SharpAlternatives to Corporate Work Life: Becoming a Wilderness Guide

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Friday 15th October 2010
In this article
  • Do you need certification?
  • What kind of wilderness works best for you?
  • You’re out of the office, but it’s still a business.

Tired of the urban nine-to-five? Interested in doing something really different? Many guys who spend time outdoors may remark, "man, I should do this every day," but only a few choose to make a career out of it. Ever wonder what it takes to chuck the corporate world and become a professional wilderness guide? SharpMan Team correspondent Trent Wilkie, who guides clients by canoe in the wilds of Canada, gives SharpWork readers a good place to start:

What is a "wilderness guide?" To some, he’s a rugged guy who lives out in the woods, eating granola and oatmeal at every opportunity. To others, he’s a sort of "nature curator" who — decked out in the best of outdoor gear — walks visitors through the bush, highlighting points of interest and engaging animals in their native tongues.

Not quite.

In reality, a wilderness guide is someone who loves being outdoors so much, he insists on working there. Wilderness guides can be employees — such as those who work for local or federal park services or local outdoor organizations — or entrepreneurs — guys who hang out a shingle and provide private guiding services to city folks who’d like assistance in seeing the great outdoors.

Sounds pretty cool, huh?

Of course, with benefits come burdens. Guides must bear the responsibility for the complete safety of those they escort, requiring them to be alert at all times (unlike many Monday mornings in the big-city offices), put the comfort of their clients above their own, and maintain a wide-ranging proficiency in emergency medical care. Think this may sound like you? Read on for more info:

Putting the Client First

Sure, being out in the woods sounds like the ultimate freedom, but being a wilderness guide in the woods nonetheless requires you to "tow the line." Remember, guiding is a service industry, and the service most often provided is comfort. So whether you’re carrying the majority of your client’s gear, doing most or all of the grunt work or putting up with less-than-desirable client personalities, your client’s comfort comes before yours.

Certification and First Aid

Whether you like it or not, stuff happens. Clients lose their footing, fail to follow your lead or injure themselves in some other way. And in this litigious society, you have to cover your butt. One of the easiest ways to do this is to get certified in wilderness first aid and keep your certification current.

How does wilderness first aid differ from generic first aid training? "Wilderness" is defined as any place at least two hours away from a hospital, by ambulance or helicopter. While in generic first aid training — where people injure themselves in a city — you are trained to keep the victims comfortable until the ambulance arrives, wilderness first aid instructs you on keeping the injured clients comfortable for the five-hour canoe ride to a phone or helicopter meeting point.

Sometimes, injuries are more severe than a broken leg or arm, and if handled improperly, can cut short your career as a wilderness guide, not to mention your life and the lives of your clients. Wilderness first aid training helps guides anticipate potential disasters and keep their clients well-informed as to the risks. And in a situation where people are depending on (and paying) their guide to make their experience pleasurable, the majority of a guide’s time is spent trying to see problems before they happen. Ultimately, preventing accidents is the best form of first aid.

Picking Your Wilderness

Another important aspect of starting a career as a wilderness guide is choosing your wilderness. Are you an all-the-way-out-there kind of guy? Would you prefer to work in an outdoor setting that still allows you to live in the city? A variety of options is available.

Where should you start out? Most professionals recommend starting somewhere close to your current home–and believe it or not, there is always something outdoor-related in the vicinity of your home. If there isn't a large body of water suitable for guiding kayaking excursions, then there’s probably another skill, such as rock climbing, that requires the services of a professional guide. Regardless of whether you choose guiding on land or sea, make sure that the skills inherent to these activities are those that you enjoy. Why? You’ll be doing them a lot, and sometimes you’ll have to draw strength from your love of the activity in order to get through the day.

If you’re looking to ease into your new identity as an outdoor professional, smaller-scaled jobs are also available. Day camps and schools frequently seek outdoor educators. These jobs give you a great opportunity to hone your skills. Remember, when you’re starting out, always bring field guides.

Marketing and Pricing Considerations

If you do choose to go the entrepreneurial route, the amount of energy you devote to marketing your service will directly affect whether or not you get work. That’s right; even the wilderness business requires you to have contact with the real world. After all, how else will people know that you’ve set up shop?

While many guides who live in remote locations benefit greatly from an online presence that advertises their service offerings or organizations of wilderness guides who band together and make referrals, nothing beats the personal touch. You are your best marketing tool. Make a point of building in as many personal appearances at wilderness shops, outdoor happenings and other events that suit the market you aim to target.

Target? That’s right: your marketing efforts will be more effective if you narrowly target the kinds of people you want to work with and those who require your services. Will you focus on young adult trips through schools? Outdoor leadership training for corporations? Family day trips through churches or recreational clubs? Or foreign backpackers through international travel agents? The market you choose determines your marketing avenues.

Once you understand your own underlying costs, your market will also help you determine your pricing structure. Different groups have different budgets. For example, schools, summer camps and boys and girls clubs are likely to function on a per child/per day budget, while corporate clients may be willing to pay much more than market costs for their retreats. Regardless of the group you’re catering to, don’t sell yourself cheap: the work is difficult, and losing money while doing it doesn't help with those long days. That’s what the sunsets are for.

Above all, focus on making yourself an excellent product. Talk to people, not at them, and whenever you get the chance and can afford them, certifications look really nice on paper.

So while being an outdoor professional is an alternative to corporate life, it's still a business that requires planning, work and — yes — skills similar to those used in your corporate life — just with a much better view.

This article last updated on Friday 15th October 2010
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