How does this sound… You’re paddling down a technical rapid in the beautiful boreal forest, the sun shining above. Around you are eight other people, visibility ecstatic as they take their turns. In the evening, you cook up a delicious pot of chilli and bake coffee cake over the fire, while everyone sits around and replays the day. You fall asleep in your tent under the stars. This isn’t vacation for you… this is your job.
If that sounds appealing, you may be interested in becoming an outdoor guide. Although there is a lot more to guiding than being outside and eating good food, and the job of an outdoor guide can be immensely rewarding.
If you’d like to start the journey towards becoming an outdoor guide, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll go over the things you need to do in order to start your outdoor career.
We’ll talk about certifications - which ones are required and which ones make you a more competitive applicant. We’ll also go over strategies to get outdoor experience, as most outfitters will require you to have some guiding experience before they hire you. Finally, we’ll cover some tips for applications and interviewing.
What do we know about becoming an outdoor guide?
I spent several summers working as an outdoor guide in Canada, leading trips between one day to four weeks in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Erin (the owner and operator of MHO Adventures) has layered in her experience as well, as she’s hired dozens of outdoor guides for her company over the years.
The River Roots Program
Throughout this article, we’ll reference The River Roots Program a few times. This is a 42 day Guide Development and Leadership Training Program operated by MHO Adventures in the spring. The goal is to create a learning opportunity for students to become well-rounded outdoor professionals, through various workshops, certification courses and a culminating 21-day expedition in the James Bay Watershed. The spring date is chosen so that graduates can seek employment in the industry for the summer paddling season.
Due to the high-risk nature of wilderness trips, outdoor guides are typically required to have several certifications. These certifications verify that the guide has the skills and knowledge required to safely guide people in the wilderness.
Wilderness First Aid
The specific certifications will vary between activities and guiding companies, but most will require a wilderness first aid certification.
The two most common certifications I’ve encountered are Wilderness Advanced First Aid (40-hour course) and the more advanced Wilderness First Responder (80-hour course). Generally speaking, the first one is required for outdoor educators taking participants on short wilderness trips. Whereas the second is required for outdoor guides taking clients on remote wilderness expeditions.
The implied standard these days is that guides have an 80hr WFR Certification, however, when I was a canoe guide for 2-week canoe trips, I had my Wilderness Advanced First Aid certification. When I started leading 4-week whitewater canoe trips, I upgraded to the Wilderness First Responder certification.
If you’re applying to outdoor guiding jobs, Wilderness Advanced First Aid is the minimum requirement, usually for assistant guides, whereas being a Wilderness First Responder makes you more competitive. That said, if you’re considering specific outfitters you can ask them directly what certifications they require.
In addition, you’ll likely need certifications specific to the activity you’ll be guiding. This is to prove you have the technical capabilities to lead the trips. I’ll use canoe guiding as an example, as that’s the field both MHO Adventures and I are most familiar with.
To become a canoe guide, I had to get a few paddling certifications:
Moving Water Tandem - This was a 2-day certification through Paddle Canada to demonstrate I could competently paddle whitewater rapids in a tandem canoe.
Whitewater Rescue Technician - This was a 4-day certification through Boreal River Rescue to learn how to perform rescues in whitewater. We learned how to use ropes to pull people out of rapids and how to swim safely in rapids; we were taught to build mechanical advantage systems which could be used to pull a pinned canoe out of a rapid.
ORCKA Canoe Tripping III - This is a certification through the Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayak Association to demonstrate I knew how to safely execute a canoe trip from start to finish. It included components like paddling and portaging, gear management, setting up camp, wilderness medicine and emergency preparedness, risk-taking, backcountry cooking and more.
The tricky part about this certification is that it had a lot of prerequisites. In addition to paddling skills prerequisites, the course requires:
- At least 25 nights of wilderness canoe tripping experience totalling 500kms or more
- At least one trip of 5 days or more
- At least 6 canoe trips in which the candidate was responsible for some of the organization and leadership
And just so you know, the River Roots program includes all of the above certifications.
If you’re hoping to become an outdoor guide for a different activity - like kayaking, mountaineering or backpacking - you’ll need different activity-specific certifications. The best way to learn which certifications you’ll need is to contact a few outfitters you’d like to work for. Then go out and get those certifications!
Certifications and Experience
One tricky thing about certifications is that many of them require you to already have outdoor experience - and some require you to have experience leading trips already.
Thus getting some certifications can feel like a chicken-and-the-egg situation. If you need certifications to get experience, but you need experience to get all of your certifications… What are you to do?
One option is to grow your experience and certifications gradually. I spent several years guiding short canoe trips for summer camps that didn’t require the same level of certification, so by the time I needed to get my Canoe Tripping III certification, I already had guided a lot of short-ish trips.
