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How can I become a hiking 'professional'?
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James Howell
(Sir-Privywinks) - F

Locale: Midwest
How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 14:17:03 MDT Print View

I'm currently winding my way through college and it seems like a good time to start thinking about what I'd like to be when I grow up. Seeing as I love hiking, canoeing, trees, and pretending I know what I'm talking about, I thought I might enjoy working as a professional wilderness guide of some sort.

Unfortunately, finding information on just how someone would DO that has proven needlessly difficult. I love the outdoors, I've taken extensive classes in wilderness survival (at the behest of the US Air Force), and I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2007. What I'd like to do is apply my knowledge and interest in the outdoors to some sort of gainful employment.

Can anybody help me out? What kinds of jobs are out there? Most of what I've seen are summer jobs teaching 'how to not flip the canoe' courses to at-risk (i.e. knife-wielding) teens, which doesn't seem very appealing. Places like REI offer expeditions to go high-altitude whitewater bungee kayaking in Canada, and somebody's got to lead these trips, right? Are there certification courses of some sort I could take to help me along?

Any help would be greatly appreciated, thanks!

Jeff Jeff
(TwoFortyJeff) - F
Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 18:35:46 MDT Print View

I wouldn't recommend it. I can only speak for myself, but it's not as fun when you do it for a living. I tried, but found that I enjoyed having a career a lot more. I now enjoy my trips a lot more as well. A good balance would be to get a job for part of the year and do outdoors related volunteer work outside of that.

And now to answer your question, how much volunteer work have you done, to get your foot in the door? Are you a WFR? That is pretty much mandatory.

If you are leading trips, it's not going to be as much as going out on your own. And in the off time, you'll end up doing the exact opposite as what you were doing for work.

I hope you can find your happy medium though. It took me a year to find mine.

Edited by TwoFortyJeff on 05/05/2009 18:38:57 MDT.

Devin Montgomery
(dsmontgomery) - MLife

Locale: one snowball away from big trouble
Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 19:28:52 MDT Print View

James,
Go for it! Careers are lame. Just do your research, like you appear to be, so you know what you're getting yourself into.

First off, you can always check out NOLS, they have various opportunities from internships to instructor training courses. Hopefully Mike Clelland! will see this thread and can give you the skinny on both what they offer and what being an instructor is like.

Various colleges (maybe your own) also offer outdoor courses and they have profession staff that lead many of them, or at least train students to.

I also know several folks who take on seasonal work like raft guiding or ski patrol, then do something like bartending or working at an outfitter during the off season. In my beloved home of WV, some people do both - rafting in the summer, skiing in the winter, shuttling between Canaan Valley and the New River. Jerks.

As far as at-risk teens go, it's not for everybody, but two of the best people I know have spent a good deal of time doing that. It was an ultra-commitment, but they loved it, and will tell you in a second that it has changed their own lives for the better.

Overall, I think you're looking in the right place when it comes to a job in the outdoors - instructing, guiding. From the subject line, I first thought you were wanting to be a sponsored athlete. Again, Andrew Skurka could tell you more about doing that than I could, but they are few and far between. There are probably something like 1000 other outdoor jobs for every 1 sponsored athlete. Heck, that's probably a generous estimate.

Edited by dsmontgomery on 05/05/2009 19:29:28 MDT.

James Howell
(Sir-Privywinks) - F

Locale: Midwest
Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 21:08:07 MDT Print View

I've been looking at NOLS, but I have a few concerns. Becoming an instructor for them sounds tantalizing, but I've heard the pay is far from enough to live on. It sounds like it may be a competitive field to get into as well (a Navy SEAL I am not).

Furthermore, I'll be starting my junior year of college this fall and I have to consider whether or not NOLS classes would be constructive towards earning a 4 year degree. I'm currently drawing veteran's benefits for college, but they're not about to hand me sacks of cash to run around in the mountains if it's not a part of some feasible educational goal. I'm not aware of any undergraduate degrees in the field of 'being outside' professionally.

I think my real question is, does it even make sense to pursue a job in wilderness instruction at all? From what I've heard so far it sounds like a career for the chronically underpaid and overworked, with far more applicants than actual jobs and a tendency to take all of the fun out of being in the woods. I'd love to get paid for being adventurous and active, but I don't want to reorient my education only to get stuck holding the bag with no way to make a living and having to go work as a manager at Wendy's.

