I see lots of schools around different states and countries that teach wilderness skills and they seem to vary a lot in their basis (that is, what qualifies them to do what they do). Some are led by an organization with a handful or more paid staff, some are volunteer individuals, and everything in between. Some are qualified based on certifications, some are qualified based on 'I can do this well' and the latter often goes with X amount of time doing it as a qualification.

Looking at certifications, there are dozens of relevant courses that vary in time requirements, intensity, and geography. Some are just courses to certify you've learned certain skills, whereas others are geared toward pedagogy and not just learning skills but also teaching them. There are also separate certifications which make sense but aren't part of other 'wilderness skill instructor certifications', from wilderness first responder to forest therapy guiding. As a customer of a wilderness skills center, it wouldn't hurt for teachers to have those kinds of certifications, but certainly they aren't necessary.

Is there a standard or commonly accepted expectation in the wilderness skills community of what it takes to be an instructor? For example is it taboo to offer guided trips and courses on wilderness skills, having nothing but one's own experience as credentials? Is there a certain amount of years or specific skills that one is expected to have before teaching others in an organized and even for-money capacity? Or is it purely case by case, up to the opinion of customers whether an instructor is qualified enough or not? Mainly asking in the context of USA and Canadian wilderness skills schools and culture, trying to get a sense of how the wilderness skills community views qualification for people trying to lead a new thread in the community.

  • If you want to guide on federal land, you need a permit, which you basically can't get unless you're the business that already has a permit for that area.
    – user2169
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 14:46

4 Answers 4


In my experience, it comes down to 4 things.

  1. Wilderness First Responder Certification: The first course is 80 hours and then you need to recertify after 2 years. There are other certifications such as a Wilderness EMT but this is pretty much the standard.

  2. Organization specific instructor course: When you become an instructor for an organization you usually have to take their specific instructor course and pass it. I did this at a place called Summit Adventure when I wanted to work for them.

  3. Experience: This comes in the form of prior trips and rock climbs. I keep mine in a spreadsheet with the number of days, people, miles traveled, mountains climbed etc. Some place have minimum amounts, when I was looking at Solid Rock Outdoor Ministries it was at least 6 weeks of backpacking experience in at least one-week increments.

  4. Being in shape: This sounds obvious but I have seen out of shape people try and fail, you have to be in good physical shape or you may as well stay home.

Of course, it will all depend on the specific organization but that is usually what is needed.

  • That framework makes sense. In cases of self employment and leading courses on one's own, there isn't an organization specific instructor course, but maybe that could be adjusted to be 'some kind of instructor course' so there is a connection with, or at least clear exposure to, an established school before someone goes off trying to reach things.
    – cr0
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 15:54

I like the answer of @Charlie Brumbaugh, and it would be hard to do better as an official answer, but I would like to add the perspective of one category of prospective client: The older, highly experienced but still healthy backpacker who now needs help with carrying stuff (Sherpa help -- I hope that does not minimize the important role Sherpas play on expeditions) -- and wants, but does not need, someone to help with the logistics.

This is based on my own experience of only a year or two and some readers might dismiss it as an "opinion-based answer", but I think it is more pertinent than that.

A Possible Niche Market: A lot of backpackers are getting older, some of us a lot older, but are not yet ready to turn in our hiking boots and sit by an indoor fire watching TV. We can still hike, we still want to sleep under the stars, we still want to feel part of TGO. But we are sloooow with a pack. Up to some point, being slow means we can still do, but have to do it slower; after that point, being slow means one can't do, or it is at least not fun any more.

For this group, of which I am now, alas, one, a strong, experienced person makes the difference. She doesn't have to have formal credentials, just a good reputation among people the customer trusts.

My husband and I found one such person two years ago through our doctor's daughter. After an exchange of e-mails and phone calls, we decided he would work out, and he did, extremely well.

I don't know how well he would have handled a large group, or a group of inexperienced people, or a group into unknown territory, but for a group of two experienced people who knew their own capacity and who were going back to an area they knew well, he was ideal.

This kind of help is one step beyond the packer who only packs stuff into and out of one's base camp, and is worth it only for people who value solitude in TGO, and thus reject a group trip with a lot of strangers.

It is definitely not for every aging backpacker, and it is also expensive, but there is probably a niche market here.

I can think of many caveats, but, as I said, this is a good option if people know what they are doing but need help doing it.

  • 2
    "as a business" in the title of the question is important. Like any business, you (OP) need to identify the clientele you hope to serve and what it takes to serve them. This post identifies one set of clients and offers (to me as a non-backpacker) good advice on what those clients will want. As I read it, this group is not demanding much in skills, mostly energy. You (OP) need a business plan. Are there enough of these people to meet your needs? Can you find them? Can you convince them to hire you? Can you combine them with other groups, who may be more demanding in terms of skills? Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 4:53

A great starting point would be to undergo an intensive program in outdoor skills and leadership.

In Canada there is COLT -- Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training. COLT is 100 days long and covers camping, open canoeing, whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, and wilderness first aid.

In the US, and in many other countries, there is NOLS -- National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS offers many different courses of different lengths on the same above activities, as well as sailing.

They are well-respected schools giving you good experiential education and some certifications, possibly to be used as a basis for further specialized training/certification.


Canadian Specific answer:

If you are in Canada, certain "guides" are governed by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides" or "ACMG ". In Canada anyone being payed to guide high risk activities including Rock climbing, skiing and alpine and mounting climbing are expected to be accredited by the ACMG. The courses are incredibly competitive and require years of intensive training [think same amount of time, work and training as becoming a Doctor for a full mountain guide].

Generally any moving water guiding/instructing will requre have a mid level Swiftwater rescue cert. Any outdoor professional should have an appropriate First Aid Corse, Ie. if you are instructing at a picnic shelter Standard first aid will do fine, doing a multy day mountain traverse? 80 hour wilderness course or better. For paddling look up Paddle Canada. Winter travel anywhere there's mountains or hills you will require avalanche training [AST 1 equivalent or better depending on what you are doing].

First Aid instructing must be based on a Doctors approved training plan, big organizations like the Canadian Red Cross have boards of instructors Lawyer's and doctors who build the courses based on nationally recognized standards [ie, standard/basic wilderness/first responder. etc..] , smaller ones like Wilderness Medical Associates build there own standards based on there own instructors experiences, backed by a doctors approval [and there license].

Hunting Corse instructors, and Payed Hunting guides are governed by your Provencal organization that handles hunting licenses.

You may be, with sufficient personal experience, do guide "something" with no formal training, but if you or your client/student screws up bad enough you may face civil and possibly criminals charges

In Canada the test of whether you are qualified to guide and instruct these things comes when, after having a client die, you can get real professionals to stand up in court and say you did what they would have done. If they say you screwed it up badly enough you will go to jail.

  • Good answer, but I'd expect my mountain guide to know a little more than AST-1
    – njzk2
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 16:18
  • Notice I said mountain guides must be accredited, the accreditation includes avalanche safety, I think they need to be closer to an avalanche forecaster for a full ACMG Mountain guide, but there's plenty of small local outfits that will do a "guided" hike or snowshoe trip, I would presume they should have basic avalanche training. Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 23:40

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