Professional development — learning that allows you to earn or maintain professional credentials — is key to career planning, especially when it comes to considering a career in the outdoor adventure and education industry. Much more than participating in a bunch of classes, our sector of the outdoor industry looks favorably on applicants with wilderness medicine training and certification, skills training and certification, and hands-on guiding and expedition leadership experience.
Truth is, we here at NCOAE found that operating an adventure education company during a health pandemic was challenging. And staffing our AEE-accredited organization with highly experienced instructors became increasingly difficult but not impossible.
Like other industries, we suffered a staffing shortage, and yes, some of our existing staff left to pursue other pathways. But what we’ve noticed lately is a lack of experience from some people who thought working in the outdoors would — quite literally — be a walk in the park.
Many of these would-be outdoor educators and guides decided that sitting on a couch while looking at photos and films of wilderness expeditions was a suitable alternative for actually going out and experiencing the outdoors.
This potential pool of applicants backed out and went the way of the “Instagram Adventurer” or the “Armchair Explorer.” And in talking with our colleagues across our sector of the outdoor industry, we’re not alone in seeing this trend. Nearly all outdoor adventure and education organizations are taking pause and evaluating the future of trainings, staff recruitment, and what it means to be qualified to head out into “wild places.”
Regardless of what other organizations choose to do about their staffing challenges, NCOAE will not budge on what is required of our field instructor and outdoor educator candidates. Hands-on experience coupled with recognized industry certifications still matter and always will.
If you’re interested in a seasonal or full-time job in outdoor education, here are my recommendations on how to proceed.
Get out there and explore your surroundings
Remember when you were a kid and you’d head out to the woods to explore? You’d return home and tell your friends and family all that you discovered, mysteries you uncovered and problems you solved. Remember that? It was amazing! It’s probably part of the reason you’re on this website right now, looking at expeditions and adventure-based courses developed for explorers and seekers of a different path in life. Why did we feel the desire to poke around the forest when we were kids? A better question might be, why did so many of us stop? Do you still have the longing to play outdoors and take others into wild places, returning them safely home enriched, refreshed, and inspired?
Here’s a question that might increase your chances of living this lifestyle professionally. What is it exactly that I want to do in the outdoor industry? When you can answer that question, get busy creating your own professional development program. And don’t be bashful about bringing in your family, friends and community to support your objective of becoming a highly desirable candidate for employment.
You might want to start your professional development project by learning how to cook outdoors. Local campgrounds or even your backyard can serve as your classroom and testing ground. Invite family and friends to your outdoors “kitchen,” and challenge yourself to prepare delicious, nutritious meals that are appropriate to the outdoor setting. Do this enough and when you hit the backcountry and you’ll be a star chef.
During NCOAE courses, we bring along ingredients for backcountry pizza. Typically, this doesn’t become a first-night menu consideration. Instead, we save this meal for challenging times. The rain is heavy and we’re hunkered down, or maybe we break it out after a long day on the rock or paddling.
It’s all in the timing that a special meal exponentially increases the camaraderie of the group and brings a sense of hope and happiness. We call it a shift meal, because it offers a mental and physical break from discomfort and discord. If nothing else, become an expert in making pizza in the backcountry. While that alone won’t land you a job as an outdoor educator or field instructor, it will give you something to brag about during your next interview.
Get off the trail
Nothing adds to your outdoor resume like some experience in trail hiking. And while backpacking around your local hills and mountains is fun, hiking off-trail is mind blowing.
When I’m out hiking on a designated trail, I often think, “This is really somebody else’s
hike. I didn’t build this trail. I want to explore what lies beyond the beaten path.” And so,
When you begin these hiking adventures, stick to trails in familiar areas. Bring along a friend or two and, using your map and compass, challenge yourselves to find features pinpointed on the map. Next step? Go off-trail and try to locate features, bends in creeks, cliff bands or points of interest.
