What’s it like being a guide? What do guides do? How do you become one and is it all as good as your Instagram is trying to make us believe? How do you really feel and what’s the truth behind all this? It’s not all good, but keep reading. We love our job!
1. You start from passion, personal experience and constant education
So how does one become a “guide”? What type of person becomes a guide? The universal answer to this is, passionate people. You start out by loving something so much you spend all your free time on it, building a broad personal experience. At one point you may decide you are so passionate about mountains, rivers, woods,… you want to take people out there to experience what you experience. This is only the start. There’s no clear point where it begins and where you’ll end. You’re always learning, whether it is by broadening your experience or by taking one course after the other to sharpen your skills and get more and better certifications to prove you don’t just talk the talk, but that you can walk the walk.
2. People will be ready to tell you you’re not a “guide”
It’s not just about showing that you can do certain things. Competition for work is brutal, safety standards are often high and not seldom certifications and safety standards are used to protect markets.
You expect the person that takes you out to be skilled, healthy, emotionally solid and experienced. The way to prove this is to have certifications, but more often than not, they only have very limited value depending on where you want to work and what kind of work you can do. A lot of courses are hard to get in. Either because they cost a lot of money, take a lot of time or are plainly hard to get in because you have to show a log of personal experience just to be allowed to apply to start the course. Once you finish the course. Your certification might only have a very narrow scope of validity.
Different countries use different standards. Often standards differ from region to region within countries. Sometimes, the local standard is very hard to get if you’re not almost born and raised within this region and this is not a coincidence. Who wants “foreigners” to come and steal “their clients” and work in “their back yard”?
There are a lot of cowboys out there that really don’t know what they’re doing and we need to protect ourselves and our clients, true. But very often, especially in Europe, you’ll see people with overlapping skills and overlapping certifications under different names point fingers at each other – screaming with throbbing veins – that the other guy is not qualified and not allowed to do something.
Extreme examples of this are France and Switzerland where the regulations are extremely strict. You’re often expected to have completed a grueling program (often taking 10 years or more) to be allowed to do relatively basic tours. If you finally attain this, it’s understandable that you want to show your merit, but sometimes it becomes destructive. In other countries you might be called out on not having level X of course Y. If you’re a club volunteer with a sports federation diploma that is roughly the equivalent of certain “professional” guide diplomas, you might be treated as if you don’t know anything at all, simply because your certification is not recognized by the unions of the people trying to make their living off this activity in this specific region.
There was for example one extreme case where British mountain bike guides kept clashing with French guides because the French used every legal means at their disposal to forbid the British to work in their regions. It went to court, research and comparison of both standards revealed that the British system was actually more comprehensive and more advanced than the French one, but still they lost! Don’t get people who are into ski guiding started on this topic!
Bottom line: we want to have good standards to behave responsibly. You need certifications to prove you can work at these standards, but the certifications are more often than not used to keep others down. Expect people to wave badges, point fingers and threaten with legal procedures.
3. You’re not a real person
Once you take on the role, most people start to see you as a caricature. Guides can’t show fear, can’t show uncertainty, can’t suffer from cold/heat/insects/hunger/exhaustion, have to be considerate, patient, tolerant, interested, funny and energetic. Be wary of expecting your clients to see and treat you like a full human being.
4. The people you guide are not always your dream of “outdoor companions”
Would you feel the need to hire yourself? Would your outdoor buddies pay you for what you do? I’m guessing the answer is very likely to be no. It’s amazing to be out there with friends or fellow guides. People have comparative levels of fitness, they usually know what they’re doing, you share experience… Don’t expect this to be the case with clients.
Sometimes experienced people book a trip because they have busy lives and are happy to pay someone to take care of all the planning and preparation. Usually these are great people to have. More often, you’ll have people that are very inexperienced. They might not have appropriate clothing, know how to take care of themselves in certain conditions or know how to keep their bodies fueled in a healthy way. They may be totally clueless about how much strength and stamina they actually have or if they have sufficient body coordination to move over unpaved terrain.
