Imagine this: you’re walking down a trail in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness surrounded by stunning mountain views and glaciers as far as the eye can see. You’ve got a small group with you and you’re all out on a week-long backpacking trip. Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?
But do you know what the most amazing part of this trip is? You’re getting paid to be there.
Welcome to the world of being an outdoor adventure guide, where you leave the cubicle behind and turn the mountains, the desert, and the ocean into your office. Instead of sitting in front of a computer screen from 9 to 5 every day, you get to hike, bike, climb, and paddle to earn a living.
Being an outdoor adventure guide is a fantastic occupation, so it’s no surprise that people want to do it. Instead of waiting for the weekend to come around so you can get outside, you get to be out there, day in and day out and you even get paid to do it. What could be better?
That being said, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be an outdoor adventure guide and to work in the industry. If you’ve found yourself on this page, chances are pretty high that you’re looking to break into the outdoor guiding industry and need some advice on where to start. That’s where we come in.
As an experienced outdoor guide and educator, I have years of experience working in the outdoors, so I’m here to give you a truthful, realistic representation of what it’s like to turn the mountains into your office. There won’t be any salesy, misleading information about what it’s like to work in the outdoors, just an honest, truthful perspective about outdoor guiding and education as a profession. Let’s get to it!
What is an outdoor adventure guide?
Okay, first things first – what exactly is an outdoor adventure guide? While many people think that outdoor adventure guides just take people out on a backpacking trip, there’s actually a lot more that goes into the job than pitching tents and roasting s’mores by the fire (though that is a nice perk!).
It turns out that the world of outdoor adventure guiding jobs is a diverse one, so there are different subsets of the industry out there that work better for different individuals. While some of us prefer to work longer, multi-day or month-long trips to exotic destinations, others prefer to guide half-day excursions in our backyard hills. Thus, instead of pretending as if I can possibly provide you with a one-size-fits-all definition for what an outdoor adventure guide is, let’s look at the main tasks that an outdoor adventure guide will normally have to do.
Customer service seems to be the part of outdoor adventure guiding that people like to gloss over when they wax poetic about the occupation. The fact of the matter is that there would be no guiding if it weren’t for our guests, clients, students, participants, or whatever your particular organization chooses to call the people that you guide into the backcountry.
If you think outdoor adventure guiding is all about you having fun, think again. Sure, you’re probably going to have a fantastic time out there, but your job is to facilitate an amazing experience for your guests, not the other way around. As an outdoor adventure guide, you’ll get to work with many different people, all with different needs and expectations.
Knowing how to communicate well, solve problems, work through difficult interpersonal dynamics, and create experiences that meet your clients’ expectations is all part of the job. Plus, depending on the mission of your organization and the types of trips you’re working, you may need to even set up tents for your clients, cook their food, and take charge of all of the chores around camp with a smile on your face. It’s all part of customer service and all part of guiding.
As an outdoor adventure guide, at some point, you’ll be expected to educate your clients on something. Whether it’s the local flora and fauna, the geology of the region, the human history of an area, or just a bunch of fun whale jokes, your guests will almost certainly expect to learn something while you’re out and about. Although some guests will prefer to just hike in silence for the day, most will want to have some sort of conversation and are keen to learn as much as you can possibly teach them during your trip, especially when it comes to technical outdoor skills.
Leadership and Decision Making
Outdoor adventure guides usually work either alone or as part of a small guiding team, but regardless of how you operate, your guests will look to you as the ultimate source of leadership and decision making. Sure, some won’t want you to tell them what to do, but if things go south for whatever reason, you’re the responsible person who needs to take a stance and make important decisions when they matter most.
What’s the difference between outdoor guiding and outdoor education?
One of the things that confuses people most about outdoor adventure guiding is how it’s both similar and different to outdoor education. While people like to conflate these terms, they are many significant differences between these two sections of the outdoor industry.
The main difference between working as an outdoor guide and an outdoor educator is that as an educator, your main task is to facilitate learning and growth in your students. While you will almost certainly do some of this as an outdoor guide, guiding is focused more on creating and leading people on awesome experiences and less on helping them become self-sufficient outdoors people in their own right.
Additionally, as an outdoor educator, one is also tasked with teaching a formal curriculum to students that may go beyond the world of technical outdoor skills. Often this includes some sort of leadership or interpersonal skills development. Thus, if you’re more interested in teaching through and in the outdoors and building important growth-oriented relationships with students, outdoor education might be career for you. On the other hand, if you’d rather focus more on facilitating high-quality experiences for guests and less on the teaching side of things than outdoor guiding might be a better option.
