rica and Montana

January 25 - April 10, 2020

Certifications/Credits* and Training

  • 15 upper-division University of Montana credits
  • Aerie Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT) certification
  • National Registry EMT (EMT) certification
  • State of Montana EMT certification
  • American Heart Association Healthcare Provider CPR certification
  • Red Card Wildlands Firefighting certification
  • Recreation Avalanche 1 certification
  • Swiftwater Rescue Technician (SRT) certification
  • Leave No Trace Trainer certification
  • Wilderness Survival training
  • Wilderness Navigation training
  • Extensive medical clinical experience: assisting with multiple health clinics in Costa Rica; riding along on an ambulance and observing in a hospital emergency room in the U.S.

*Earning credits and certifications is dependent on successful completion of required physical and practical examinations as well as final payment of tuition.

Program Highlights

Aerie's Spring Semester is a unique program, providing you the opportunity to learn wilderness medicine and rescue skills in the Costa Rican rainforest and the snowy Montana mountains. The program begins with 4+ intensive weeks in Costa Rica, where you will complete most of your EMT training and then immediately use that training to help Aerie physicians and medics organize and run a free health clinic in a small indigenous community. After the clinic, we head to the Savegre River for Whitewater Rescue Technician training. There, Aerie instructors who founded the Whitewater Rescue Institute will teach you how to manage complex rescues in a challenging whitewater environment.

Immediately after the whitewater program, you will have time off to mentally and physically prepare for Montana. This is the only portion of the Semester when you are responsible for your own room and board costs. Many students go home for this break while others spend an extra day or two in Costa Rica.

Upon return to Montana, you will begin your "Clinical Week,” staying at a lovely hostel in downtown Missoula. During this intense week, you will shadow physicians and nurses in the emergency room at St Patrick Hospital and complete observational ride-alongs with Missoula Emergency Service's Advanced Life Support ambulance. In addition, you will spend an afternoon with Missoula City Fire Department's Extrication Team learning the art of vehicle extrication, and another afternoon enhancing your understanding of human anatomy and physiology at the cadaver lab at the University of Montana. During breaks in those activities, you will spend time on the University of Montana campus preparing for the practical and written final EMT examinations.

After this week, you and your fellow teammates will travel to the stunning Swan Valley, about 60 miles north of Missoula, to put on snowshoes/ skis and begin ten days of avalanche rescue, outdoor leadership, wilderness survival and navigation training. At the beautiful Jewel Basin Yurt in the Swan Range, you will earn your Recreation Avalanche 1 certification. When digging in the snow, it is always hard to remember that just a week before you were rescuing patients out of a warm Costa Rican river, but that is the essence of the Semester. Environments do not change medicine, but the opportunities and obstacles provided by each environment are unique and require specialized training and preparation.

After completing avalanche training, you will return to the base of the mountains and continue with your Search and Rescue and wilderness EMT training. At this lower elevation, as the snow recedes, you will complete Red Card Wildlands Firefighting training with Aerie’s professional wildlands firefighting instructors.

The program culminates with you putting your route-finding, wilderness medical treatment skills, and team work to the test in an overnight RATRACE (Reach And Treat Review And Comprehensive Exam) adventure race, where you will be evaluated on all skills learned in the program. At the conclusion of the RATRACE, you will have truly earned every certification, credit and experience you have gained.

Students and staff assessing patients at the free health clinic in Costa Rica.

Whitewater Rescue Technician (WRT) training in river crossings.

View from inside the open-air classroom at Rancho Mastatal.

View from just outside the classroom, looking at Cangreja Peak in La Cangreja National Park.

Heading into Montana’s backcountry for avalanche training.

Enjoying a break while learning wilderness navigation in the Swan Mountains.

Learning the fundamentals of snow stability while earning Avalanche certification.

