Pathways to Becoming a Professional Outdoor Leader or Administrator
You can receive training in outdoor leadership skills—and in many cases certifications—from:
- Outdoor schools and outfitters. Many outdoor schools and outfitters offer skills training courses to the general public. Research these programs carefully. Semester and instructor programs by NOLS and Outward Bound are widely accepted routes for obtaining basic outdoor leadership skills.
- Undergraduate degree programs, including community colleges.
- Recreational trips and classes from colleges or universities.
- Administrative skills can be taught in college and university graduate programs. Consider a graduate assistantship to gain experience within the collegiate setting.
Consider the following options or combination of options. While formal training can help speed skill mastery, you will need to spend a significant amount of time practicing on your own trips and expeditions.
- Job research. If you have a specific job or position in mind, contact that organization for an application. After reviewing the application, contact them again and ask questions related to specific training pathways. Follow their suggestions. Many organizations have internal staff training programs for entry level positions. River companies, camps, and outdoor therapy programs. Consider the possibility that your employment goals may change.
- Self-directed study. Research, read training manuals and watch videos, consult with a respected outdoor retailer who has staff that regularly participate in the activity you want to learn then purchase gear, and experiment. Be conservative. You will make mistakes; avoid serious ones and learn from the ones you do make. Take a course in wilderness medicine to make sure you understand and are prepared for injuries.
- Outdoor skills training courses. Research organizations that offer training in outdoor skill(s) you want to learn. Choose multi-day trainings over single day trainings and those that include a skill assessment. Buy equipment and practice what you have been taught until you have mastered the basic skills. Some of these programs will offer certification; note that programs with certification pathways typically are more expensive than those without because a portion of your tuition goes to the certifying body.
- Certifications. Many organizations like to see certification in specific outdoor skills; colleges and Universities typically give hiring priority to applicants with instructor certifications. NOTE: to be considered a valid applicant for most positions, certification must be accompanied by documented experience and references.
∆ The Professional Climbing Instructors Association and the American Mountain Guides Association
offer nationally accepted instructor certifications in managing single pitch climbs outside and climbing walls. You may need one of these certifications to work in a program that has a climbing wall or does top-rope climbing.
∆ The Association for Challenge Course Technology certifies challenge course instructors and managers. You may need certification if you want to work for an organization who runs a challenge course.
∆ The American Mountain Guides Association also offers national and international guide certification in rock climbing, mountaineering, and skiing. Guide certification is typically not necessary if you
want to teach basic climbing for an organization or teach skiing at a resort. It may be required to work for some mountain guide services in the United States and is required to work as a mountain guide in Europe and Asia.
∆ Rescue 3 International and the American Canoe Association offer certification in river and ocean
rescue. One of these certifications is typically required for a trip leader position in programs that
offer water-based trips.
∆ The American Canoe Association also offers certification in canoeing, kayaking, stand-up paddle
boarding, and rafting. Some organizations give preference to applicants with ACA certifications, other do not.
∆ The Professional Ski Instructors of America—American Association of Snowboard Instructors certify ski and snowboard instructors for front-country resorts. Professional ski and snowboard instructors are certified. Ski and snowboard school directors typically hold Level I certifications.
∆ The American Avalanche Association and the American Institute for Avalanche Rescue and
Education offer courses in avalanche education, prediction, and rescue. Certification is typically required if you want to lead trips in avalanche terrain.
∆ While not technically a certification, the principles taught in Leave No Trace courses have become
the ethical standard for wilderness use and most applicants for positions at colleges and
universities are capable of teaching Trainer and/or Master Educator courses.
- Non-degree collegiate recreation programs. Choose a college or university with a highly developed outdoor recreation program that trains student leaders to run outdoor trips for the student body. Typically this type of outdoor program is housed under student life and is partially funded by tuition. Many programs have work/study options. Make sure to visit the program's space on the campus and speak directly with the director and students. If you choose this pathway and the college or university has an academic major or minor in recreation (or other euphemisms for a campus recreation program that teaches outdoor skills to students) DO NOT choose the degree pathway unless the program is co-curricular, you can meet the financial obligations without going into debt, you get references from currently employed graduates, and you are sure you would like a career in outdoor recreation or education.
- Associate degree programs. There are a few excellent—and a number of poor—associate degree programs in outdoor leadership available from community colleges. Do your research. Make sure all your credits can transfer to an undergraduate degree program within the same system. Contact a number of program graduates before enrolling. A well-designed associate degree program from a community college is often a inexpensive route to an entry level outdoor leadership position.
- Collegiate undergraduate degree programs. Because the overwhelming majority of undergraduate degree programs in outdoor leadership (or other euphemisms for a degree programs where employment requires outdoor skills) do not have graduation requirements for outdoor skills, they do not provide accurate hiring information for employers; graduates of undergraduate degree programs may not have the skills to lead outdoor activities and trips, In most cases, guides do not need a college or university degree. It may be to your benefit to pursue a different degree to increase your options upon graduation. If you decide to pursue an undergraduate degree in outdoor leadership, make sure the program is co-curricular with at least one full integrated field semester, that you can meet the financial obligations without going into debt, that you get references from currently employed graduates, and that you are sure you would like a career in outdoor recreation or education.
- Collegiate graduate degree programs. Because most graduate degree programs in outdoor leadership do not have outdoor skill prerequisites or graduation requirements, graduates of masters and doctorate programs may not have the skills ore experience to effectively manage outdoor programs or teach. If you want to work for a collegiate recreation program, you will need, at minimum, a masters degree; if you wish to work for a collegiate academic program you will need a PhD. Business degrees at the masters and doctorate level and experience managing non-profits and/or for-profits are typically necessary if you are looking for a management position in the private sector.
- Trip leader training and experience. You will need documentation of your training and experience as a trip leader and staff trainer; both are required to be an effective administrator of an outdoor program.
- Certifications. If you the job you are seeking involves training outdoor program staff, you may need—and will certainly benefit from—having instructor certifications in the outdoor skills you expect to teach.