The Three “E”s of Breaking into Outdoor Education

Stephen Mullaney

December 21, 2017

For those interested in a career as an outdoor experiential educator, The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education wants to help you get onboard that particular ship.

But as the late comedian Jonathan Winters suggested when he famously quipped “If your ship doesn’t come in, swim out to it,” that vessel isn’t necessarily going to snuggle up to the dock and pick you up. It’s up to you to do the basic footwork — or perhaps backstroke is a better analogy — in order to achieve your career objectives.

(Photo: ©2013 Jaclyn E. Atkinson | Used with permission)

Many people ask us if a formal education is necessary for a career in outdoor and adventure education and we answer that question by posing another: Does a piece of paper make for a master educator? Then we answer our own question by saying, “It depends.”

In the end, it’s you who must decide what role you want to play in the outdoor industry. If your objective is to spend a few years going “wild” as a fledgling field instructor, then just head out and apply for a job. Or let’s say you want to become a leader in a specific area of the outdoor experiential education field. In this case, gobble up some on-the-job experience and a fistful of certificates and get to work.

However, if what you seek is a career as a lifelong experiential educator — with a comfortable salary and maybe some good health insurance — some formal education might be required. The secret is to find ways to get a good education without being crushed by college loans. Because, let’s face it. The outdoor and adventure education industry isn’t known for huge paychecks. And if you’re strapped with debt before you even step out on the trail with your first group of students or clients, well, it doesn’t portend well for your financial future.

For hard figures, you can count on a bachelor’s degree in outdoor adventure education costing you between $32,000 and $120,000 in today’s dollars. Tacking on a master’s degree will hike that amount by another $60,000 to $80,000.

On the other hand, author Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in most fields. That’s roughly 4.8 years of active training before you arrive at the doorstep of mastery.

So, let’s take a peek at the best career route for you by exploring the Three E’s:

  • Experience
  • Employment as an intern
  • Education

Experience is similar to location in real estate — It’s everything!

For one thing, gaining personal experience in the backcountry — by going on trips with friends and more experienced people, and by even hiring a guide for a trip or two — saves you big bucks over the other options presented below. Your costs amount to tanks of gas, buying maps and gear, and occasionally paying a guide or two. Compare this to the average cost of college course books alone ($3,000 per year) and you can see there are savings to be had.

Most important, you instantly learn from your mistakes and decide fairly quickly if this is a career you want to continue pursuing.

Some tips accrued by playing the experience card include:

  • By dipping your toes into many pools, you discover what you’re drawn to and what you’re good at.
  • If you’re just getting started, take the time to do some research and get out in the wilderness.
  • Apprehensive? Maybe you should be. You could get lost out there. Hire a guide to get you out and back safely, and ask lots of questions about guiding while being guided.
  • Pick up essential credentials that employers require, like a Wilderness First Responder.

Employment as an intern is like gaining experience and getting paid for it.  

This is the middle alternative, situated between “if you come in with no experience you will get paid less,” and “if you get a formal education, you will go into lifelong debt.”

Obtaining an internship in outdoor and adventure education allows you to experience one or many organizations and get a feel for what role you want to play in that or other outdoor education companies. You pick the post you’re most likely to excel to at. You prove your worth, asking yourself, “What can I bring to the table that no one else offers?”

And, of course, do your homework:

  • Research what companies will expect you to know, walking through the front door and then arrive knowing more.
  • Following the initial interview, politely interview the interviewer. See if they fit your requirements for gaining experience from the internship.
  • Then go to work and learn as much as you can, because education never stops.

Education means acquiring tons of information, forming social bonds and professional connections.

A formal education is the best way to earn credits toward a college or university degree while earning the creds (that’s experience!) to be respected in the outdoor education field.

Decide on courses that best fit your needs. Here are some options en route to becoming a college educated outdoor educator:

  • Short courses allow you to get a feel for the field without emptying your savings.
  • Educator courses are longer and go into more depth. They will also cost a bit more.
  • Semester and Gap Year courses — while expensive — give you the most bang for your buck. Most involve extensive travel, but the certifications offer in-depth exposure to teaching principles and practices.
  • If you want to teach hard skills, then get the certifications that will get you there.
  • If your goal is to be an “educator” who goes well beyond the hard skills, learn “best practices” and become a leader in the field.

The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education wants to help you realize your dreams of becoming an educator and professional. Feel free to contact us with questions and information on courses necessary to fit your particular needs.

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About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the staff development director at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) in Wilmington, N.C., where he is responsible for the training and education of NCOAE’s field instructors. He is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and has taught within the Durham, N.C., public school system. Stephen received his undergraduate degree in English from Framingham State University, and his Master’s Degree in Education from North Carolina Central University.

About the Illustrator: Jaclyn E. Atkinson is an illustrator and designer from Virginia who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Jac graduated from Pratt Institute in 2011, earning her B.F.A. in Illustration in the Communication Design program, with a minor in Art History. By day she works in the publishing world; by night and weekends she is a wood-carving printmaker, illustrator, and designer. Learn more by visiting:

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