Devin Montgomery
(dsmontgomery) - MLife

Locale: one snowball away from big trouble
Re: Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 21:20:01 MDT Print View

>From what I've heard so far it sounds like a career for the chronically underpaid and overworked, with far more applicants than actual jobs

That sounds about right.

John Whynot
(jdw01776)

Locale: Southeast Texas
Re: Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 21:28:14 MDT Print View

>>I'm not aware of any undergraduate degrees in the field of 'being outside' professionally.

What about degrees in areas such as "Outdoor Recreation Management" or "Outdoor Recreation Leadership", or even "Forestry". How about a career with the National Forest Service or National Park Service as a Ranger?

James Howell
(Sir-Privywinks) - F

Locale: Midwest
Re: Re: Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/05/2009 21:56:20 MDT Print View

That brings up another point. What kind of education/experience would be useful in trying to land a job with the DNR or National Forest Service? What positions might be available for a college graduate (as opposed to, say, running the visitor's center snack bar)?

Joe Geib
(joegeib) - F

Locale: Delaware & Lehigh Valleys
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/06/2009 05:55:28 MDT Print View

You might be better served to call your local state or national park and ask them about coursework and career advice to get into those modes of work.

David Bizup
(ScouterInAHammock) - F
Re: Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/06/2009 09:19:54 MDT Print View

> I'm not aware of any undergraduate degrees in the field of 'being outside' professionally.

Forestry, enviro science, biology, marine biology, geology, history, archaeology, paleontology, phys ed, astronomy, meteorology, landscape architecture ... the list goes on and on!

b s
(smyth) - F
Define "outside"... on 05/06/2009 09:34:11 MDT Print View

My enviro. science degree got me outside, but I spent five years collecting samples at superfund sites and gas stations. Not the "outdoors job" I thought I was signing up for.

I looked into park/forest service seasonal work for the last few months. Lots of jobs on usajobs.gov for bio sci technicians, hydrologists, and backcountry rangers. Problem is, getting the jobs in the prime locations seems pretty tough.

If you were willing to be a seasonal ranger, there seemed to be a lot of those positions too. You'd probably have to take one of these courses first. Could be a way to get your foot in the door.
http://www.anpr.org/academies.htm

Ali e
(barefootnavigator) - F

Locale: Outside
"How can I become a hiking 'professional'?" on 05/06/2009 09:34:41 MDT Print View

James, you have other options other than traditional. You could become a wildlife caretaker and educator see trackerschool.com. You could also become a photographer or cinematographerspecializing in nature. I was a private guide in Hawaii and I'm sure it would be just as easy anywhere. You are young and have time so find what appeals to you and stick to it. Be prepared to work for free in the beginning. I when I started as a photographer I was getting paid $10.00 per published photograph. Flickr and youtube are both good venues to get it out there. At 40 I have just decided to become a documentary film maker. I'm not going to go to school to learn but I have worked in the film industry for life so I have a basic Idea of how the system works again you have to be creative but you can do anything in this world you want to and get paid the money you need and deserve as long as you are willing to work for it. Good luck. Ali

Ali e
(barefootnavigator) - F

Locale: Outside
"How can I become a hiking 'professional'?" Best job in the world on 05/06/2009 10:22:16 MDT Print View

I just found this. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/5282765/British-adventurer-Ben-Southall-wins-best-job-in-the-world.html

shane sibert
(grinder) - F

Locale: P.N.W
Professional on 05/06/2009 11:19:59 MDT Print View

Start your own Hiking light forum, that seems it will make you a professional.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Hiking professional on 05/06/2009 15:15:28 MDT Print View

When you get down to it, being a hiking guide is more babysitting than anything.

I understand the desire to make doing what you love the thing you spend all your time doing. At this point I think I've decided the best way to achieve this is to have a regular job that does not take over my entire life with obligations and striving and an inability to take time off. Then in my free time, I'll find ways to keep the outdoors a big part of my life. Live simply and frugally so that my life energy isn't spent paying off debt for unimportant things but instead supports the things I'm truly passionate about, even if all I can manage is to dash off on a Friday evening and return on Sunday afternoon.

The trick is to find some kind of compromise and balance. Figure out what it is about hiking you like the most and try to work that into your choice in jobs. If what you like the most about hiking is catering to other people's whims, then maybe being a hiking guide is right for you. But if it's having time to think, then maybe a job in computer programming is better.

