Wilderness Guiding Reality

July 23rd, 2015 by

I have been asked what it takes to be a wilderness guide a few times over the last couple years. People are interested and exploring the possibility of trying to become a guide. Naturally part of this exploration brings up the curiosity questions of just exactly what it takes to pull off being a wilderness guide.

It does not matter where in the world and what wilderness ecosystem you plan to guide through, all requirements are the same. Below is a list followed by explanations of what it takes to be a guide. These are taken from my own extensive experiences guiding and trekking in various wilderness areas through the years. Perhaps it will assist you in discovering more about the realities of wilderness guiding.

Here is a very simple list of basics one needs in order to guide:

  • Personality
  • People understanding
  • Psychology
  • Communication skills
  • Humor
  • Leadership
  • Steadfast
  • Flexibility
  • Neutrality
  • First aid and first responder skills
  • Fitness
  • Stamina
  • Knowledge of ecosystems and ecology
  • Knowledge of animals
  • Knowledge of plants
  • Knowledge of minerals
  • Knowledge of weather patterns
  • Knowledge of wild food
  • Knowledge of wild medicine
  • Knowledge of local history
  • Knowledge of local geology
  • Knowledge of wilderness skills
  • Emergency skills on water and land
  • Jack of all outdoor skills
  • Compassion
  • Organization skills
  • Photography skills
  • Quick thinker
  • Passion
  • Solid gear
  • The “Real Deal”

If we look more specifically into each of the above listed titles and qualities we begin to discover just what it takes.

When you are guiding, from the very first contact with the people you are guiding (pre-trip contact) all the way to the end follow-up emails or phone calls (post trip), a guide needs to have the refined people skills to be successful. You need to have a likable personality, one free from ego, open, light-hearted, genuine, sincere, caring, understanding and with a good degree of humor in order for people to enjoy your company. If you have a poor personality the people you try to guide will not enjoy their time because it all begins with you. You are up front and in the spotlight the entire time, no matter what the excursion. Even if you are not a “community” person and prefer living where there are few people about, you need to have a likable social personality when interacting with folks.

It is a huge benefit to understand psychology. Not everyone in every group you guide will like one another. There is bound to be riffs between folk, especially when the discomforts of physical challenges come into play, which is inevitably a part of many wilderness excursions. A guide needs to understand psychology and remain neutral and understanding to such situations. You need to be able to smoothly and easily diffuse and such personality clashes before they have a chance to escalate and ruin everyone’s good time. This means you need to understand people and be compassionate towards everyone in the group you are guiding. All those people come from different facets of life and experience. Some many have very stressful lives and some may have hard traumas in their backgrounds. Under stress, even physical stress from exertion, such traumas can arise creating turbulent emotions. A guide needs to understand how to work with and deal with those things if they arise. After all, you may be miles away from towns and other modern distractions and sources of comfort. You will need to become both or be able to direct someone’s attention to such things.

So far it all comes down to good quality communication skills. Many times I have people from other countries who have very hard accents and I need to be able to communicate successfully with them. I also need to understand how to communicate clearly with everyone since everyone comes from different lifestyles which breed countless forms of communication. If a guide fails in communication and being able to present and communicate in clear and understandable ways to everyone in the group, the people will not enjoy their time.

Guiding requires a natural ability for leadership; gentle yet steadfast, relaxed and humorous yet sincere. You need to gain respect by showing respect and acting in ways that draw respect naturally. People are coming to you because they want to learn, they want a good time and truly enjoy themselves and gain quality experiences that may very well create memories lasting a lifetime. BUT they also want to feel safe and secure while engaging in those experiences. This means they need to see and respect strong and clear leadership abilities in their guide. As a guide you would need to be able to easily and quickly command, orientate and control your entire group in the face of danger and or emergency situations. If they do not respect you because you lack personality, skills, leadership abilities or communication abilities they will not heed your instructions when the time comes. Leadership not only means being able to remain steadfast in situations requiring a firm hand and surefooted instruction, but also the flexibility to change your groups actions on a moment’s notice to fit the possible changing circumstances. All the while a guide needs to take their emotions out of it and remain neutral. Leadership will fail if it becomes saturated with uncontrolled emotions, especially in the face of quick decisions, emergency or dangerous situations.

