For many cube-dwellers, the idea of becoming an adventure guide seems romantic and appealing. But it also requires a surprising mix of experience and skills. And just loving the outdoors isn’t enough.
"When you’re responsible for a group of people and leading them in the outdoors, it’s a totally different experience than when you’re just responsible for yourself or your friends or your family," says Kelly Bricker, a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of Utah and the co-editor of "Adventure Programming and Travel for the 21st Century." "You have to be a people person. You have to want to serve individuals in this area and serve them in conditions that often aren’t ideal."
In fact, being an adventure guide can be about as far from the John Muir experience of hiking the wilderness in solitude as a person can get. "You’re with people the whole time," says Penny Jeffers, operations director for Outward Bound USA. "Especially if you’re guiding, you have very little private time. You probably are cooking for people and cleaning up all the time. These jobs are 24/7."
For these reasons, Jeffers recommends that people considering this career path first think about the kinds of people they’d like to serve. "The first thing out of your mouth should be, I want to work with kids. Or I want to work with adults. And then I happen to be using the outdoors as my venue," Jeffers says.
Many adventure trips focus on a particular discipline, so guides also need to possess a high level of technical skill in that area – be it sea kayaking, rafting, mountaineering or scuba diving. Developing advanced skills in a specialty can be a good way to break into the industry. "You probably want to focus in on an area that you really enjoy and really develop in that area technically to get your foot in the door," Bricker says.
A variety of organizations – including Outward Bound, the National Outdoor Leadership School, the American Canoe Association and the American Mountain Guides Association – offer both technical and instructor training. Several certifying bodies offer wilderness first responder training, which is typically another requirement. Language skills are also important for those looking to lead international tours.
Because much of the work that companies like Outward Bound do is seasonal, those who pursue guiding full-time sometimes pair it with another seasonal industry like the ski industry. Others are educators. "I know we have professors here in all fields [at the University of Utah] who go and become park rangers or raft guides for the summer," Bricker says.
But available career options continue to grow along with the expansion of the adventure travel industry. A 2013 study by the George Washington University and the Adventure Travel Trade Association found that the adventure travel market had grown at a 65 percent annual rate since 2009.
Common opportunities include working in summer camps, in university recreation programs, at resorts or lodges that offer adventure outings, in adaptive recreation through organizations like the National Abilities Center or at one of the growing variety of adventure travel companies.
"I honestly think that if you sat down and said, ‘I want to do this,’ we could probably match you with an organization or an aspect of the profession that’s doing that," Bricker says. "There are so many really cool opportunities out there. And sometimes, if people don’t see it, they create it."
In more seasonal, wilderness-focused roles, Jeffers notes that the bulk of guides are in their 20s and 30s but that people of all ages do it. Bricker personally went into management in the adventure travel industry and then into education in her 30s after years of working as an international adventure travel guide.
A growing number of universities offer two-year, four-year and graduate training programs in the area, typically within the parks, recreation and tourism department. Some offer specializations in working with specific populations or in areas such as entrepreneurship for those focused on starting their own business.
While some people work as guides for their entire lives, others transition into related management, education or entrepreneurial endeavors like Bricker did. She encourages people to think about that next step and plan for it.
"Maybe you need a marketing background or financial management so you can move into the business side," Bricker says. "Maybe you’re interested in developing curriculum, so you want to pursue a degree in higher education. Thinking about that is always going to help people set themselves up for success and to continue their interest."