2020 Dates January 25-April 10

  • January 1-24: on-line coursework (6-10+ hours per week)
  • January 25: Meet at SJO Airport, Costa Rica, and take shuttle to Mastatal. Aerie arranges and pays for this shuttle. Or, if traveling independently, meet at Mastatal in the afternoon. Please arrive at the SJO airport no later than noon on the 25th; otherwise you will need to arrange and pay for your own transportation. Our shuttle will take students from the airport to Mastatal at 2 pm on the 25th.
  • January 25 - February 26 : Costa Rica Section
    • January 25 - February 13: EMT course work at Mastatal
    • February 14 - February 20: Clinical days
    • February 21 - February 25: Swiftwater Rescue Course
  • February 26th: We will shuttle students and drop them off at the San Jose airport or a local hotel/hostel by noon on February 26th. Please do not make reservations out of San Jose airport any earlier than 3 pm on the 26th. If you cannot find a flight on the 26th after 3 pm, you will need to make reservations to stay in San Jose that evening.
  • March 2 (evening) - April 10: Montana section.
    • March 3 - 15: "Clinical Week". During this time, students stay together in Missoula near their hospital and ambulance clinical settings
    • March 16 - 20: Based at the Jewel Basin Yurt students are trained in avalanche awareness, outdoor leadership and Leave No Trace training.
    • March 21 - April 10: After hiking/ skiing/ snowshoeing out of the mountains, students return to the Semester's final location, the Rich Ranch in Seeley Lake
    • The program ends at noon, April 10th, at the Rich Ranch in Seeley Lake, Montana. We will provide shuttles back to Missoula at this time. Please do not make your plane reservations out of Missoula for any earlier than 3 pm on the 12th.


$17,000 tuition includes the following:

    All room and board, except for 5 day break between Costa Rica and Montana
  1. Shuttles to and from Costa Rica airport in San Jose (SJO). Aerie will pick you up and drop you off at SJO airport
  2. The following certifications:
    • EMT and Wilderness EMT
    • AHA Healthcare Provider CPR
    • Whitewater Rescue Technician
    • Recreation Avalanche 1
    • Leave No Trace Trainer
    • Red Card Wildlands Firefighting Certification
  3. Non-EMT course texts:
    • Aerie Wilderness Medicine
    • Swiftwater Rescue
    • Avalanche Essentials
    • Leave No Trace
    • AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership
    The following items are not included with tuition:
    • Registration fee for 15 upper division credits from the University of Montana (approximately $500)
    • Health insurance while in Costa Rica through the University of Montana ($100)
    • Flight to and from Costa Rica (typically $500-$750 round trip from the US)
    • EMT text book (approximately $100)
    • National Registry of EMT on-line registration and computer testing fee (approximately $100)
    • Health insurance while in the US
    • Any costs associated with early departures, medical bills - including shuttles to and from health care clinics.
    Scholarships/ discounts are available for the following:
    • Early-Bird Registration:
      • $2,000 off for any student paying their non-refundable $2,000 deposit 6 months or more before the start of the program.
    • Students may be eligible for no more than one of the followingtuition discounts:
      • AmeriCorps members/ alumni using their AmeriCorps awards will have their awards matched, up to $3,000 or
      • Alumni of the following: Student Conservation Association, Washington Conservation Corps, Minnesota/ Iowa Conservation Corps and Montana Conservation Corps, $3,000 or
      • Montana-state residents or students enrolled at a Montana school (for example, the University of Montana, Montana State University, Montana Tech), $3,000 or
      • US Military Veterans, $3,000
    • In addition to Aerie's scholarships, students may also be eligible for:
      • FAFSA Awards
        • Because the program is offered through the University of Montana, students from the MT University System or other universities who are currently receiving FAFSA awards are often able to use their awards for the Semester. Aerie can help facilitate this process. The process for doing this is described here.
      • AmeriCorps Awards
        • Because the program is run through an accredited Title IV university, AmeriCorps members and alumni can use their Segal Education Awards to pay for their tuition. The process for doing this is described here. You can also contact our office for information.