James Gealy
(surnailz) - F

Locale: White Mountains
Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/06/2009 16:11:18 MDT Print View

As it turns out there is a major called outdoor education at my school (University of NH) that allows you to get one of those jobs you may be looking for. Other universities have similar programs though finding a good one like we have here is sometimes difficult. I believe it is Arizona that has one of the other good ones.

Usually the courses range from summer and winter backpacking to climbing and even wilderness EMT. I have a couple of friends that have been through the program and it seems that it is best if you grab a degree is another field as well, ie. English, just in case. One of them will most likely work for NOLS and the other is trying to get into grad school for English.

More technical majors are useful too such as Forestry or environmental science. While these programs will get you outside, it may not be in the backpacking fashion exactly but rather testing superfund sites as the poster above or counting frogs.

For me, I've gone the route that some here recommend which is to get a steady job (engineering for me) and then go out on the weekends and such. I believe in the adage that says "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life," but perhaps toned down a bit to, "Do what you like for work so it isn't too bad and save what you love for yourself so you still love it down the road." I'm still in grad school though so take my advice with a grain of salt.

-jim

Mark McLauchlin
(markmclauchlin) - MLife

Locale: Western Australia
Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/06/2009 22:15:35 MDT Print View

I vote - go for it!, do what really makes you happy, money is a necessary evil.

If I had my time again I would have definately done something in the outdoors field.

Cheers

Ryan Linn
(ryan.c.linn)

Locale: Maine!
Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/07/2009 07:09:36 MDT Print View

James, I agree with you on that one. I've been working in outdoors-related jobs for a while and, while it doesn't make me enjoy the setting less, it does get frustrating when I can't just do my own thing. For example, working on a trail crew on the AT in Vermont last summer, it got kind of frustrating watching all the thru-hikers walk by while I was "stuck" in one spot for several weeks. Granted, I enjoyed what I was doing, but the temptation was always there.

A few of my friends seem to have the right idea: teaching during the fall/winter/spring, then doing a short outdoorsy job for part of the summer and still having time to do their own outdoors activities for the rest of the summer. A degree in outdoor education sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/07/2009 08:06:13 MDT Print View

James,
As you consider a direction bear in mind that if you go the 'independent' route a Large (30%-50%) part of your time will be spent marketing yourself. That means a web site, letters, phone calls, smoozing, and generally turning over a lot of rocks just to keep the cash flow moving.

Some people are very good at this and many are not.

Working for an entity that provides a paycheck has its advantages.

Dustin Fritterling
(medylami) - F

Locale: Southeast
yep on 05/07/2009 10:43:17 MDT Print View

A degree in Natural Resource Management would be a very versatile thing to have. With that, you could do the wildlife management thing, the EPA thing, the Nature Conservancy thing, and just about anything else. I should have switched tracks in school and gotten that degree instead of the wildlife.

Angela Zukowski
(AngelaZ) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: How can I become a hiking 'professional'? on 05/07/2009 11:01:16 MDT Print View

http://www.usajobs.gov/

when doing a job search, plug NPS into the "what" category - this will show you all current available jobs through the NPS and will give you an idea of degree requirements/job types.

Also, I have worked with a few former wilderness instructors (rock climbing and white water rafting) and both retired from the field to take jobs with steadier hours/opportunity for promotion/higher pay. If you're interested in doing expeditions with REI, I think probably it's pretty safe to assume they look for prior experience with other outfitters and WFR. The job continuity thing will pop up there, as well. If you're fine with seasonal work, you'll be fine with that though. And I have a feeling the pay is probably not spectacular... you are getting other job perks... just not tons of money. This is all speculation on my part, but it makes sense based on what I've heard. Correct me if I'm wrong, anyone.

Teaching is a great vocation if you like kids and won't burn out... lots of vacation time and a steady paycheck/insurance. Greg is right about the difficulties of free-lancing. For some (myself included) the self- promotion/contracts & billing/maintaining consistency can be very difficult. There is also wilderness therapy - you already stated an aversion to children with knives :) but you can also work with other populations such as children with autism, etc. That is not a very high paying field, though. And requires a lot of patience and empathy. Definitely take a look at how you work with other people before deciding on a career path. If you need lots of alone time or are easily affected by other people's moods and actions... teaching (both in a classroom or out in the field) is not going to be for you.