For your final trail exam, head out into the unknown. Bring along the resources you need — maps, compasses, emergency response information — and climb out of your comfort zone.
Learning to hike off-trail opens opportunities for boundless adventure. It gives you experience in handling emergency situations that may require you to navigate off-trail to help a victim or to reach assistance quickly.
Finally, practice Leave No Trace guidelines to ensure that you and your friends aren’t creating issues for others, Check with the rangers or other designated stewards of land before you take to bushwhacking. Policies differ state to state and by land management overseers.
Become an expedition leader for friends
Become comfortable with taking groups of family members and friends on guided adventures. As an aside, don’t get yourself into a legal pickle by charging people unless you are properly covered legally.
Plan the location, the length of the trip, and all emergency response plans. Pack the trip out, and conduct a pre-trip meeting with your fellow travelers, discussing logistics, emergency response protocol and anything else relevant for the area you will be exploring and the activities you will be engaging in.
Most important is to keep an accurate log or journal. Save any documents you create and reflect on what you have learned. By doing this, you begin to build your own professional portfolio, outlining your outdoor skill set, and making you an incredibly desirable candidate for employment.
As NCOAE plans for the future, we envision implementing adventure journaling for all our employees. We want our staff to live a life outdoors. If you only challenge yourself while working a course, you might meet that challenge. But you might not receive the rewards you sought when you entered the field.
Make your professional development personal.
Don’t forget about the certifications
Working for an organization like The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education requires a minimal level of training and certification. On the training side, your path to becoming an NCOAE Field Instructor begins with successful completion of the NCOAE Instructor Course. This free 20-day backcountry course offers leadership-level instruction in backcountry travel, expedition planning, wilderness risk management, campsite selection, backcountry navigation and more. It also dives deep into NCOAE’s Core Curriculum, Educational Framework and our trademark practices.
We also require current certification as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Wilderness EMT, along with three-plus years of experience leading outdoor education, wilderness adventure or related programs and expeditions.
Finally, there are a number if nice-to-have certifications that we value and that make candidates more attractive to us:
- Swiftwater Rescue Certification: Offered by a number of recognized organizations — including the American Canoe Association, Rescue 3 International, and Swiftwater Safety Institute — this certification is awarded upon successful completion of a course that teaches recognition and avoidance of common river hazards, execution of self-rescue techniques, and rescue techniques for paddlers in distress.
- Leave No Trace Certification: Participants in a two-day LNT Trainer Course learn Leave No Trace skills and ethics as well as techniques for educating others about these low impact practices are applied in the backcountry. Graduates of a Trainer Course are prepared to offer Leave No Trace Awareness Workshops to their community. LNT’s five-day Master Educator Course is the organization’s most comprehensive education course. Participants are provided with in-depth training on Leave No Trace skills and ethics through practical application during a field-based course. Learn more on the LNT website.
- American Canoe Association Certification: The ACA’s Instruction Program is widely recognized as the premier paddlesports education program throughout the United States and in over 30 countries. ACA Instructor Certification Workshops are important for anyone interested in teaching paddling technique and skill refinement to students. An ACA instructor certification course consists of both an Instructor Development Workshop (IDW) and an Instructor Certification Exam (ICE). Learn more on the ACA website.
- American Mountain Guide Association Certification: The AMGA’s Mountain Guide Programs train and certify working and aspiring rock-climbing guides, alpine guides and ski guides, while the organization’s Climbing Instructor Program consists of two certifications — Single Pitch Instructor and Climbing Wall Instructor. Learn more on the AMGA website.
As you can see, working in the outdoor education and adventure programming sectors of the outdoor industry requires personal exposure to the backcountry, along with training and certification in a number of disciplines. And the nice thing about the time it takes to become certified and experienced is this — you wouldn’t seek those certifications and personal experiences if you weren’t already enthusiastic about being in the backcountry. Unlike many other career paths that require specific training and certification, ours are fun to participate in and acquire.
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About the Author:Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field of outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.