I’m a junior in high school living in the suburbs of Philly. I’ve done a lot of hiking and tent camping, some skiing and trail riding and a little rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking, and whitewater rafting. Not a ton of outdoor experience but I would love more. I found your article on whether it was necessary to have an Outdoor Education degree. I’m interested in an outdoor career and was wondering if you could answer some questions for me or direct me to someone or someplace who could
Is a love for the outdoors enough for an outdoor career or is there more to this type of work?
The question I get asked most when sharing what I want to do with my life is Is there any money in that. I’m not planning on owning a Lamborghini but is this a financially stable path? Could I raise a family with this type of work?
Is it wise or even worth it to get a degree or minor in adventure/outdoor education? For example I am currently considering and English major and adventure ed minor would that be a good plan?
Besides guiding, instructing, outfitting, and camps are there other jobs under this umbrella and if so what are they?
Any other information you would like to share would be greatly appreciated!
Let me start by saying thank you to Bethany who sent me this! I should also apologize to her for the original email being lost somehow.
Alas, now I have an opportunity to answer this great question, so here it goes. I’m posting it here so the rest of you can benefit from some of the answers. Hopefully it will be helpful to everyone.
Is a love for the outdoors enough for an outdoor career or is there more to this type of work?
Since you mentioned rock climbing, skiing, hiking, backpacking, and paddle sports in your question I assume that your question is about becoming an instructor or guide. This field of work is known as adventure education, outdoor education, experiential education, or environmental education depending on exactly what outdoor pursuits you are involved with and what outcomes your program intends for its participants.
Let me mention, at the same time, that it is completely feasible to do something like environemntal sciences or conservation sciences and also have an “outdoor career”. These more academic based fields of study have potentially higher payrates but will require a lot more education up front and, potentially, a lot more lab-based work and number crunching.
There are a couple ways one could approach this:
No Degree (Experiential):
It’s possible to jump straight into leading summer camp activities without any degree or any real experience in the field. It might also be possible to start some environmental education with nothing more than some FFA experience from high school or an environemntal studies class.
Furthermore, it’s probably feasible to suggest that there are possible opportunities out there for leading adventure sports without any degree. If you’re a highly expereinced paddler, for instance, you could go through Nantahala Outdoor Center’s (NOC) river guide program. If I remember right, it’s a week or two long, costs a couple hundred bucks, and virtually guarantees you a summer of river guiding.
Doing it this way is completely possible but you’ll run into road blocks when you begin trying to move up into administrative and directorial positions in outdoor and adventure education. Many positions require at least a Bachelor’s degree in order to move past field based positions (and higher in the pay scale). Fortunately many positions also allow for a clause which permits “equivalent experience”.
If you envision yourself in a directorial position for an outdoor program or want to move past minor supervisory roles, it may be necessary to obtain a related graduate degree.
The alternative approach would be to go get your schooling. Green Mountain College, Central Wyoming College, and Prescott College are some of the many schools now offering outdoor education or adventure education under grad or graduate level programs.
When I went through school there were only 4 schools offering outdoor education specific degrees (that I could find). Now there are many! Almost every state has at least one school offering an outdoor education degree.
Prescott is the only school I am aware of offering Master’s level courses in outdoor and adventure education.
At the same time, however, it is very common and almost as effective, to get a degree in a related field such as tourism, eco tourism, parks and recreation, etc.
These more common outdoor oriented programs are usually easier to find close to home and allow you to get in state tuition for a graduate degree which will be effective in leveraging higher paid positions in the outdoor career world.
My two cents:
I’d advise people to get their WFR certification. It’s ~$800 but will make you an invaluable candidate in job applications.
If you have good experience in a particular outdoor skill (called an outdoor pursuit) it’s pretty likely you’ll be able to get a job as an assistant instructor or guide once you have that WFR certification. Just make sure you document your climbing trips, paddling trips, and backpacking trips. It’s essential to include them in your resume.
If you lack experience, then get a job as a summer camp counselor. Often you can be an assistant or lead facilitator of a certain activity in which you have some experience. For instance, my first summer in the field I became a lead rock wall and dynamic high ropes facilitator. I had almost no prior experience.
If you want (or your parents are bugging you to get) a degree and you’re not 100% sure that you want to commit to a nich field such as adventure education (that degree is not super transerfable) then I’d suggest something more robust such as tourism or parks and recreation for your graduate degree.
A degree like that is much more versatile and will allow you to secure jobs ranging from backpacking guide ($) all the way to park director for the National Forst Service ($$$$).
Whichever path you choose, you will need lots of documented experience in your chosen outdoor pursuit if you want to become a guide. Get after it!
Is this field of work financially stable? Could I raise a family with this type of work?
Intially I would not expect your jobs to be stable. Personally? I have to move from coast to coast about every 5-6 months in order to keep employed. Almost all guiding work is seasonal.
It is possible to find positions which roll into year-round employment.
If a stable and steady income is a necessity (or priority) for you then you’ll need to take that into account.
Shooting for a supervisory or administrative role of some kind would probably be the best and most stable source of significant income while remaining active in the field. Many larger outdoor organizations (such as NOLS, AMC, and the ATC among many) employ marketers, directors, logistical coordinators, rations managers, customer service reps, etc.
You could also consider a career with a large outdoor retailer such as REI (though I can’t imagine seeing myself cooped up in an REI my whole life).
Once you’re in with NOLS as an instructor they more or less give you a calendar and let you declare what stretches of the year you want to work. I personally know several NOLS instructors who lead one or two trips a year for a few weeks to a month and then work relatively “normal” jobs the rest of the year. They just work their schedule around it.
