I have more than a decade of experience in outdoor recreation, environmental education, and backpacking. I am now thinking about starting a small business offering backpacking guide service to people who are interested in backpacking but have no experience. The business would be formed in the United States.

I would run small trips on weekends in which I would plan and manage all logistics.

What would be some of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in starting such a business?

I am interested in hearing ideas about all aspects, including equipment, marketing, whether a market exists, pricing, liability, product offerings, etc.

  • 1
    I can only offer the perspective of a customer -- and a type of customer you are not targeting. As avid and experienced backpackers grow old (not merely older), they may be in the market for someone who will arrange trips, not merely for a weekend, but for a week or three -- and arrange for schlepping too. I know where I want to go, and I know how to get there, and I know how to arrange it all down to the last package of raisins, but I want someone else to do all this work, for which I am willing to pay handsomely. – ab2 Oct 15 at 20:42
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    Please add your country/region. The currently highest scored answer talking about liability as most important suggest a US influence (and strikes me as weird - how about getting customers first?). I disagree with adding the legality tag, @Sue, because this steers the question in a narrow direction. Which also points out an issue with the queston - it's too broad. – Jan Doggen Oct 16 at 7:51
  • @JanDoggen In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we usually assume US just because that's where most users are from – Charlie Brumbaugh Oct 16 at 18:49
  • @JanDoggen, thanks for your comment about that tag. It was nice of you to say how you felt. Your perspective was correct and you taught me something!! I had added it after the answers were written, so I was trying to match it with them, but it was a bad idea. Nobody reading the question would realize the tag wasn't originally there! I also agree that it could have looked like an effort to steer the question in a certain direction, and I hadn't thought of that. I had already placed a close vote as too broad. Thanks again! – Sue Oct 17 at 2:13

Liability is the biggest concern. You should have like an LLC to reduce the risk of sued personally. You should have lawyer draft a waiver that will (hopefully) stand up in court. Insurance.

Another concern is customer satisfaction. A new backpacker that has no experience is not likely to have a good experience. An experienced backpacker waiting on a beginner is not going to have a good experience. You can have partner that allows for a split but that is more cost.

You need to have something unique or rare:

  • If it is a secluded water fall it is only secret until the first trip with GPS.
  • A climbing guide would work if routes are hard to know / find.
  • If you have a license they cannot easily obtain like operate a raft on a regulated river.
  • A llama trip is unique (and they don't have to carry as much). A one day trip to a peak they can see from the road with a gourmet lunch.
  • Base camp that requires a 4 x 4 is unique but now you have more cost.
  • A river guide can work as they don't want to buy a boat.
  • A private base camp (you buy property next to a Nation Forest or Park) could work. You could set up small (secured) kitchen and dining table and provide meal services. It would need to have have access to fresh water. If you are strong enough you could hump in the food if you don't need to carry a kitchen. Learn to make a lot of your own camp food. A spot that has a number of day hikes.

Want to backpack but have no experience is not that compelling and has a relative small barrier to entry. They can just start with a 2 mile hike to a camp with fire pit. Consider combining it with training (like 3-5 evenings) followed by a starter trip. Offer advanced trips only to those that have completed the introductory course or someone you know and trust will vouch for them.

I suggest you work for an an existing guide service for like a year to learn the business. Even if the guide service is not something you know - like work the dock for a river guide. You can volunteer with the Boy Scouts.

Personal chefs make a living. A personal guide may work. Only take families and existing groups. To cover your costs you would need to take in like $300 a day and $15 a person per day. You would need to charge more if you supply their personal gear.

I see it hard to make a living off or even worth your time on a beginner backpacking service.

  • 3
    You should have like an LLC so you cannot get sued personally - I think this should be "to reduce the risk that you will get sued personally", it is possible to pierce the corporate veil in criminal or civil litigation, for example if there's evidence of gross negligence. Unfortunately, "evidence of gross negligence" doesn't mean that there was any negligence, but you can go bankrupt trying to prove it. The attorney that draws up the paperwork should be able to quantify the risks. – Johnny Oct 15 at 23:09

A list of all the possible challenges I can think of at the moment,

  • Insurance, specifically liability insurance.
  • Medical training for you and any employees, the standard certification is Wilderness First Responder.
  • Government permits, commercial trips can require a special use permit.
  • Purchasing gear (as a guide you should be able to get prodeals, but it's still expensive.)

  • Food planning.

  • Marketing, a trip can be expensive in the eyes of the participants and yet barely cover your running costs.

  • Expenses, typically people get into this line of work because they enjoy it, not to make money.

There are more, but those are the big ones I can think of at the moment.

A lot of outdoor businesses are non profits or make money through foundations or at the very least ask for donations on a regular basis.

In my personal experience, most people who do this type of work live very simply and quite often out of a vehicle.

A market definitely exists, but that also means you already have quite a bit of competition. There are both small local guide companies that do this, and big companies with a national, or even international scope.

As in real estate, location is everything. To make a go of it you'll need a large base of potential clients, and the easiest way to get that is to lead trips into famous areas of great natural beauty, national parks for example. If you want to lead trips into more obscure areas you'll have many fewer potential clients, and you'll need to do a lot more marketing, specifically targeting the clients who'll be attracted by that sort of trip.

In the US, if you are leading trips that cross into government managed land (national parks, and national forests for example) you'll have to jump through a lot of legal hoops to be approved as as a concessioner. Just as an example, you'll probably have to be certified as a Wilderness First Responder.

  • Break in as concession-er at a National Park is a big hurdle. The stated question is small trips on weekends. – paparazzo Oct 16 at 11:59

What would be some of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in starting such a business?

Frankly, none in particular - by which I mean nothing is really standing out from the rest. Everything will be new to you, from legalities to general know-how (routes etc.) to finding a steady supply of customers, how to handle it when you are ill, and so on.

Or in other words: the first step will be the most difficult one. Go and find out which prerequisites you need to offer your service (do you need to file something with your local city or something like that, do you need to acquire some kind of certificate), fulfill those, and then just start doing it. See how the competition is doing it (but don't bother worrying too much about them, try to have a healthy, good-natured relationship). Whenever you have no customers lined up on a weekend, work on other aspects (map out new routes, work on your website, work on local/regional advertisement and so on).

Start slow (not too many events too soon), easy (trips that are trivial for yourself) and maybe do a few private trips for friends&family first to get some free experience.

As you only want to do it on weekends, I assume you are keeping your regular job, so there should be little risk involved. Obviously, find out what risks are there regarding liabilities (in case of accidents, errors on your part, bad weather, illness and so on), but that should be quite manageable; more of a chore than a difficult obstacle.

  • nothing is really standing out from the rest is especially true if you look at all the aspects of 'running a business'. There are many common aspects regardless of the type of business. – Jan Doggen Oct 17 at 7:18

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