That being said, one can certainly work in both outdoor guiding and outdoor education (I’m one of these people), so you don’t have to choose just one career path. However, it’s helpful to focus on one of these two disciplines as you get started so you can build your skills in a specific area of the outdoor industry before diversifying.
Where can I work as an outdoor adventure guide?
One of the best parts about working as an outdoor adventure guide is that you can work pretty much anywhere in the world! If there is an outdoor space near you, then there are outdoor guiding and education jobs near you, too.
This is great news for those of us with geographically-constrained lives as it means we can work in the outdoors and do what we love without having to travel too much. At the same time, however, outdoor guiding and education also provide endless opportunities to travel and see the world’s most beautiful places, once you get a foot in the door. The possibilities are really endless in the outdoor industry.
Outdoor Guide Salary
How much do outdoor adventure guides make?
This is a tricky question. There is a very wide range of possible wages for an outdoor guide and educator depending on your qualifications and experience, where you work, and who you work for.
While some people will argue that low wages are the price you pay for such a fun job, even those of us in the outdoor industry have bills to pay and lives to live, so money matters, especially when it comes to equitable access to jobs in the outdoors for people without a family-sponsored financial safety net.
The first thing to know about wages as an outdoor guide or educator is that you will almost always be paid on a per diem basis when you work in the field (as in not in the administrative office). This is different than most other jobs, where you’re paid hourly or are given a salary.
There are many reasons why being paid per diem makes sense as an outdoor guide, but this is most apparent when we work on multi-day trips. Instead of trying to figure out whether or not we should be getting paid as we sleep (because we are “on call,” right?) most organizations will just give us a daily rate and leave it at that.
Additionally, in the outdoor guiding world, tips are fairly common (at least in the United States), so this makes up for a sometimes substantial amount of income. Outdoor educators rarely, if ever, receive any tips.
That being said, outdoor guide and educators usually make between $50-$600 a day. As you can see this is a HUGE range, so as someone trying to break into the industry, this can be a daunting thing to come to terms with, especially since many organizations won’t tell you outright what they plan to pay their employees, so you often get sucked into the idea of a job only to be disappointed at the low wages.
So what accounts for this huge range in wages in the industry? Why are some people paid so little and other people paid hundreds of dollars more?
As you might expect, people on the lower end of the wage scale tend to be new to the industry, with relatively few qualifications and experience. Often, these people are working in a summer camp-type job that has some sort of outdoor trip program.
Usually, these organizations rationalize their absurdly low wages by saying that they provide training and room and board for the duration of your contract. Whether or not this is fair is another discussion entirely, but $50-75 a day a fairly common wage for the lowest paid people in our profession in the United States.
The next wage bracket is from $75-$125 a day, and this tends to include newer guides and outdoor educators working for mid-large size companies. Often these jobs require guides to already have some skills and experience, as well as a number of different certifications. While this wage isn’t amazing, jobs in the industry at this level of the pay scale often include housing or are expedition-based, so you don’t have any real expenses while you’re working.
The $125-225 a day wage bracket is where you find guiding jobs that, for the most part, require a substantial amount of experience and qualifications. It’s relatively unheard of for a new outdoor guide or educator to break into the industry without any prior work experience and to get paid at these rates. Perhaps if you’ve summited Everest 42 times, someone might give you a break, but usually, you need to commit some time to the industry to move up to this wage bracket.
Above $225 a day, you need to have a lot of experience and be willing to travel to remote destinations for weeks and months at a time. Usually, anyone breaking into the $400 or $500 a day wage bracket has been in the industry for decades, has the highest certifications available, and is guiding a high-risk trip in a really remote place. Think Antarctica or Everest. These jobs are hard to come by, but they’re pretty awesome, so they’re something to strive for if that’s the sort of thing you’re interested in.
What is life like for an outdoor adventure guide?
There are so many different outdoor adventure guiding jobs out there that it’s difficult to offer a single answer for what life is like in the industry. Really, it depends on if you’re working single day or multi-day trips and if you’re working a single job or many seasonal gigs.
While some of us are entrepreneurial enough to start our own business and make our own schedule, this is generally only possible for the more experienced among us so we won’t focus on those details here.
