This post has been written in response to a couple of enquiries I have had recently from people who were wanting to work in the outdoors. It is my intention to explain several different routes that you can take to become an Outdoor Instructor and the possible roles you could end up in.
Begin with the end in mind
What route you actually end up taking will depend heavily on your current circumstances; your financial situation, where you live, family commitments and your future aspirations.
Having said that there are routes that will suit most circumstances and there is no right or wrong way. I will comment on the advantages and disadvantages of each route and where possible give some examples of my own experiences and also of others I know who have gone through the process.
What is your passion?
The job you end up doing will largely depend on where your passion lies. I always end up advising the same two things when asked about becoming an instructor; You have to have a belief in the power of the outdoors and you have to like working with people. Everything else can be learnt.
To become a well rounded marketable instructor you will need a range of qualifications land based and water based such as; paddle sport instructor, mountain leader award (ML), Climbing supervisor, Single pitch Award (SPA) and increasingly minibus driver (D1+E). The sooner you can get these awards the quicker you will progress. How you get these awards will depend on what route you take.
Now on to the different routes you could take..
Route 1: Full time University, Outdoor Leadership Degree or similar.
This is a common route and the one that I personally took and most of my friends too. There are many Universities offering Degrees in Outdoor Education all around the country. Check out what they have to offer and also geographical location depending on what activities you want to specialise in. Have a look at University of Cumbria, UCLAN, University of Chichester and University of Derby to whet your appetite. Bear in mind that I still ended up on a trainee instructor scheme even after going to University.
- Full immersion in the subject, a broad knowledge gained of all aspects of the outdoor industry.
- Surrounded by like minded people to support and motivate you.
- Knowledgeable and experienced lecturers to inspire and enthuse.
- Good range of contacts for future job prospects
- A degree will be valuable if you aspire to take your career further, into management etc.
- Learning to live independently
- Cost! Current course fees for a 3 year undergraduate course are around £9000 per year.
- Earning potential whilst undergoing course will be limited to holidays, evenings and weekends.
- You may not acquire many of the hard (technical) skills required. (National Governing Body awards).
- You will only gain limited experience of working with different client groups.
- An intensively academic course may not suit some tastes.
- No guarantee of a job at the end
Route 2: Join an organisation as a Trainee Instructor
This route will vary greatly depending on which organisation you apply to. My advice would be to do your research and ask a lot of questions. There are some great trainee schemes out there and good place to start looking would be on the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL) website job pages.
- Get your training paid for.
- Earn some money whilst undertaking training.
- Get valuable experience working with a range of client groups.
- Work alongside experienced knowledgeable instructors.
- Get an all round view of different activities.
- Some organisations do not offer pay but offer free training, accommodation and food.
- Quality of training may differ depending on the organisation.
- You only get one organisations view of outdoor education.
- Some organisations do not offer a full time job at the end.
- The post may only be seasonal.
- Some schemes may require some basic qualifications or experience
- Training may only be given “in house” and not accredited National Governing Body Awards.
Route 3: Take an outdoor education apprenticeship
Industry led apprenticeship schemes are hot off the press for the outdoor industry and have heavy Government backing. The jury is still out on how effective they are going to be, so again do some research. Apprenticeships are still available on the existing framework though you would have to go through a College. The Institute of Outdoor Learning are leading on the new framework and you can keep up with their progress here.
- Earn while you learn! Get a wage whilst completing your qualification
- End your apprenticeship debt free
- Strong chance of a job at the end
- Gain an industry recognised qualification
- Get valuable experience working with different client groups
- New employer led apprenticeships are only just being rolled out so they may be hard to come by. (Feb 2017)
- Training standards may vary depending on the organisation
- NGB qualifications may not be offered as part of the scheme.