Stamina and physical fitness are also key. If a guide lacks either one, the group will pick it up and respect and trust will disintegrate. The wilderness guide needs to be able to communicate genuinely from the time everyone wakes in the morning until everyone retires at night, no matter what activity they are doing. A guide should be able to walk and hike all day, kayak, canoe, swim, crawl, carry weight, cook, set-up and tear down camps, talk and help people with all of it every step of the way if needs be. This requires a high level of physical fitness and a powerful level of stamina. It is not an easy cake-walk job. A guide needs to be fit. The guide needs to be able to work and fully function for long periods of time in extreme heat or cold, wind, humidity, dryness, hail, downpours, lightning storms, mud and snow, biting insects and a large measure of discomforts while dealing with people who do not normally experience such extremes in their daily lives.

In the case of emergencies the guide needs solid first aid and first responder skills. They need to know what to do in the case of emergency situations. Hypothermia, sprains, broken bones, dislocated joints, bleeding, concussions, stings and bites; falls, heat exhaustion, frostbite, dehydration, puncture wounds, heat attacks, stopped breathing and all manner of physical traumas. A guide not only needs to know how to work with each potential emergency situation, but be able to handle it as well. They need to not only handle the emergency, but also remain in control of their group. Beyond personal injury emergencies and guide needs to be prepared and understand how to successfully deal with and handle environmental emergency situations like floods, storms, lighting, hail, fires and so many more. Controlling the group under extreme situations is paramount in order that the percentage remains high that nobody gets injured.

Being a quick thinker not only is essential for emergency situations, but also for controlling the group and answering seemingly endless questions. People have sought you out because they ant experience and to learn. The knowledge banks of a guide need to be solid and quite vast on any subject that might be part of the wilderness trip. Complex understanding and knowledge of the local ecosystems, environments, geography, ecology, history, weather patterns, night skies and all manner of life living in the regions where the trip might be taking place. Many people want to know and if you are a good leader and have gained a natural respect of your group, they will not be shy in asking. A guide needs to be prepared for an endless variety of questions all day long. The answers given needs to be solid and come from knowing, not guess work or even worse – something made up because of a lack of knowledge. Most people came smell bull pucky and if a guide is spewing lies and made up information, the group will sense it and many will even call the guide on it.

If you are a wilderness guide your skills need to be honed, refined and on point. Anything less is not only irresponsible and unprofessional but place the safety of the group at risk. If you are bringing folk onto the water in canoes, not only do your canoe skills need to be solid, but if one of your group’s canoes capsize you need to be able to maneuver in any kind of water to help those people in a clean successful manner. All the while you need to remain in control of the rest of the people and their canoes so further mishap is avoided. If you stopped for camp and there is a deluge you need to be able to start a fire and help people get camp set-up in it. These are just two of the unlimited possibilities where a guide’s skill needs to be top notch.

Not only does a guide need refined wilderness skills, but they also need to be rather a “jack of all trades” so to speak. If someone’s tent pole breaks or they lose their eating utensils, the guide needs to help them out. This means a guide needs a decent knowledge of the gear people will be using for the specific excursion at hand.

That also means a guide needs to have solid wilderness gear, not cheapo garbage gear that is unreliable. High quality gear is an essential part of a good quality and safe trip for everyone. Do not underestimate the power of solid gear and the know how properly utilize it. Beyond that a guide should have good quality organization skills. Not only for their business, but also in their pack and group. Organization goes far beyond packing a backpack with ease and calling a potential client back.

People like memories, especially photographic ones. Guides should be able to take good quality photos along the way to share with their group post trip. Some of those photos also make for great advertising for future trips. Being a good photographer is a big plus when guiding.

In short, a wilderness guide needs to be the “Real Deal”, because anything less is irresponsible and places the safety of the group on the line. Wilderness guiding is not an easy cushy job. It is very demanding on all levels, physically, mentally, emotionally and yes even spiritually. You need to remember that people are coming from all walks of life and belief systems. A guide needs to work in a way that does not tread on another’s beliefs while at the same time not limiting the group’s wilderness experience by someone’s beliefs. The line is fine and a guide needs to know how to work it.

Long days in all kinds of weather, elements and possibly demanding physical activities, coupled with grueling mental focus and emotional control of not only one’s self, but also the entire group being guided. Pre-communications and post wrap-ups, advertising and all for sporadic, unpredictable pay. To muster up what it takes to be a successful wilderness guide and stick with it requires pure passion for what you do. If you lack that passion, you will not stick with it and the job will eat you alive like mosquito hordes of northern boggy lands in July!

So if you are wondering what it takes to be a wilderness guide and are entertaining the idea, think long and hard on the above details. Take my advice, do not skimp on any of it, because if you ever get into it, you WILL find you need it ALL. But if you have what it takes and you are genuine, it is a most rewarding experience unlike anything else.

White Wolf ~ Wilderness Exploratory Guide at Element Mountain


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