You can also join a program that teaches certifications and provides experience concurrently, such as the River Roots program does.
Another option would be to join a college program with an outdoor guiding program (these are amazing if you have the time and budget to do one, as they typically require two years to complete).
Even once you have the certifications, you’ll also need to demonstrate that you have experience leading wilderness trips.
First and foremost, you should be comfortable taking yourself on the outdoor adventures you’re hoping to guide. Personal trips are an important part of your background because they demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in that activity. In addition, they can bolster a guiding resume if you’re lacking in professional experience.
Summer camps are perhaps the best avenue for finding entry-level guiding positions. Typically they have leadership programs at the camp to teach you their style of guiding and then you get hired to lead those trips under the supervision of a more experienced guide.
In my experience, I’ve found commercial guiding companies (those that lead trips for paying clients) require their guides to have some level of professional experience already. They want demonstrable proof that you can execute a trip safely while keeping clients happy.
Alternatively, some will hire guides that have graduated from reputable guiding programs, like the Thompson River University’s Adventure Guiding Diploma. These programs typically take two years and teach you everything you need to know about being a guide, in addition to teaching you tons of skills and providing certifications.
Finally, some guiding companies (including MHO Adventures) have in-house programs to train people to become guides. These programs range from a few weeks to a few months, during which time the participants earn certifications and get guiding experience under the supervision of instructors.
By the end of these programs, the guiding companies can hire participants from the program, having witnessed their skills firsthand. Plus, this means the new guides are trained in the specific guiding style the guiding company likes.
At MHO Adventures, this is our River Roots program, which combines certifications with a 21-day canoe trip. During this time, participants learn how to execute wilderness canoe trips from current MHO guides. At the end of the program, some graduates are hired by MHO Adventures and others go on to seek employment with other organizations in the industry. Another amazing thing about the River Roots Program is that many other outdoor professionals are brought in as guest speakers, providing the opportunity to build relationships.
Resume + Log Book
Your resume should include any prior guiding experience you have as well as a list of all of your certifications (including expiry date). If you have done a lot of personal trips as well, you can include those in a section at the bottom of the resume.
For any guided trips you led or personal trips you did, include:
- Location and length of trip
- How many people were on the trip (distinguish whether they were clients or friends)
- What your primary role was (participant, instructor, guide)
Also, include any qualifications or special skills you have that would be relevant to guiding; for example, you studied environmental science in university and can speak to the region you’ll be guiding in. Or how you are a good photographer and can take photos on trips for the company website. Anything to make yourself stand out!
A log book is a more detailed description of all of your past trips. In it you can include the information from the above (location, length, number of people, responsibilities) but go into more detail about the nature of the trips.
In mine, I dedicate one-two pages to every trip I’ve done (both personal and professional) and summarize any major themes or events on the trip. For example, I call out if the trip was primarily for leadership development and what kinds of activities I led. I also call out any problems (i.e., rapid rescues or major first aid treatments) and how I dealt with them.
I find keeping a record like this helps me remember my trips when I’m talking about them in an interview. Plus, I think it makes me more credible in an interview as I have documented the things I’m talking about.
Outdoor guiding is a lot of fun, but it’s also a business. Your potential employer expects you to be professional. Be on time for your interview (bonus points for bringing a paper copy of your resume and a log book). Be polite and respectful.
Emphasize the Customer Experience
Remember that outfitters only stay in business when they have happy customers, so providing a positive customer experience is critical. When you talk about your experiences, give examples of how you made the trip a positive experience. For example, did you manage conflict resolution between participants? Did you have a horrible day of rain but kept spirits high throughout the day?
Demonstrate Safety is a Priority
Clients are trusting that you can keep them safe in the wilderness. This means you need to be more conservative in your risk management. Leading clients (especially those with varying outdoor experience) is very different from leading your buddies on a trip. Give examples of times you had to do risk management on trip or had a difficult decision to make.
We’ve covered a lot in this article, so to summarize the steps:
- Get the certifications needed for the type of outdoor guiding you want to do
- Get experience taking (and ideally, leading) those types of trips
- Prepare your resume and log book
- Apply to jobs and interview
If you have any questions, reach out to Mikaela or MHO Adventures and we’d be happy to answer them.
Check Out the River Roots Program
If you’re interested in becoming a canoe guide, we encourage you to read about the River Roots program. To recap, this is our 42-day training program for aspiring canoe guides; the first three weeks cover the certifications you need and the last three weeks are a canoe trip in northern Ontario where you can practice your skills under the supervision of an experienced canoe guide.
Graduates of the program can then apply to be canoe guides with MHO Adventures (or other guiding companies).