When you work mostly single day trips, you’ll often get a schedule from your employer that lists the trips you’ll be working for the next month or week. You’ll definitely need to be flexible as booking and weather considerations will change your schedule at the last minute. Generally, if you work a single day trip, you’ll show up in the morning, get the gear and logistics sorted out for your day, meet your clients, give them a brief orientation to the trip, and then get on the road to maximize your time in the field. After a day of guiding, whether it be a short kayak trip, a day hike, or a single pitch climbing day, you’ll return back to the shop and clean up your gear before heading home for the day.
If you work longer trips you’ll have more prep to do before you go out into the field. Depending on the trips your work and the company that you work for, you may have up to four days of pre-trip training and briefing before you ever meet your clients or students. After your trip, you’ll usually have a day or two of unpacking, cleaning, and debriefing before you get to call it a wrap.
Moreover, if you work for a number of different companies like I do, you’ll find that you bounce around a lot from contract to contract. Often these contracts are a few days to a few months long and are settled months ahead of time, but sometimes you’ll find that you get a last minute call asking you to fill in for another staff member that’s been injured or had a family emergency and can no longer work. So, while one minute you might be looking forward to a week of watching Netflix around the house, the next, you might be packing your bags for a last minute work opportunity in New Zealand. Things could certainly be worse!
How do I get started as an outdoor adventure guide or outdoor educator?
Getting started in the outdoor adventure guiding or outdoor education industry can seem like a daunting task, but the best place to begin is with developing your own personal competency in the outdoors. No one will hire you to be a climbing guide if you’re not at least a decent climber, so your personal skills are really important, especially when you’re starting to make a name for yourself.
While this doesn’t mean you need to have climbed Aconcagua 45 times to be able to lead a group of kids on an overnight backpacking trip, you should have the skills and expertise necessary to feel comfortable in a diversity of adverse outdoor situations. That being said, while there’s nothing stopping you from working in a number of different disciplines (e.g. kayak guiding, mountaineering guiding, sailing instructor), it’s best to focus your efforts on one particular discipline as you start out so you can build a specific skill set and reputation to market yourself with.
Additionally, when you’re getting started, you’ll want to develop a good background in the types of jobs you’ll be applying for. If you’re looking to guide week-long backpacking trips in the Wind River Range of Wyoming as your first guiding gig, it’d probably be helpful if you have lots of experience going on week-long personal backpacking trips in the Wind River Range. As a more experienced guide, you can start to look for work in places you’ve never been to, but this sort of improvising and style of guiding requires a high baseline of skills and competencies that you need to develop during your career.
The short answer: go outside and have fun. You won’t become an outdoor guide if you sit at home!
What skills are required to be an outdoor adventure guide or outdoor educator?
Although some people think that working as an outdoor guide means you get to go on holiday all the time and just hang out outside, there’s a lot that goes into the profession. As we’ve mentioned previously, customer service skills, teaching skills, and leadership skills are all essential parts of being an outdoor adventure guide or educator.
Additionally, as you might imagine, you’ll need a solid baseline of outdoor living and technical skills to get a job in the industry. Thus, it’s important to work on your own personal outdoor living skills (cooking skills are a huge plus!) before you start to look for employment in the outdoors. The last thing you’d want is to show up on the first day of your new job and not be able to figure out how to pitch the tent.
That being said, most jobs will offer some sort of pre-employment training or on-the-job skills development, so many entry-level jobs won’t expect you to be perfect at everything. But, it doesn’t hurt to show up to your new job confident in your own skills, yet humble enough to be willing to learn and grow as you gain more experience!
What certifications or qualifications do I need to be an outdoor adventure guide?
The world of outdoor certifications and qualifications in the United States is a murky one. The reality is that there are no federally required certifications for outdoor guiding in the United States, but there are a few that you will almost certainly need to land your dream job. However, no one certification will get you a job without the outdoor experience to go with it, so don’t go out and chase certifications when you should be spending time outside. Here are some certifications that you’ll come across as you gain experience in the industry:
Almost every job in the outdoors will require some sort of first aid qualification. While some will accept a one day American Red Cross course, most will want, at an absolute minimum, a wilderness first aid (WFA) certification. If you really want to make yourself marketable and have more work opportunities, you’ll want to get certified at the wilderness first responder (WFR) level or even the wilderness EMT (W-EMT) level.
As a wilderness medicine instructor and medical professional, I think everyone should have some sort of medical training regardless of whether or not you’re trying to work as a guide, so these certifications are really just important to have for your life in the outdoors but are even more critical as an outdoor professional. You can take wilderness medicine classes with many different organizations, though the three best options in the United States are NOLS, SOLO, and WMA.
