You love the Great Outdoors. Weekends find you on the trail of the forests, mountains and deserts. You love to camp, winter and summer, right out of your tent, eating dehydrated food and purifying your water. If this sounds like a good description of you, then you might have what it takes to actually make a living by becoming a Wilderness Guide.
But, it takes much more than a love for wild areas to make a living as a guide. Real outdoor experience, wilderness medicine knowledge, orienteering, as well as great people skills are required to get hired to be on trail. Let’s explore the realities of getting paid to guide people in the open spaces.
It’s a given that you love hiking, backpacking, maybe even rock climbing or mountaineering. But where would you even look to make a living being out there?
For the majority of people interested in actually making a living in the great outdoors, they envision being a wilderness guide. Sometimes these positions can be referred to a Wilderness Guide or Backpacking Guide (but probably NOT a Mountain Guides, but we’ll discuss that later). These positions allow you to actually take clients out on the trail for anything from day hikes to multi-week excursions in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. Let’s get hired for that job.
It would be great if just loving the outdoors were enough to be a trail guide. Unfortunately, employers need much more than that.
To be hired, needless to say, outdoor experience is a must. Any candidate must show that have deep experience in multi-day hiking and camping in all four seasons. Winter camping skills? Check.
Be in good physical shape. Any backpacking guide must be able to carry a 40 to 50 pound pack up and down hills at a good clip is a baseline. Most employers will require a “hiking interview”, in which the candidate’s physical capabilities will be accessed. This “interview” can be 12 miles on trail or more. Don’t go into it unprepared.
Gear knowledge is also required. Not only backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, stoves, etc., but also survival gear and emergency medical gear knowledge. Communications equipment, like walkie-talkies and even more modern items like Nuna or GoTenna systems will set you apart, as well as experience with GPS equipment. If you need to get that knowledge, join a hiking group or trail club. It’s a great way to acquire the skills you need.
Knowing how to use a GPS is a starting point. All candidates should also have good orienteering skills (use of a compass and map), too. Do your best to become Wilderness First Responder certified and keep your First Aid and CPR certifications current. Potential employers will require these certifications.
Finally, any employer is going to expect you to have great people skills. Guides are asked to work with clients in very physically and emotionally challenging environments. Candidates need to be able to keep clients happy, engaged, motivated and calm. The clients have to have fun, and the guides’ job is to make sure they do.
Trail Guiding is one thing, but keep in mind that Mountain Guiding is another. The skillset for mountain guiding is much more specific. For that, any candidate must also show mountaineering skills, including glacier travel, crevasse rescue, rope and harness, advanced route finding, as just a start. We will devote an entire article to careers in mountain guiding in a future article.
You have all the skills, so where do you go to find the open positions? You may be surprised.
The most traditional route is to find the larger private guiding services for your region of the country. These are sometimes Outward Bound and Corporate Retreat style organizations all the way up to formal guiding services that specialize in longer excursions.
Keep in mind that the more formal guiding services usually work seasonally in one location and then move their services to another region as seasons change. This requires their guides to be able to relocate easily. Keep this in mind as you look for the right fit for you.
An emerging market for trail guides is in the Private Retreat genre. Private “health” retreats” are a growth market. These organizations usually offer difficult day hikes seven days a week that require guides. This is a great market to break into, but be aware that the clientele of this demographic requires the highest level of people skills and even hospitality experience.
Can you turn a love of the outdoors into a career? Absolutely. Is it like any other goal worth pursuing and will take work and educations to get there. Yes, again. But hey, you can’t beat the view from your office.