Educating the Educators to Ensure Safe and Satisfying Outdoor Adventure and Educational Experiences

Cam Francisco

April 22, 2024

When you’re planning a backcountry-based experiential educational experience for yourself or a child/teen, you want to be sure that the people leading the outdoor program know their stuff. Few things are scarier in life — or potentially deadlier — than being ill-prepared in the wilderness. 

To ensure safety and an enjoyable, fulfilling experience, outdoor educators and field instructors must be highly skilled in many facets of outdoor and adventure education, including the following:

  • Wilderness medicine
  • Map and compass navigation
  • Environmental stewardship principles and practices
  • Backpacking planning and packing
  • Wilderness shelters
  • Backcountry cooking, water purification, and food safety
  • Paddling techniques and boat safety (canoe, kayak, or raft)
  • Climbing
  • Leadership

One of the reasons we here at The National Center for Outdoor Adventure and Education (NCOAE) excel at delivering safe, enjoyable, and transformative outdoor adventures is that we educate our educators. We provide our field instructors with the training and opportunities to pursue the certifications they need to achieve best-in-class status.

Young campers standing outside lean-to in the woods

Field Instructors and Guides: There IS a Big Difference

NCOAE outdoor educators and field instructors are not just “guides.” They are experienced outdoor educators with a broad range of responsibilities that include the following:

  • Ensuring that students are safe in the backcountry whether they are backpacking, camping, climbing, or paddling (flat, river, or whitewater)
  • Delivering instruction in technical outdoor skills including:
    • Planning and packing
    • Map and compass navigation
    • Backcountry kitchen, water purification, and food safety
    • Backcountry hygiene
    • Shelter/knots
    • Bear safety and general wildlife protocols
    • Proper paddling techniques when boating (canoe or kayak)
  • Delivering instruction in social/emotional leadership skills
  • Delivering instruction in environmental stewardship and environmental science

Leveraging Our Expertise to Train and Certify Our Field Instructors

NCOAE is unique in that we educate the educators — the field instructors who are responsible for leading outdoor expeditions and educating students. Our organization has high-level knowledge, skills, and experience to provide the training and certification our field instructors require to ensure quality leadership and instruction in the field:

  • All lead field instructors must hold a current Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, and assistant instructors must hold a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification. We provide these certifications through our own Wilderness Medicine courses and offer WEMT certifications in conjunction with our Emergency Medicine Technician (EMT) courses.
  • Our Medical Director, Chris Davis, MD, recently led an in-house American Canoe Association Level 4 Swiftwater Rescue training/certification course on the New River for our instructors.
  • We have Leave No Trace (LNT) Master Educators on staff who can provide courses for LNT certifications for our instructors.
  • Director of Wilderness Medicine Todd Mullenix is an American Mountain Guides Association Certified Single Pitch Instructor (AMGA SPI).

Common Certifications for Our Field Instructors

Our field instructors commonly hold the following certifications:

Overall, the value this brings to NCOAE rests in our ability to put competent, knowledgeable outdoor educators into the field with our students to deliver our trademark curriculum in ways that are safe and effective. These trainings and certifications not only give our instructors self-confidence. They give us the ability to leverage their knowledge, experience, critical thinking, and good judgment to deliver safe, high-quality outdoor adventure and educational experiences to our students.

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About the Author: Cameron “Cam” Francisco, MEd, is the Associate Director of Outdoor Education at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). Prior to joining the team at NCOAE, Cam spent 19 years as an independent school educator and administrator. A member of the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), Cam is a certified Wilderness First Responder (WFR) and is certified in CPR by the Red Cross. His hobbies include fishing, soccer, skateboarding, hiking, and camping.

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