So, You Want to Be a Hiking Guide? Read This First.
By: Christine Martens
Being a hiking guide sounds very much like a dream job. That is at least the feedback I always got when I told someone what I did for work. There really aren’t that many ways of earning a living hiking, and guiding is one of the few ways that is reasonably accessible, and definitely in demand. With a fair amount of hiking experience, a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, some flora/fauna knowledge, and a customer service oriented personality, you can find hiking guide jobs all over the country, and even the world.
Being a hiking guide can be very rewarding. You often get to take beginners out hiking, and you get to experience nature through the eyes of your clients, some of whom will never have seen a waterfall before, or been to the top of a mountain. I’ve had clients cry when they have gotten to a waterfall, or while watching a sunset from the top of a mountain, and also when they have shared traumatic stories while on trail. Nature allows people to open up in ways they never do in civilization, and sometimes clients will use their time in the woods to share intimate details about their lives.While it’s great to be able to explore your area through the eyes of a new visitor each day, your personal experience will likely be quite different. You will have been to that waterfall several times just in the last week or two, and you will know the top of that mountain like the back of your hand. While some clients may cry at the sight of a waterfall, others will have been on many guided hikes all over the world, and be somewhat unimpressed with whatever you’re showing them. This is particularly true if you guide for a company that pays well, since they probably will be charging more for their hikes, and, therefore, attract a more wealthy clientele.
You also will be constantly concerned about the wellbeing of your clients, their safety, whether they’re having fun, enjoying the food you’re providing, or suffering from something that they are too embarrassed to share, regardless of how many times you bring up the topic of butt chafe or your first backcountry period experience.
In general, you will likely be walking about half as fast as you probably would normally hike. I would say during my guided backpacking trips in western North Carolina, we would average maybe between 1 and 1.5 miles an hour. Sometimes this can be very frustrating, especially if you are carrying a heavy pack full of first aid supplies and fresh food, and you’re guiding through questionable weather and you’re worried about hypothermia. It’s in situations like these that you realize that as a guide, you better be prepared never to worry about yourself. I have given up a fleece, my rain jacket, my sleeping pad... I have even traded my shoes with a client because their feet blistered so badly in their poor fitting boots. Maybe I was going above and beyond the call of duty, but you will be faced with situations you would never put yourself in otherwise.
Which brings me to another point—chances are, you’ll be hiking in whatever weather there is. I know many thru-hikers will think “no big deal,” but when you’re guiding, it can be much more burdensome to worry not only about the safety and wellbeing of your clients when it is cold and windy, but also about making their trip enjoyable and memorable. Weather that would normally make you want to cancel your personal weekend adventure plans, will have you dragging some poor family dressed from head to toe in cotton up a mountain to see no view.
It also may feel like you aren’t getting any exercise, since you’re never actually hiking very many miles, and you usually are going quite slow, but I can assure you that despite that feeling, there is a real benefit to spending most days out in the woods. Most jobs these days are behind a computer screen, and this is one that allows you to break free from that trend, and enjoy being outdoors. Depending on your gig, you may spend so much time guiding that during your down time, you may actually prefer to stay inside with a good book or a movie for a change.
There are a few other disadvantages, though, that may be obvious, but I guess I should probably mention. Guiding will not make you rich. You probably gathered that, but beyond the measly pay, you also will likely be working as a contractor unless you’re lucky enough to find a company who will pay you as a W2 employee. So it’s almost a given that you’ll be working with no health insurance, retirement benefits, etc. You also probably won’t be guaranteed any amount of work, so you will have to make yourself available all the time in case a guiding job pops up. That just makes it hard to schedule the rest of your life—whether that’s trying to build a life with a partner, having a social life, or even just making any commitments to anyone or anything without sacrificing potential work.
So, you still want to be a hiking guide? Clearly, there are some awesome benefits, but also a few drawbacks that may lead to burnout after a few seasons.
But if you’re still gung-ho, I have a few suggestions for getting started. First, volunteer as a guide! This experience will make it easier for you to land your first hiking guide job, and give you a sense for whether you enjoy it or not. There are plenty of hiking clubs, nonprofits, churches, and schools that would love for you to volunteer to do this work.
Second, get a WFR certification. Some guiding positions only require a WFA, but many require a WFR, so if you can, you may as well get the WFR. Go ahead and get your CPR certification while you’re at it, too. There are other certifications that could help you out, such as Leave No Trace Trainer certification, or Master Naturalist, but those are just icing on the cake.
Get familiar with your local flora and fauna and get plenty of experience in the places that the company you’re applying for provides trips. This will give you the experience you need to be successful in the environment that you’ll be guiding in.
Lastly, consider guiding as a way of life. It’s not for everyone, but it is one of the most common ways to become a “professional hiker!”
---Christine Martens and John Haffner are outdoor enthusiasts who have hiked several long distance trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. They call Asheville, North Carolina their home, where they’ve worked as hiking guides for Blue Ridge Hiking Company in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Learn more about their adventures on their blog.