- You only get a narrow view of the industry
Route 4: Enrol on a “Fast Track” instructor scheme
I am wary of anything with Fast Track in the title, some things you just can’t short cut like experience for example. These schemes have been around for a while now and there are more organisations offering them. It seems as though there could be a big difference in your experience dependant on which organisation you went with. They sound like they could be amazing though having shelled out the money you would need to be pretty committed to get good value. As well as Plas Y Brenin there are a number of other organisations offering a fast track scheme. Check out High Adventure (£7950) based in the Yorkshire Dales and Snowdonia Mountain Guides who offer a part time scheme for £6800.
- Gain quality outdoor instruction in a variety of activities
- Have access to top quality kit.
- Work alongside top level coaches.
- Get valuable experience working with a variety of groups
- Maximise your potential in a range of activities.
- Make solid connections in the outdoor industry.
- Get some concrete hard skill qualifications.
- Usually the cost is inclusive of full board and accommodation
- Cost. The current cost of Plas Y Brenins scheme is £11,100 for a total of 85 days
- No earning potential
- Not guaranteed to get all the qualifications as advertised
- Variety of client groups may be limited
- Whilst gaining some valuable hard skills, soft skills may not be so readily obtained.
Route 5: Night Watch scheme
These schemes tend not to be found much today. I did something similar at the Outward Bound Trust a few years ago that involved being the night Duty Instructor whilst gaining experience with groups, in the hills, on the crag and on the lake during the day. This was an amazing experience and one I will never forget. Unfortunately I believe the scheme is no longer running. Glenmore lodge offer the scheme under a different name now called the Outdoor Trainee Scheme (OTS). They are slightly different to the trainee instructor posts as you would be doing domestic duties around the centre as well as working with groups. Most offer a small amount of pay.
- All training paid for
- Accommodation and full board included
- Most of the time a small wage is included as well
- Work alongside experienced outdoor instructors
- Outdoor kit provided in most instances
- Get experience with a variety of client groups
- Schemes not found around that much today
- The wages paid are generally low
- Most of the schemes involve working nights
- High self-motivation is required to make the most of the training
Route 6: Volunteer and train independently
This route may suit you if you wanted to just dip your toe in the instructor waters. Joining a local canoe club or mountaineering club and getting experience coaching could be really valuable in deciding if you wanted to do it as a career. There may even be funding available for certain coaching awards. To pursue this route it would be best to check out the home nations governing body websites. For paddle sports; Canoe England (BCU) and for all things mountain related; The British mountaineering Council (BMC)
- Do it in your own time
- Work at your own pace
- Go on courses when you can afford them
- Work only with organisations you choose.
- Get a wide variety of instruction styles
- Work in your local area
- You would not have to give up your day job
- You would have to give up a lot of evenings and weekends
- It may be difficult to find clubs to volunteer with
- It would take a long time to get fully qualified
- You may struggle to work with a variety of groups
- Your experience would be limited to day groups
- You have to pay for your own training
As mentioned at the beginning there is no right or wrong answer, it’s just a case of aligning your personal circumstances and goals with your preferred route. Whatever route you choose I’m sure it will be an exciting and rewarding experience.
My experiences at University were amazing and equally so my trainee days at Outward Bound where I made friendships that are still strong today. Every time we meet up we swap stories of our time as trainees!
I’m not sure what route I would take if I were to do it all again. I could not afford to go to Uni today and probably not be able to take the trainee route, maybe I would take a stab at the new apprenticeship route….who knows!
So, get out there, make a decision, make some calls and I’ll see you on the hill!
Thank you for reading this far. Let me know your thoughts below in the comments, if you have taken one of these routes or maybe something different altogether.
My intention in the future is to look at different career paths taken by people once they had become an instructor to give an idea of the breadth of the industry.
Visit the Institute for Outdoor Learning for lots of info on all things relating to Outdoor Education
There are a few books on the general subject of Outdoor Adventurous Education, here are a few to get you started…
Paddlesports, The British Canoe Union coaching handbook
Rock Climbing; Essential Skills, the official guide for climbing awards
Mountain craft and Leadership The must have text for the Mountain Leader scheme