Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Become an Outdoor Guide

Thanks very much to Les Stroud I suddenly one day realized that my life's calling is to become a wilderness guide. Since then I have found myself tumbling through a variety of outdoor related activities, classes, certifications, and trips. Here I will lay out what I have come to understand as some fundamentals of getting your foot in the outdoor education and leadership door.

Nothing can replace experience, especially on an outdoor guide's resume. If you're applying to a backpacking leader position, you had better have a decent list of personal trips to prove that you have the fundamental skills necessary to be a backpacking guide. The same applies to any other type of outdoor leadership role from canoeing to rock climbing. Get out there and practice your outdoor skills!

Wilderness Medicine
It's a industry standard that outdoor guides and trip leaders have wilderness medicine qualifications. Your local chapter of the American Red Cross will offer Wilderness First Aid. This will usually suffice at first but true professionals in the field keep a minimum certification of Wilderness First Responder. Here's a list of wilderness medicine qualifications you might consider, from least in-depth to most difficult.

  1. Wilderness First Aid (WFA)
  2. Wilderness First Responder (WFR)
  3. Wilderness EMT (WEMT)
  4. Wilderness Paramedic (WEMT-P)
Of course you'll want to be lifeguard certified and AED & CPR, too. It's not necessary to become qualified in each of the four listed wilderness certifications. What I mean is, if you are a WEMT, then it is implied that you are also a WFR and WFA. Get it? Look for your wilderness medicine certifications from reputable companies, the biggest of these being NOLS WMI.

Outdoor Certifications
Certifications are becoming your friends, aren't they? On top of wilderness medicine certs, you're going to need activity specific certifications. For example if you plan to be a rock wall / high ropes leader at a summer camp, then it's almost guaranteed that you'll need a certification from ACCT. There is Swift Water Rescue  certification for anyone who plans to be a river guide, but often employers will provide the certification for qualified employees so check before you pay for it on your own. Technical and high angle rescue are great certifications to get if you want to be a climbing guide / instructor. There are a myriad more certifications that you might run into while exploring the outdoor leadership field, leave a comment with any others you've had experience with.

Where to Look for Jobs
Finding outdoor jobs and leadership positions is actually pretty simple. Landing the job is another matter.  Here are a few links that will help you find an outdoor position. Until you can land a year-round position (which are hard to find as an outdoor guide) you might want to consider working at camps and guide schools for the summer and spending your winters working ski resorts. Doesn't sound too bad, does it?

American Camp Association
Cool Works
Indiana Univeristy Outdoor Jobs Resource
Hiking Jobs

Outdoor Guide Degrees
If you're like me then you have a notion so deeply ingrained in you by society that you can't shake: you have to get a degree to be successful in the modern world. Maybe it's true, maybe not. Regardless, the outdoor education and guide service industry has grown large enough to have actual degrees offered by universities and colleges around the world. You can get a Bachelor's in "How to be a cool wilderness guy". That's pretty cool if you ask me. Central Wyoming College has an entire section of outdoor education degrees here. Central Wyoming's programs are set up to be half in the classroom and half NOLS courses. You have to take NOLS courses to pass college??? Yes. There are several other major universities and colleges offering outdoor education and leadership programs.

NOLS & Outward Bound

If you've thought about being a trip leader or outdoor educator then you must already know about both of these. Right? They're the holy grail schools of wilderness education. They offer recreational endeavors, as well as courses training people who want to be outdoor educators and leaders. NOLS has several and they call it "Teaching the Teachers". They have hefty price tags but to outdoor employers, nothing says qualified like a NOLS semester. Especially when combined with person experience, and a outdoor education degree.

I hope you all find this useful, leave comments with questions or input. If you're a professional in the field tell us what helped you and what you'd suggest for the newest outdoor educators and leaders. Good luck all!


  1. this is all very helpful, thank you :)

  2. I loved your article! I have always been a fan of Les Stroud and his adventures. I've wanted a career in the outdoors field for the longest time. I have a little experience with canoeing but most of my experience lies in fishing. My parents really aren't the outdoors types (they'd rather me have a safe and secure job in a law office)so fishing is really the only outdoors experience I have. I usually go 3 times a week rain or shine. I guess my question is would I do well in a college that teaches an outdoor adventure course? They have a camp to test interpersonal skills and over all readiness for the course. They also require a letter(s) of recommendation. after the camp they rank you and tell you if you made the course or not. Would I have a chance based on the information I have given you? This is something I've been thinking of for a while, but I want to be sure I have a chance before I spend money on the camp, because I know experience means a lot, but I don't have too much in that area. any help is much appreciated as I don't have the support and help I really need at home. thanks again!

  3. This was extremely helpful, thankyou! One question I do have is where to begin? I will be transferring next fall to start my degree for Outdoor Leadership, but aside from my own personal adventure trips I haven't had experience. I feel I have experience with the outdoors but nothing that is "resume worthy."

  4. Ashley,

    Where are you transferring to for your degree? There are a couple ways to learn outdoor education (or any content for that matter). Formal education is often the most pertinent to a resume and come in the form of classes, courses, and post secondary schooling. Informal education, uniquely to outdoor education, is also important too. I have a second page of my resume specifically for personal trips, climbing, hiking, canyoneering, adventure races, etc. Employers find this equally or more important when considering outdoor education and outdoor adventure professionals. You may find more information at my current website,

    Feel free to contact me through that for any more information.

  5. AnonymousJuly 01, 2014

    This is great information, thank you for writing all this.
    I would like to know what you think if I tell you that I would like to start a career in outdoor sports and activities at 39 years old? I do run, swim and bike for about 3 hours every other day but I have no experience in any other outdoor sports.
    I am interested in canoe kayaking, skiing, dog sledding and snow activities.
    If you think I still have a chance to a career change in outdoor sport at my age, where do I start?
    Thanks a lot!
    John from Belgium


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