Choosing a guide or outdoor group is like choosing any other professional, so make sure you do your due diligence.
Most people are not experts in the field of climbing, mountaineering, backpacking or hiking and look to others to help provide them with a safe and enjoyable experience in the outdoors. Perhaps you hire a guide for an expedition, mountaineering trip, or possibly even for a local trip to help you find hidden gems and really teach you about the outdoors. Maybe you are just looking for a local outdoor group to help you learn, teach you about the outdoors and help keep you safe. But how do you choose the right guide or the right outdoor group? Maybe you don’t give it much thought at all and just go with the first one that comes along through an online source, take a referral from a friend, or you just hope for the best.
While the outdoors is an amazing place, it can also be dangerous and many of us take its beauty and remote setting for granted. Every year, nationally and locally here in the Ozarks, people are injured and killed pursuing their love for the outdoors. Many of these incidents can be avoided and this is the key reason that many use some effort to choose the right guide or outdoors group for them.
Choosing a guide or a local group should be no different than choosing other professionals in your life. Generally speaking, you would not dream of hiring a lawyer, doctor or baby sitter out of the phone book, right? You would never leave your children with a stranger … so why would you spend time in the outdoors with one? Would you hire a doctor or lawyer that had no education or experience in the field?
To start your evaluation of the correct guide, consider whether they have at least some basic training that includes Wilderness First-Aid, Land Navigation, survival training, Leave No Trace and gear and equipment education. Without these basic qualifications, it would be hard to expect a person to safely lead a group of people in the outdoors and yet you will see guides operate without even these basics. In doing so you are raising the risk, not lowering it. Would you use a cab driver without a driver’s license?
More advanced training is even better. That type of training can be obtained by organizations like the American Hiking Guides Association (AHGA), the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), and the Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI). The AHGA was established to train and certify hiking, backpacking and mountain leaders in the United States. The AMGA trains and certifies rock climbing guides, mountaineering guides and ski guides in the United States, and the PCGI certifies and trains rock climbing guides in the United States. Many of these organizations provide details on guides who have complete training programs and sometimes also continuing education.
Just like anything in life, having certifications does not guarantee proficiency. Skills need to be constantly developed and, more importantly, experience is the overriding factor that determines good guides from great ones. Training provides a guide with the expertise and skills, but experience brings it all together. The best guides always have large amounts of experience in the outdoors, including the mountains and in the back country. Guides use this experience to keep clients safe and offer them the best possible outdoor experience. Experience also gives the guide an opportunity to gauge the client’s fitness and skills under their direction and make sure that they do not get themselves into an unsafe situation. Years of experience helps a guide know when snow, rock and other terrain features are unsafe; stay calm and handle medical emergencies, wildlife, and illnesses; navigate unknown territory, bad weather, fog or whiteouts and to turn clients around when it is unsafe for them to continue, all things that less experienced guides could not. While you may find many mediocre guides that have a lot of training but little real experience, it’s seldom the case that a guide has a large amount of experience who is not a great guide. Those are the people who have proven they are able to communicate their skills and help their clients enjoy their experiences better than they otherwise might.
Just as in other areas of life, the people that are well rounded and have the right combination of education, training and experience make the best professionals and guiding is no different. So what kind of questions do you ask when inquiring about a guide? Ask questions about these very points – you want specific details on their training, their background and their experience. No guide worth their salt will be offended and in fact will be impressed that you are taking the time to do your due diligence to find a guide or group that is right for you. If the reaction is something different, then consider whether that person or group is right for you.
Some specific questions may be:
What training do you have?
What certifications do you hold and when were they obtained?
What trips have you guided and what is the range in size of groups?
How many trips do you guide per year / season?
What kind of communication system do you use when on the trail?
Do you have an emergency plan and what are the logistics of such a plan?
What is your fitness level and how do you maintain it?
The wilderness is a magical place that we all look to for peace, enjoyment and lifelong memories. While you might believe that a guide’s or group leader’s goal is to get you to the summit or to that special place in the wilderness you couldn’t get to on your own, that is only a byproduct, their real goal is to get you home safely.