General Semester Questions and Answers Can Be Found at our Semester Page. The Following Q & As Pertain To the Spring Semester, held in both Costa Rica and Montana.

Q: How much is the typical airfare to San Jose, Costa Rica?
A: Typical round-trip airfare from major US cities to San Jose is $500-$750.

Q: Will I have time off during the program to sightsee and visit local areas?
A: There will be very little time for traveling/sightseeing in Costa Rica or Montana. You should plan time before or after the Spring Semester for personal travel. The week off in the middle of the program (between Costa Rica and Montana) is designed to give students time to take a much-deserved break, catch up on reading and possibly attend to family concerns. It is not sufficient time to both sightsee in Costa Rica and ensure a timely return to Montana.

Q: Will I be able to communicate with friends and family?
A: Communications will be challenging throughout each section of the program. In Mastatal, Costa Rica, there is an inexpensive, local internet business consisting of 3 computers, available on a first-come, first-served basis. Expect to be able to get on a computer several times a week to check email or use Skype. Most evenings, a public phone is available for a short window of opportunity. At Rafiki, internet service is typically available but may be extremely slow when everyone is trying to access it in the evening. In Costa Rica, in general, expect slow internet coverage that may crash at any time.
In Montana, there should be wireless internet service students can hook in to with their own laptop except during the avalanche training section in the backcountry where there will be no cell coverage at all. Cell phone coverage is tentatively available at this time at a few good spots at the Rich Ranch. In Missoula, communication possibilities should be excellent.

Q: What are the towns like in Costa Rica and Montana?
A: Mastatal is home to about 150 residents. The nearest big town is Santiago de Puriscal, which can be found on most maps and is often simply called Puriscal. San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica, is about 3.5 hours away by private car or taxi; however, a public bus ride can take most of a day. The swiftwater rescue section takes place at the Rafiki Safari Lodge on the Savegre River. In Montana, we base out of Missoula for a week - a small city of 70,000 people and home to the University of Montana, two hospitals and a professional ambulance service. The last two weeks of the program, we move to the family-owned Rich Ranch, near Seeley Lake, a small, rural, and remote town.

Q: What are the accommodations like in Costa Rica and Montana?
A: Both locations are beautiful, comfortable, and rustic. Students share bunks in dorm-style living quarters ("Jeanne's House" )and use a shared bath house with upscale composting toilets and outdoor showers in Mastatal. At the posh Rafiki Safari Lodge, you will share with several other students a “luxury safari tent”outfitted with a shared bathroom. In Missoula, students live at the newly restored Shady Spruce Hostel then move to western-themed cabins at a dude ranch near Seeley Lake.

Q: What are the physical requirements for the program?
A: All Aerie Semesters are physically challenging. Students will carry 30-60 lb backpacks 6-8 miles per day during certain sections of the program. During these days, they may climb 2000-3000 vertical feet and will be living at elevations of 3000-8000 feet above sea level. They will carry patient litters and gear across uneven terrain and rivers and will be expected to swim and climb. You will work outdoors in snow, rain and ice and will be expected to maintain a positive learning attitude regardless of the weather or activity. Great athletic, climbing, skiing or swimming experience are not necessary to successfully complete the program; however, all of these activities require physical conditioning conducive to constant movement in these environments.

The Red Card “arduous pack test” involves walking 3 miles carrying a 45 pound pack in under 45 minutes. If you cannot, or choose not, to complete this pack test, you will not receive a Red Card but you will still be able to complete the Semester and receive UM credits. Please contact us if you have any concerns.

