We regularly get contacted by young people looking for advice regarding entering the bushcraft industry, which, after being in it full-time for the past 20 years, I can confidently say has changed dramatically during that time. When reality tv came along, all of a sudden the interest in esoteric outdoor skills went through the roof. It’s safe to say that it is now a multi-million dollar industry, and as our culture becomes more urban with the vast majority of people being raised in cities, will only grow larger. Where instructors back in the day could rely solely on a rural upbringing to provide the skills necessary to instruct, to think that one can be successful without formal training today is a fallacy in my opinion. It may have been true in the 1970’s, but the amount and breadth of knowledge required by a modern instructor demands formal training and lots of study.
To get started, you should read this article about Jobs In The Bushcraft Industry that I wrote a while back.
Second, you should listen to this podcast featuring Sam Larson and me from early 2018. Sam represents the next generation of industry leader, and his insight into training paths for future wilderness guides and instructors is worth paying attention to.
Third, you should learn the skills that are relevant to where you live or where you plan to guide. Ideally you’d participate in an immersion program where you can live them all day, every day, until they become second nature. You need to become good at them, and efficient, with deep knowledge as your goal. This is accomplished by a combination of practice and study.
Fourth, you should study the teaching process. Ideally under the mentorship of an experienced teacher and guide who does it professionally.
Fifth, you should get some professional medical training. A wilderness first responder course is an industry standard and, while not perfect, provides a good introduction to backcountry medicine.
Sixth, along the way, you should study soft skills and leadership. Interpersonal communication, leadership, etc., are the special sauce that help groups function, indoors and out. A skilled leader has studied and practiced these skills. These are transferable to almost any job, so time spent studying them is not outdoors-specific. They will aid you regardless of what industry you end up in. This book is a good place to start.
Seventh, if applicable to where you’re at, you should test for and obtain a guide license. In Maine this is a state license. (More on becoming a Maine guide.)
Lastly, you should document your learning process so that all the work you do is clearly evident to future employers and clients. This documentation can also be helpful in marketing what you do, either for yourself or your employer.
This is the advice we give our students, and the steps involved are how we designed our immersion program twenty years ago. Along the way we’ve tweaked it continuously, but the basic framework remains unchanged.
At the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School specifically, due to the challenges of running our long-term programs, temperment and people skills are the highest priority in potential instructors. We only hire our alumni, because over the course of a semester you get to know people, how they treat others, and how they operate under a wide variety of stressors (physical, mental, etc.). If someone has the right soft skills, they can learn to be more proficient with the hard skills.
In my opinion the bushcraft industry is in its teenage years, experiencing massive growth and change, but not yet mature. It’s sure to keep changing. The best advice on building a career came from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. He said “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be.” Take a good look at the industry, figure out where it’s headed, then meet it there. It’s a gamble, but what part of life isn’t?