When the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) did a survey of most popular activities in adventure travel, hiking was at the top of the list. Hiking and trekking has become one of the fastest growing activities in the outdoor adventure industry, and it has opened up many opportunities for outdoorsy people who would like to make a living doing something they love.
The hiking guide profession is exactly that – a profession. It’s a serious reponsibility to be trusted with people’s vacations in a world where time is the most precious resource, and people work 50 weeks a year to enjoy two weeks off, one of which is on a guided tour with you. It’s also a profession with many benefits. Read on to learn all about what it means to make your living out on the trail!
It’s worth noting that the information provided here is most applicable to commercial guiding. I.E. Outdoor ed, science education schools, summer backpacking camps, conservation crews, trail work, field research, college outdoor recreation teaching, etc will share similarities but trip types, pay, staff ratios, level of experience needed to enter and responsibilities will differ from this information.
WHY WORK AS A HIKING GUIDE?
MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE’S LIVES
The top reason to become a hiking guide is the positive impact you have on the guests you take out on the trail. For many people in the world, setting aside a week to experience the best of Yosemite, or Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon, or the Alps, is an invaluable investment of time and money. It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to lead guests on outdoor experiences they’ll never forget. Seeing the effect on them as the beauty of the world’s wild places sinks into their consciousness is an honor. That’s not to say every guest has a profound experience, but many do, and it’s largely because of a great guide when it happens.
NATURE IS YOUR OFFICE
What a gift it is to work in the outdoors, to wake up to a bright blue sky, to sit around a campfire at night, to spend your days in the world’s most beautiful places. It’s true, it doesn’t pay nearly what many professions do – but everyone else is working in their offices 50 weeks a year so they can spend their one week a year with you in your office. This isn’t the top reason to become a trekking guide (people always have to come first), but it’s a close second.
WINTERS FREE TO TRAVEL AND GO ON ADVENTURES
Guiding hikes for a living is primarily a spring, summer and fall gig – or if there’s an opportunity for winter work you can normally turn it down as many other people are willing to take it. That leaves your winters open for international travel, working in the ski industry, or just taking mini retirements every year. This seasonal work is a wonderful benefit of working in the guiding industry.
SHARE YOUR LOVE OF THE NATURAL SCIENCES WITH OTHERS
Most guides are also naturalists and many have degrees in the natural sciences. The amazing irony is that many natural science jobs – outside of academia – are in the extractive industries like mining and drilling. Guiding offers natural science majors an opportunity to share their knowledge and passion with their guests in a positive, education-oriented natural environment. It’s worth noting that the degree of interest in natural interp varies by guest, but many enjoy it immensely.
PHYSICALLY ACTIVE WORK
If healthy, physical work appeals to you, then finding a hiking guide job might be a great choice. Spending your work days out on the trail can be difficult at times, but also deeply fulfilling. Summiting peaks, hiking canyons, exploring national parks, trekking to waterfalls – these are the activities that fill up a trekking guide’s average day. It also requires cooking, first-aid, natural interp, logistical planning, driving and more – but the first responsibility is taking people on great hikes.
Top areas to work as a hiking guide include:
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- The Alps
- Peruvian Andes
- The Great Smoky Mountains
- Sedona, Arizona
- The Colorado Rockies
- Pacific Northwest
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
WHAT IS REQUIRED TO BE A HIKING GUIDE?
Outdoor guiding requires an amazing diversity of skills and abilities. Because you’re out with paying clients for days in a row, and you are often the sole representative (or one of two representatives) of the organization you represent, there is much expected of you. A guide fulfills all of the following roles when working:
You are ultimately responsible for the quality of the trip you lead and for the safety and satisfaction of the guests.
A big part of your job is to teach your guests about the history, geology, ecology and uniqueness of the area you’re hiking through.
On some tours you will be responsible for preparing all meals; on others it is select meals. But all trips will require some cooking.
Most guides are required to be Wilderness First Responders (WFR), which is an emergency medical certification. You are responsible for providing first-aid.
Sometimes when people are out of their comfort zones they may experience anxiety or other minor mood changes. Helping them to feel safe, confident and encouraged is part of the job.
Guiding also requires humility. Washing dishes, picking up people’s trash, cleaning vehicles…etc. is part of the job. This is a good, healthy thing. No one is above these simple services humans can provide each other.
Many trips will go out without a driver, so driving is also a tremendous responsibility. Driving is, for most companies, the #1 most dangerous thing a guide does.
TYPES OF HIKING TOURS
These tours stay in hotels, inns, lodges, mountain huts, refugios, tea houses…etc. On this style of trip the guide’s primary responsibilities are providing a safe, educational, and exciting experience with some light cooking, driving…etc. See examples of inn-based tours.
Camping based tours are often based out of vehicle-accessible campgrounds such as national park, state park, United States Forest Service, or private campgrounds. Guides are responsible for gear, cooking, leading great hikes, natural interp and more. See examples of camping tours.
Portered hikes are popular throughout the world including the Inca Trail and Kilimanjaro – two of the most popular trekking destinations in the world. Some companies also provide portered hikes in the United States. On these trips porters carry the gear and supplies, and the guide is responsible for everything that directly relates to the guests – cooking, teaching, leading, caring for..etc.
STOCK SUPPORTED HIKES
The animals used on stock supported trips are often horses, mules, camels or llamas. Guide responsibilities vary on these trips – client care, cooking, trip leadership…etc. are always expectations, but in some cases guides will also be trained to lead the livestock as well. See examples of stock trips.
On backpacking trips guides are often the sole trip leader with groups of 5-6 guests. Some trips do have 2 guides and 10-12 guests. The guide is responsible for everything – driving, cooking, gear, first-aid…etc. See examples of backpacking trips.
On single day tours, the guide is often solo with up to 7 guests, or paired with another guide and responsible for 10-12 guests. Guides usually provide lunch and trail snacks, along with natural and cultural interpretation, first-aid and transportation. See examples of day hike tours.
HOW MUCH MONEY DOES A HIKING GUIDE MAKE?
Commercial hiking guide salaries will differ by area and company. One variable is whether you are leading day tours or multi-day tours. Multi-day tours tend to pay more than day hiking tours. In general you can expect to make $120-$250 per day. You may be paid hourly, which is how hiking guides are legally supposed to be paid, so averaging your daily pay will most likely be between $120 and $250 per day. Most hiking guides also make gratuities.