Q: What is the food like?
A: The food varies according to the locations where the Spring Semester takes place. In Mastatal, the primarily vegetarian meals are made almost entirely from local Costa Rican ingredients, largely based around rice, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables. Other features include fresh morning coffee, fresh eggs and homemade granola. A nearby one-woman café sells fish, chicken and pork dishes to satisfy carnivorous appetites. At Rafiki, the food is similar but with more emphasis on meat. In Montana, at the Rich Ranch, expect hearty meals prepared fresh each day, with abundant coffee and snacks. On weekends in Montana, food will be available for students to prepare themselves. In Missoula, you will be supplied groceries - groups typically form to cook for yourselves because hospital and ambulance shifts vary so much that sit-down meals are hard to schedule. We can always accommodate vegetarians; please let the Aerie office know about other dietary restrictions (which may not be possible to accommodate).


Q: What credits are offered and how do I get my university to transfer the Semester credits?

  • For a general overview of the credits offered by the Semester, click here. The Semesters all consist of three, five-credit upper-division courses from the University of Montana: Emergency Medical Technician and Incident Management; Wilderness Medicine and Risk Management; and Wilderness Rescue and Survival Skills. Please write us for more information, and feel free to forward the syllabi to your advisor for review.
  • The issue of transferring credits is determined by your advisor and your university's registrar. That said, most schools allow transfer of credits from other degree-granting institutions. Our students receive official transcripts from the University of Montana, as if they had taken classes on campus. That would be important information for your advisor to know.
  • Second, assuming your university will accept transfer credits from UM, your advisor will need to make a determination about HOW the credits will transfer to your degree. They may come in as upper-division electives, or your advisor may agree to use them towards a specific degree requirement.

Q: Will there be tests and homework?
A: Yes. Homework is assigned each night and initially may include up to 100 pages of reading per night. At least two written exams are given each week in addition to a weekly practical exam.

Q: Is this program considered an "international program" by university standards?

A: Aerie's Spring Semester is approved by the University of Montana's Office of International Programs (OIP) as a Faculty Directed Program and students in UM's Global Leadership Initiative, required to pursue a study abroad program, can choose an Aerie Semester as one of those options.

Q: What does the "online coursework" consist of?
A: Because of the heavy reading load in the National Registry EMT text, we assign chapters of reading and associated online quizzes during each of the three weeks preceding the start of each Semester. Students can complete this work wherever they happen to be, as long as they have internet access to submit their quiz answers. Grades for these quizzes count towards the final score in the Emergency Medical Technician and Incident Management course.

Q: What are Aerie’s academic expectations?
A: High. Aerie’s course policies outline our academic expectations; you will be given a handbook outlining our course policies once you have been accepted into the Semester. Students must receive passing grades on weekly exams to be eligible to test for the National Registry final exam; this is not an Aerie policy – it is a National Registry policy. Poor grades may result in expulsion from the program and may result in not being able to test for, or receive, your National Registry EMT certification.

Q: How long do the certifications last, who issues them, what are the recertification requirements, and what types of jobs and/or further opportunities can I get with the experiences and certifications the Semester offers?
A: The certifications and experiences the Semester offers are unique, professional-level, and rewarding, designed specifically for the highly competitive professional outdoor and medical/ nursing/ PA ambitions of our students. The following list shows where our students use their certifications, but please remember that there are no guarantees that any organization or school is going to hire or admit you based on a certification or transcript.