Rock, Ice, and Alpine Climbing
If you want to be a climbing guide, you should definitely seek out training courses and certification, even if you’ve been climbing for years. Recreational climbing is very different from climbing as a guide, so seeking out qualified instruction is really important as you enter the industry. The best place to get training as a climbing guide in the United States is through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), the US’ member organization in the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA). The AMGA offers courses and certifications for climbing guides and instructors, as well as ski guides.
If you want to work on the water, you should seek out qualifications through the American Canoe Association (ACA) or the British Canoe Union (BCU), both of which offer an extensive series of training and rescue courses for canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and more!
Sailing and Powerboats
If sailing is your jam, then you can seek out qualifications with the American Sailing Association (ASA) or the Royal Yachting Association (RYA). The RYA is better known on an international scale and offers both shore and water-based courses, many of which lead to professional qualifications that can be used around the world.
If you want to get specifically into outdoor education, you can look to take an outdoor educator course through NOLS or Outward Bound. Course through these world leaders in outdoor education will help you develop the skills you need to work in the industry while meeting other like-minded outdoor-oriented people.
Another option is to pursue an academic degree in outdoor education. A number of schools in the United States and abroad offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field. Some schools, like Sterling College in Vermont and SUNY Plattsburgh in New York, offer undergraduate majors in outdoor education in recreation, while many other colleges, such as Hamilton College and Dartmouth have high-quality non-academic outdoor programs on campus.
You can also seek out a master’s or Ph.D. in outdoor education and adventure education through a number of institutions, such as Prescott College, The University of Edinburgh, and Alaska Pacific University.
How do I find an outdoor adventure guiding or education job?
Outdoor guiding and education organizations are always looking for new employees, so if you’re looking for a job in the industry, it’s always a good time to start! That being said, the largest need for entry-level outdoor guides and educators is during your hemisphere’s summer season, as this is when most people are looking to get outside.
As a new outdoor guide or educator, you’ll almost certainly need to start out with seasonal gigs in the summertime, as year-round and off-season work that’s not a ski resort is harder to come by and easier to get if you’re a seasoned outdoor professional. If you’re looking for jobs, some of the best places to start are on outdoor job sites, such as:
- Association for Experiential Education (AEE) Jobs Clearinghouse
- NOLS Jobsnetwork (must be a NOLS alum to get access)
- Backdoor Jobs
- North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Jobs
If you’re not having luck with any of those sites, you can also join a selection of different Facebook and other social media groups dedicated to posting job opportunities in the outdoor industry. The best way to find these is to search “outdoor instructor jobs,” “outdoor education jobs,” or some other combination of those words into the Facebook search bar and you’ll certainly find a few groups to join!
What kind of resume do I need to apply for an outdoor adventure guiding job?
Once you’ve found your dream job, it’s time to start applying and getting your name out there. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that there are a lot of people looking to get into the industry, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the first few jobs you apply to. Keep working at it, developing your skills, and bolstering your resume.
That being said, when you apply for jobs in the outdoor industry, you’ll want to have a well-written, thoroughly proofread professional resume ready to go. It’s helpful to have a targeted resume that’s specific to the outdoor industry. This means that you can probably leave off the fact that you were in the drama club in 5th grade or that you once worked as an office assistant unless you can make a compelling argument as to why this is important information that should be included.
Even if you don’t already have outdoor education experience, you can highlight the relevant experience you do have on your resume, such as any certifications you have or any major trips you’ve done. Just make sure it’s a professional looking resume that’s truthful and proofread. You won’t win anyone over with spelling mistakes.
You’ll also want to start pulling together what’s known as an “outdoor resume,” which can be helpful if you’re looking to demonstrate your skills and experience in a specific activity, like backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, or paddling. There are many different ways to make an outdoor resume, but basically, yours should list all of the major trips you’ve done, any important climbs, river descents, ski descents, or any similar accomplishment, as well as your relevant certifications.
What’s important to include is whether or not the things you list on your outdoor resume are personal trips, trips you were guided on, and trips you guided/led as a professional. You should also include mileage and elevation gain/lost (for backpacking), route/river difficulty (for climbing and paddling), rough dates, and who you were with. All of this information helps build your credibility as an outdoor professional and can help you land your first gig.
Is outdoor adventure guiding right for me?
Ultimately, outdoor adventure guiding is not for everyone, but if it’s the right fit for you, it can be one of the most rewarding and exciting jobs you’ll get to do. If you love spending time outside and want to share the joy of the outdoors with others, outdoor adventure guiding and education just might be for you!
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