Desk-Bound Engineer to Professional Backpacking Guide in 1 Year
At the beginning of 2017, I’d never been backpacking. Never. I was an office-dwelling engineer with only the occasional day hike to get me outdoors. By 2018, I was a professional backpacking guide in the Pacific Northwest. That intervening year was extraordinary.
I’d found my love for hiking and turned it into an epic career that took me from Norway to Nicaragua. Along the way, I discovered – or incidentally stumbled across – the answers to the most common question I’m asked: “how do you become a professional backpacking guide?”
There’s no universal answer. But my circuitous route revealed an exciting path to turn a hiking passion into a profession – and it all began at a desk in Duluth, Minnesota.
Making the Leap – Duluth, Minnesota
I’m a planner. Most likely thanks to my design engineer’s compulsion to know every detail before moving forward. But in this case, I ironically used that knack to organize my liberation from a desk in Duluth.
A few well-written travel articles had inspired me to “expand my perceptions and experiences beyond those of a desk” – as I eventually worded it in a letter to my employer. I hadn’t yet discovered my love for backpacking. But I knew that I wanted to travel, and that was enough.
So, with a copious amount of planning, I’d terminated my lease, sold my car, and packed my bag. Then in May of 2017, I boarded a plane for Norway. That’s where hiking first entered my life, although it wasn’t entirely my idea.
Discovering a Hiking Passion – Steigen, Norway
There are infinite opportunities to volunteer abroad, such asWorldPackers and WWOOF. In my case, a chance to volunteer in Steigen, Norway appeared on WorkAway. The volunteer work itself was straightforward – basic maintenance and lending a helping hand to a lodge in exchange for a bed and food, nothing groundbreaking.
But my exhilaration at exploring a new country was compounded when my host asked if I’d like to learn how to lead small groups on hiking trips. My rock climbing experience, combined with a general joie de vivre, seemed ample qualification at this stage, and I answered that I’d be happy to give it a try. This decision soon turned out to be one of the best of my life.
The Nordskot Traverse was a narrow rock bridge connecting two mountains just outside of Nordskot, Norway. My new task as an apprentice guide was to help guide guests up one mountain – Sørskottinden – set up a rope team to cross the traverse, then descend the opposite mountain and get picked up at the fjord. After the very first trip, I knew that guiding was my calling.
My First Hiking Trip
That first trip was a stereotypically brisk and windy day in our corner of Northern Norway. Snow still encapsulated most of the upper reaches of Sørskottinden Mountain and streaked across the hundreds of feet of sheer cliff that composed the traverse. The snowy rock barrier exuded a feeling of impenetrability, allowing nothing to pass. But that’s exactly what we did, and the 60 meters of climbing rope slung around my pack made me feel like an interloper preparing to scale the walls to some colossal castle.
Every step of that hike seemed to unlock a new sensation of wonder within a mind previously restricted to equations and staff meetings. But there, I pushed my mind and body towards exploration as we repelled down to the traverse and slowly picked our way across what seemed like a giant’s causeway.
That feeling of exhilaration stuck with me long after my first hike, but I had a lot of work to do before becoming a professional.
Medical Certifications – Nethy Bridge, Scotland
Compelled by an expiring visa, I needed to find a new destination in August 2017. Red tape made my search easy, as Norway was part of the Schengen Zone along with most of Europe. This meant that my expiring visa also applied to every country in that zone, but the United Kingdom was a notable exception. WorkAway revealed another lodge-based volunteering opportunity in Nethy Bridge, Scotland, and away I went.
Once again, I basked in the thrill of exploring a new destination. The purple heather-covered hills and misty majesty of Caledonian Forest provided ample opportunity for adventure. However, my taste for guiding never faded, and I spent my time in Scotland researching how to take that experience to the next level.
In addition to the clear need for more experience, I learned that a professional backpacking guide needs certifications. Some research revealed that a wilderness medical certification was critical. Therefore, I found a goal for my four-month stint in Scotland.
As luck would have it, a nearby outdoors center in the Cairngorms was hosting a Wilderness EMT (WEMT) course. Studying wilderness medicine among the rugged and unforgiving Cairngorms was incredible, as was the chance to exhibit my tremendously poor dancing skills at a celebratory Cèilidh.
But in addition to medical certification, I was also desperately in need of experience before I could go pro. The opportunity to gain that experience appeared on the other side of the world in Nicaragua.
A Note About Medical Certifications
I’ll admit that this course was my single greatest expense during this year of traveling. However, I was convinced that having my WEMT certification was pivotal to getting my foot in the door of professional guiding. I was right.
This step is my biggest piece of advice for any avid hiker looking to become a professional backpacking guide. Get that medical certification. A wilderness first responder (WFR) is the industry standard, while a WEMT is a step further if you already have medical experience.
Getting Experience – Leon, Nicaragua
Once again, Workaway proved invaluable for finding new experiences as it led me to the Leon, Nicaragua branch of Quetzaltrekkers. This hiking organization relied on volunteer guides to help raise money for local children’s rehabilitation and education programs. A worthy cause, with the added benefit of guiding groups up Nicaragua’s most stunning volcanos. These smoldering peaks included Telica, El Hoyo, and Cerro Negro.
Incredible, epic, enlightening – there aren’t enough descriptors in the dictionary to give this experience justice. I was finally immersed in the backpacking world, surrounded by a crew of very supportive friends, and training to be a guide at the same time.
