Living the Dream: The Life of an Outdoor Educator

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“I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”  This has run through my head too many times to count during the last eight years as I have skipped along between jobs where the mountains, lakes, and desert are my office.  My primary focus has been Outdoor Education, teaching leadership and interpersonal skills through wilderness living and travel.

In the summer of 2008 a college friend convinced me to try working at a camp in Northern Wisconsin leading canoe trips for adolescent boys.  Up until that point I had never camped away from a car and could barely swim well enough to not drown.  Be that as it may, I tried to learn as much as possible and imparted what outdoor wisdom I could to my 11 year old campers, such as “don’t wipe with a fern” and “if we want to get anywhere you actually need to paddle.”  My life changed forever after that summer, having discovered that Outdoor Education was an actual profession.  This sounded much more fulfilling to me than the abstract Philosophy and English degree I was pursuing at the time.

Since that summer I have continued to work with adolescents and young adults in the outdoors, mostly as a NOLS instructor and wilderness therapy guide, accumulating over 700 days in the field.  I have learned more about myself than through any other experience in my life.  In the wilderness everything is stripped away and my attention is brought to my immediate reality.  Facebook posts and tweets hold no sway.  I am more connected to what I’m doing, whether it be cooking breakfast or rappelling off of a climb in a thunderstorm.  The relationships I form in these environments are fewer in quantity but higher in quality.  When we share such a pared down existence we start to see each other for who we really are.

Thinking about turning your passion for the outdoors into a profession?  Here are a few tips:

- Summer camps and wilderness therapy programs can be good places to start, as many of them do not require prior camping experience and you can gain a lot of foundational skills from working there.

- Limit your possessions and get used to transitions.  A lot of times it is not conducive to “settle” anywhere in the traditional sense, especially if your jobs are seasonal and not in the same region of the country.  You can save a lot of money when you are not working by living out of your vehicle, crashing on couches, and camping.  This means, however, that you need to be able to organize your entire life into a small space.

-  Understand that relationships are different when you pursue this lifestyle.  If you have a long-term partner, you both need to be OK spending weeks/months apart at a time.  You also have to accept that the amazing community you spent the last month fostering on course is going to end, which can be difficult to get used to.

- Get Outside!  More than certifications and formal education, a lot of companies value personal experience.  You will be a more effective instructor if you know how to take care of yourself in the backcountry.  Many folks will have weeks or even an entire season off to pursue personal trips and adventures.  Take advantage of this incredible schedule. 

- Be prepared to work long hours and find a way to appreciate adversity.  Instructing does not always consist of frolicking in sunny alpine meadows, getting to camp with plenty of daylight to bake pizza, and sleeping for a full eight hours.  Although these do commonly occur, your day could easily consist of trudging through the pouring rain for 12 hours, trying to keep morale up in a group who is at their absolute limit, scarfing down a quick Ramen-Bomb for dinner, and sleeping a few fitful hours due to the insane wind that continually shook your tent during the night.

- Enjoy yourself!!  For the committed and passionate this will be a job that will leave you asking, “I get paid to do this?”


 

Written by: Dan Hoffman. Dan is originally from Batavia, Illinois.  The mountains brought him to Utah in 2011 and he's been pursuing outdoor education in the West ever since. He instructs hiking and climbing for NOLS and ski patrol for Park City Mountain Resort. He loves himself some Chef Boyardee!