Turn Extreme Camping into a Career as a Wilderness Guide - Atlas Obscura
Unusual adventures and hidden discoveries. Explore our 2018 trips now »

Turn Extreme Camping into a Career as a Wilderness Guide

Start by sleeping outside.

I hope she knows where she’s going. (Photo: attilio pregnolato/Shutterstock.com)

Welcome back to AO Jobs, the weekly column where we spotlight jobs and career opportunities that you can apply for right now, to bring some wonder and adventure into your working life. See any listings? Get in touch!

If you’ve ever wanted to get away from it all, and strike out into the wilderness, it’s a good idea to get a guide. Or even better, you could become one.

Around the world, wilderness experts are needed to take adventurous laypeople and daring researchers out into the untamed parts and make sure they come back relatively unscathed. No matter whether you are more interested in being an expert on the types of life found in the wild, or you want to identify which plants could keep you alive and which ones might kill you, there is probably a wilderness guide job out there for you.

Being a wilderness guide encompasses a wide variety of disciplines and specializations from survival techniques to natural identification to conservation. “There are wilderness guides that go out for one weekend and show people wildlife. There are other guides that lead month-long expeditions across the Greenland ice cap,” says Gerard van den Berg, Vice President of the Wilderness Guides Association and a Catalonia-based wilderness guide. “It depends on the personal situation, [a person’s] training and philosophy. But what we all combine is an attraction to places that don’t any, or have very little human influence.”

Believe it or not, this is a popular destination. (Photo: attilio pregnolato/Shutterstock.com)

Guiding tends to fall generally into the disciplines of leading technical activities such as climbing trips, and broader wilderness expeditions where the journey and destination are the goal. “You can be a specialist in bush travel and survival, or you can be a specialist in wildlife, or you can be a mountain guide, or you can specialize in kayaking or canoeing,” says van den Berg, just naming a few of the possible paths a guide might follow.  

The type of specialization you decide to go into will depend greatly on the type of wilderness you decide to focus on. Obviously the planet is covered in a wide variety of different types of terrain, and each requires its own set of knowledge and skills. “We use the bio-eco regions for reference of specialization. Some people are more specialized in arid continental eco-regions, others are more specialized in arctic, others in more tropical,” says van den Berg.

According to van den Berg, arctic and boreal (your standard coniferous forest) regions tend to be the most popular places for wilderness guides to be asked to explore, while desert wilderness isn’t a very hot destination. Regions like the arctic offer skiing and other ways to travel, but more arid climates don’t provide as many commercially appealing activities—at least very few that aren’t environmentally questionable, such as safaris and motorized activities. Van den Berg also points out that the desert is often a hard environment to conquer. “[In the desert, if it gets hot] you can’t take any more clothes off than your skin,” he says.

Jungle regions tend to be the most difficult to guide people through because of how hard it is to move around, the difficulty of extracting yourself once you are deep in the wild, and frankly, the bugs. “Like the Finnish people say, there’s a lot of little creatures you can’t kill with a gun.”

Learn to share this sort of moment to others. (Photo: attilio pregnolato/Shutterstock.com)

But how to get started in the business? As van den Berg tells it, one should start practicing by sleeping in the wilderness. The best experience you can get is living out in the wild. When you move on to training courses to get any kind of official wilderness guide certification, living out in the wild will be a big part of it. “It can be hard outside, and you should have your mind in the right place,” says van den Berg. “More than your body, you should have your mind in the right place.” Tents aren’t cheating. They’re actually pretty essential. “Trying to cross the Greenland ice cap, you could try to do it without a tent, but you might die on the way.”  

Becoming any kind of professional wilderness guide will require training that is generally determined by the type of biome you want to master, and which specialization you choose. There are a number of training programs, and with a little research you should be able to find the right one for your interests, that will teach you both to keep safe and to appreciate the area you’re exploring.

Even though being a wilderness guide can be a somewhat solitary profession in some aspects, and that is part of the appeal, there is also the added bonus of bringing unique experiences to peoples’ lives that they would otherwise never have. “It’s about being safe, but it’s also about feeling good,” says van den Berg. “As I always say, people won’t remember what you did, but they will remember what they felt.”