In skiing, for example, most resorts now operate year round. They offer biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winters. Here at Deer Valley where I work, many instructors stay for the summer and work children’s summer camps or something similar. Alternately many younger instructors will ski the winter in the northern hemisphere and then flip to South America or New Zealand / Australia and teach skiing there during our summer.
Some outdoor pursuits work better together than others. For example, it may be difficult to stay in one place if your goal is to lead skiing and canyoneering. They generally don’t happen in the same places.
Now that I’ve word vommited all over the last few paragraphs I’ll remind you that superviosry positions (directors, assistant directors, wilderness programs supervisors, etc) tend to have a higher chance of year round employment or full time benefits. You’re going to trade the higher pay for more time in the office, however.
One thing that I constantly thank myself for is staying out of debt. I went to school on a scholarship, worked since I was 16, worked all through school, and have never once carried a debt. In this field, where pay tends to be low, sporadic, and seasonal, having debt hanging over your head is almost impossible to manage.
The off seasons when there’s no work (April – June and October – December) are almost impossible to make it through when you’ve got debt payments looming. Do everything you can to stay clear of debt! It’ll give you the flexibility to survive as you initially navigate this odd field of work.
Whether or not you can raise a family, I think, depends very heavily on what type of lifestyle you envision. In the field, actually guiding, you’ll be hard pressed to make more than $30,000 a year, even with good experience and education.
In a supervisory role, you could easily get into the $50,000 a year range and I’ve seen salaries approaching $100,000 for directors of large environemental education organizations.
You’re going to have to be realistic about how soon you intend to start a family and what income you will need when you do so.
It is 100% completely possible to support a familty with this work. You’re just going to have to plan ahead. Don’t start a family on your first season’s wage as a river guide. It won’t work.
Is it wise to get an outdoor education degree?
Let me answer Bethany’s specific question first. English degrees don’t tend to have huge salary ranges nor does outdoor education. Outdoor education as a minor would be great but, personally, I’d pair it with something like recreation management or environemntal science. That would be a killer one-two punch for jobs from Park Ranger to backpacking guide, all the way out to conservation sciences and research.
Of course, if English is a huge passion then go for it! In my opinion, however, there are better majors to take if you’re looking for a “fall back plan”. Something like finance or business is absurdly useful and marketable to a massive range of employers and it gives you a fallback that can achieve huge salaries compared to outdoor education in the case that you ever need it.
If your plan is outdoor oriented, I’d really recommend a more outdoor focused major/minor combination.
Now, on to the more general… if your plan involves guiding or teaching outdoor or adventure education then a degree in the field is definitely worth your time when it comes to getting a job. I covered a lot earlier so I won’t go into detail but keep this in mind:
Outdoor and adventure education does not pay huge. You’ll be lucky to hit $35,000 within your first 5 years (that’s crazy low compared to most professions).
If you asked me, “should I pay $60,000 in student loans to get a bachelor’s in outdoor education?”
I’d tell you, “hell no!”
Keep your educational expenses stupid low or you’ll stuggle getting started when you leave shool. That kinda applies across the board though, so tell your friends I said so.
Get in state tuition, work through college, get scholarships, but whatever you do please don’t take out loans!
What did I do?
I got an academic full ride in state and took all my transferable general education credits and then transferred into an undergraduate program in Wyoming with NOLS at Central Wyoming College. It only took me two semesters to finish my focused degree since all my general eds were taken care of and the school I attended was absurdly cheap. I also worked every night to make some money.
I don’t regret any part of that educational approach a sit kept my expenses low and allowed my to very effectively enter the market. I have now moved into supervisory roles and am considering returning to school for a graduate program.
That approach worked great for me.
What jobs fall under this general umbrella of outdoor and adventure education?
Outdoor Education encompasses both Adventure Education and Environmental Education.
Adventure Education covers most guiding positions. Backpacking guide, rock climbing guide, river guide, wilderness therapy, ski instructor, etc.
Environmental Education covers most natural history and inertpretive positions. Naturalists, nature interpreters, historical interpreters, conservation education, park rangers, etc. These positions would be found with the DNR, BLM, nature centers, non profits, etc.
There are jobs galore in these fields! You can find office positions ranging from accounting and marketing for outdoor organziations. To jobs focused more on criminal justice like some park ranger positions. To environmental and conservation education such as LNT master educators and interpretive naturalists at nature centers. To behavioral and correctional type positions such as wilderness therapy which may require pertinent training and education.
SCUBA diving, sky diving, youth trips, international travel, historical tours, sea kayaking, mountaineering, base camp chefs, wilderness medical staff for expeditions….
I could probably spew out potential positions for hours.
Working in outdoor education needs to be a passion. You’ll never make it if you’re not truly passionate. The pay is low, the jobs are difficult to get started in, and moving seasonally is a very real possibility.
However, if it’s something you truly want to pursue you will never work a single day in your life.
I wake up every day and put on my ski boots and click in to my skis for a ride up the mountain. It’s my office. It’s
Welcome to my office.
one of the greatest jobs in the world. They pay me to play, they pay me to do things I’d be happily doing anyways.
Can you make enough money to support a family reliably? Yes.
Can you find stable employment in this field? Yes.
You’re going to have to work for it, though. You’re going to have to plan a bit up front and figure out where the job market is.
There are some states, and many many areas in most states, where outdoor education simply isn’t a vialble career. It’s not like being a banker, where every city has five banks you could apply at.
Get in touch if you need helping narrowing down a degree choice or a location to start working.
When I first started in the field I had to (and still do) just go where the jobs are. Which means moving every 5 months as you begin this career.
Get used to living out of your car and having some the longest road trips and greatest jobs of your life.