Every hike was a journey into an almost mythical realm shrouded in steam and ash as we camped on the rim of mighty volcanos. At night, lava would glow faint orange in the bowels of Telica Volcano, while the Milky Way would light up the sky above. Then every morning, the pumpkin orange sun would reveal the entire jagged spine of volcanos that we had slumbered on that night.
I couldn’t have wished for a better location to learn my new trade. Two to three hikes a week added up to hundreds of miles crammed into just a few months. Then, when the time came in April 2018 for me to head back stateside, I had a professional guiding job waiting for me at Wildland Trekking. That was three years ago, and this ex-desk jockey has never looked back.
Searching for a Professional Backpacking Guide Job
Like almost all of my adventures to this point, my path towards Wildland Trekking began with online research. I was lucky that I wasn’t bound by a geographic area in the USA, and I could therefore relocate just about anywhere that needed a guide. Hours of hammock-based research at the Quetzaltrekkers house revealed a long list of companies searching for backpacking guides for the upcoming 2018 season. So, like any other job hunt, it was time to dust off that resume and cover letter.
My past year provided ample material to fill a resume and letter, and perhaps a couple of books. But I kept it short and to the point, as any job seeker should. Wilderness medical certification – check. Guiding experience – definitely.
I won’t sugarcoat the facts and say that my year made it easy to find a guiding job. It can be a tough industry, and I received my fair share of rejections. However, I rank tenacity directly below planning on my list of skills, and I kept at it.
Eventually, with persistence and emphasizing my obvious ability to learn and build on my (admittedly) limited experience, I got that coveted interview. A thirty-minute conversation turned into an hour as my enthusiasm for backpacking almost caused my interviewer to head down to Nicaragua to come work with us instead. But I got the job!
The last interview question was where I would like to work in the United States – as Wildland Trekking had many program areas across the country. I wasn’t prepared to be offered a choice, and I answered that they could send me wherever they needed me. That’s how I discovered the Pacific Northwest (PNW).
Professional Backpacking Guide – Washington State, USA
Olympic National Park
My first trip took me to Olympic National Park’s Enchanted Valley. I vividly remember crawling out of my tent on that trip to watch the morning mist unfurl across the valley’s cascades and waterfalls. A picturesque ninety-year-old chalet stood watch over the river, and I smiled broadly, knowing that I’d found a job that I loved. From that trip onward, the experiences only got better.
One of my early trips took me along the Olympic North Coast. Four days of stunning tidal pools teeming with colorful marine life interspersed with meticulously planned timing to navigate the tides rolling in. That perpetually misty and mysterious domain between Shi-Shi Beach and Ozette will always be one of my favorite routes to guide.
The relaxation of camping next to the ocean, mixed with the exhilaration of donning gloves and using well-weathered ropes to conquer rocky headlands, yielded a backpacking experience unlike any other. An experience amplified by finding hidden monuments to the past in the form of rock carvings, which made me feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones.
My new occupation also saw me leading groups to Mount Olympus – through some of the most stunning scenery in the country on the Hoh River Trail. The Olympic Rainforest was a ballet of water in sharp contrast to my previous experiences guiding on the dry Nicaraguan volcanos. Streams, creeks, and rivers danced around us as they fed gigantic western hemlocks and red cedars. As we climbed into the alpine zone, the forest was replaced by endless meadows offering a medley of colors to compliment the glaciated peaks.
North Cascades National Park
After a month of exploring Olympic National Park, I thought I’d never find a place in the PNW that could compare. But then I was assigned a trip to Sahale Glacier in the North Cascades.
Anyone who has hiked the PCT through North Cascades National Park understands why it’s nicknamed “the Alps of America.” The jagged and sharp peaks make for an incredible skyline, and I found that there’s no better place to appreciate them than at Sahale Glacier. This is the highest established campsite in the national park.
Guiding a four-day backpacking trip involving lush valleys and the abandoned Black Warrior Mine was an incredible experience. The Sahale camp is harsh, as the wind at the 7,600-foot elevation bites bitterly. But an endless array of incredible snowy peaks punctuated by snowpack makes the climb well worth it – and I’ve never had a guest disagree.
Final Tips on Turning Your Hiking Passion into a Profession
Experience and certifications are the two keys to becoming a professional backpacking guide, and my year-long adventure yielded both. However, there’s ample opportunity to achieve these targets in the United States.
Certifications: There are dozens of WFR certification courses across the country all year long. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a popular and well-established option, while Remote Medical Training is also a fantastic option that I’ve used for recertifications. Additionally, many guiding outfits require a food handler’s permit. This is an online course that only takes a couple of days to complete; your new guiding company will be able to direct you to the course that they prefer.
Experience: Volunteer guiding options are phenomenal if you can track them down. But simply immersing yourself in your desired area is also effective. Research the company or region you want to guide with and hit the trails. Vast local knowledge from trails to natural history is immensely useful and attractive to guiding outfits and will boost your application.
Courses: I’d also be remiss not to mention outdoor leadership courses, which offer a structured avenue towards becoming a guide. These courses are extremely beneficial – I’ve met many guides who have gone this route. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming that this is the only avenue towards professional guiding.
Engineer to Professional Backpacking Guide: In Conclusion
So much has changed since those desk-riddled days in Duluth. Backpacking has become my passion and profession, and I never hesitate to recommend my career to other hiking enthusiasts. Granted, it’s long hours of hiking, camping, and directing a crew of hikers. But yet, every night, I lie down in my tent and listen to the wilderness. A symphony of birds and amphibians sing me a lullaby and remind me how fortunate I am that being out there is my job.
Featured image: Photo by Dan Purdy. Graphic design by Sophie Gerry.
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