You’ll often be micro managing one or more clients in a group. Big differences in ability within a group can put great strain on group dynamics. Quite often, you’ll feel like some people never should have been there at all, but they’re your responsibility for hours or even weeks.
5. You’re alone most of the time and have to rely on yourself
Paying wages is expensive, logistics are expensive. If you or your employer want to keep the trip affordable for most people, there’s usually not much room for support staff, let alone a second guide. You will usually have a list of phone numbers to call in case of emergency, but you’ll have to rely on your own wits and experience to deal with most things. And believe me! A lot of strange things can and will happen!
6. Work is uncertain and demanding
Our line of work doesn’t have weekends, weekdays, regular monthly wages or even guaranteed work. Many of us work seasonal jobs, flowing on the current of weather enabling or preventing our activities. Tourism is a very competitive sector with slim profit margins, which have to pay your wages. In order to sell trips, you have to promise a lot of high quality service at low cost.
Not all employers are very willing to pay you high wages. Your job is “fun” right? You should be happy you get to do this?
7. “So what’s your real job?”
Clients, friends and family will often end up asking you questions like: “So what’s your real job?”, “When are you getting a serious job?”, “So what are your plans for the future? What job are you going to do after this?”
Oh that’s right, I’m on a perpetual holiday right? Never mind having to be technically skilled, physically fit, confident at navigating, versed in sports physiology, psychology, group management, didactics, speak several languages, be a cook and all of this together for days on end in all kinds of weather while being responsible for people’s safety and happiness? Why pay me at all?!
8. Personal relations will suffer
You’re unavailable for long stretches of time because you’re out in the field. Working in remote places prevents you from going home at night. You might be free while everyone else is working. You probably won’t have a regular rhythm between working and free time. Needless to say, this puts a strain on yourself and anyone you’re trying to have a healthy human relationship with.
9. … Your colleagues are the absolute best.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re competitors or not. I’ve seen it time and time again. When the sh*t hits the fan, guides help each other out. They’re just as passionate as you are, they know what you’re going through and when work is done, they love the same things you do. Even if you don’t necessarily like each other, you’ll pull each other through and if you do have a good personal connection, there’s no better friend than a fellow guide! Many guides are also volunteers in rescue teams. The best companies are those run by people that have been in the field themselves.
10. … You’re out there, you’re on your feet and you’re being a full person.
We’re not machines made for repetitive tasks. The best way to kill the human spirit is by reducing somebody to repeating the same task in the same place again and again. Sure, sometimes we wonder what we have gotten ourselves into this time, but we get to use all of our mental and physical prowess in very varied ways.
11. … You are imaginative, you dared, did and no one can take these experiences away from you.
How often do we hear people say they would like to do what you do “if only”… It’s scary, there’s no clear path, you have to take leaps in the dark. It takes imagination, persistence and daring to just go for it, and once you do, you’ll experience things most people won’t and no one can take these experiences away from you.
12. … Whatever you decide to do in the future, it’s great life experience.
Before jumping into it, I feared it might look bad on my resumé. Now I feel like my time as a guide is the thing I’m most proud of. It’s an accumulation of experience, especially soft skills, that is applicable in almost any job you might want to do next. You get to know yourself and others in ways that would be hard to achieve if you spend all of your time in a shielded 9 to 5.
13. … There are many days where you feel like it’s the best job ever.
There are times when you realize you’re in stunningly beautiful scenery and you’re making your living with it. You make people’s dreams come true and you enable them to do and experience things they never imagined themselves doing. How great is it when someone looks you in the eye and you can see the joyful spark when they genuinely thank you for the time they spent with you?! People trust you with their sparce free time, their financial means, their personal integrity and their happiness. It feels great when you manage to “deliver”. Sometimes no one will even notice, but you’ll know how brilliantly you pulled off that small thing that made everything just so much better. Don’t forget, look back and see how much you have grown yourself. Smile. This is a great job!