  • Aerie Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT) certification: Aerie WEMT certifications last for two years. To recertify, WEMTs need to also recertify their urban EMT (see next bullet) and complete 8 additional hours of wilderness-specific training. For jobs, the National Park Service, US Forest Service, many guiding and outdoor organizations such as NOLS, Outward Bound and the Student Conservation Association look for Wilderness EMTs to lead their backcountry crews. Wilderness EMTs must be current urban/ state/ National Registry EMTs to keep their "wilderness" certifications.
  • National Registry EMT (NREMT) certification. NREMT certifications are valid for two years. To recertify, NREMTs must complete 48 hours of continuing education, a 24 hour EMT refresher, and have six months' affiliation with an agency providing EMT-level care. These requirements are listed here. This is the standard certification for working on an ambulance or in an Emergency Room as a Technician in many parts of the US. If you are looking to see what your home state requires for EMT licensure/ certification, click here. Many ambulances around the US require EMTs to be 21 years old to drive the ambulance.
  • State of Montana EMT certification is offered through the Montana Board of Medical Examiners. Montana EMTs must recertify every two years, complete 48 hours of continuing education, a 24 hour EMT refresher class, and have 6 months' affiliation with an agency providing EMT-level care. You do not need your Montana EMT certification if you are not planning on working in Montana as an EMT. This is the certification you will need if you want to work as an EMT in the state of Montana.
  • American Heart Association Healthcare Provider CPR certification. This certification lasts for two years and is recertified by taking a 2-8 hour refresher course. This is the highest level of CPR certification, is required for EMTs, and can be used for any job requiring CPR certification.
  • Recreation Avalanche 1 training by the American Avalanche Association. This training prepares our students to assess hazards in a mountainous, snow environment and similarly prepares them to respond to and manage avalanche injuries. This training is invaluable for any backcountry guide or traveler in a snow environment.
  • Whitewater/Flood Rescue Technician certification, offered by the Whitewater Rescue Institute. W/FRT certification lasts three years and is recertified by taking another course. Other course details can be found here. This certification is often required for raft and/ or river guides.
  • The wildlands firefighting certifications, listed below, are offered through Aerie, the National Wildland Coordinating Group (NWCG), and FEMA. They vary in duration of certification.
  • Wilderness Survival. There is no certification for wilderness survival training. It's stuff you need to know to keep yourself and others alive.
  • Wilderness Navigation. The wilderness navigation skills are essential knowledge for any outdoor traveler and do not come with a specific certification.
  • Extensive Medical Clinical Experience Running a Free Health Clinic and Observing on an Ambulance and in the emergency room. Students will complete approximately 60 hours of clinical observation during the Semester, which our graduates often use in applications for medical/ nursing and PA school.

Q: Do I need to be enrolled in college to participate in the Semester?
A: No, participants do not need to be university students to enroll. However, they may need to be enrolled to receive federal financial aid and university sponsored health insurance.

Q: Are there any prerequisites for the Semester?
A: Students must be ready for an intense, challenging experience, but there are no specific academic prerequisites. Many of our best students have had no previous medical training. Students must be 18 years of age. In addition, to test for and receive National Registry EMT certification, students must have a high school diploma/ GED and have no current felony convictions. Otherwise, we expect students to arrive with a solid work ethic, open mind and positive attitude.

Q: What are the refund policies for the Semester?

A: No refunds are given for any reason, including sickness, family emergencies, or expulsion from the program. For this reason, we STRONGLY encourage all participants to have travel and health insurance to cover the possibility of their not completing the program. Aerie recommends contacting Global Rescue for this insurance. In the event that a student leaves the program early, whether voluntarily or at Aerie's discretion, all expenses associated with their departure from the program, including airfare, travel to and from field sites to airports/ bus facilities, and health costs, are solely the student's responsibility. If, for example, a student is injured or becomes ill and they are unable to complete some or all of the program, they will be responsible for their own food, housing and any other costs associated with their recovery.


Our Semester programs have inherent risk. Aerie believes that students learn best when they are involved in realistic, engaging scenarios and practical sessions. As a result we simulate these environments in our classroom scenarios and head out into the field to swim, hike, snowshoe, carry heavy packs and cross difficult terrain depending on the season and location. In addition, the international components of the Semester have their own unique risks, including significant distance from advanced medical care as well as potential exposure to illness during clinical rotations. The risks we face during these exercises are similar to those faced in an austere, remote environment. We encourage you to talk with our staff about risks inherent in our training programs before enrolling. Depending on course location, injuries and illnesses that occur may require prolonged evacuations and may necessitate repatriation to the United States.

Please do not register for any Aerie course, particularly our Semesters, without exploring, understanding and accepting these risks.