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Back to School with Careers in Outdoor Education

They say that the greatest gift you can give in life is to teach. We asked our incredible crew of outdoor education pros what it’s like to teach in an outdoor setting. It turns out, it’s a pretty rad career filled with many different paths all aimed at creating a safe learning place outside. Check it out.

There Are Many Different Career Paths in Outdoor Education

Working in outdoor education doesn’t necessarily mean you need to work for a school. In fact, there are many career paths in outdoor education that range from instructors to park rangers. Of course, there are more traditional paths of working with schools and universities, but there’s an array of careers that have an educational component, including:

  • Ski, snowboard, climbing, swimming, fishing, or other outdoor sport instructor
  • Outdoor leadership instructor
  • Park ranger interpreter
  • Field instructor. This could be for an array of positions from kid’s learning programs to search and rescue instructors
  • Challenge course leader
  • Interactive animal handlers for education
  • Counselor or instructor for outdoor-based schools
  • Volunteer or counselor for under-served youth outdoor programs
adaptive climbing adventures outdoor education
Craig Demartino and Adaptive Adventures Students at Lander’s International Climbers Festival. Image courtesy of Brook Hayer.

Why Did You Get Involved with Outdoor Education?

We sat down and asked nine outdoor educational instructors why they got into outdoor education. Many people fell into outdoor ed from their desire to teach, but be outside. Others say the rewards that came with learning. Either way, everyone shares a passion for the outdoors and believe in the power of sharing that passion.

“I come from a background in environmental education. Working with underserved youth on environmental issues has broadened my understanding of outdoor access barriers keeping youth and their families from experiencing and benefiting from nature…I do outdoor education because I have first hand witnessed the life-long impact it has on all individuals involved, including adult volunteers and even myself. I did not grow up going outdoors much at all and owe my own love for the outdoors to choosing this as my career.” – Jenna C. Course Instructor with multiple organizations including Big City Mountaineers, Earth Team, and BAWT.

“I originally got involved with outdoor education when I discovered that I really enjoyed teaching but hated the idea of being confined to a classroom.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

“Because I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors in a constructive way that benefits all kinds of people. I have always had a huge passion for the outdoors and want to instill that passion in today’s youth and help people learn how to recreate in the outdoors responsibly while helping them form meaningful connections to the resource.” – Jen N. Park Ranger Interpreter, National Parks Service.

“I love snowboarding and I wanted to share my passion with others, so they can enjoy the snow the same way I do.” – Michael M, Ski and snowboard instructor for both students and fellow instructors.

“I love being outside and I get paid to PLAY as well as empower others to realize what they can do and help reach their potential.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

Outdoor education careers
Michael M. discussing how the carving went with his students.

What is Your Favorite Part About Your Job as an Outdoor Educator?

Every job has its amazing moments and the parts that well, aren’t so great. But it’s those moments where your passion comes to life that keep you getting out of bed and dressed for work every day. 

“I love seeing my students progress from a mess on the hill to taking on the harder runs. With my training job, I enjoy seeing nervous instructors become confident in their abilities to teach and manage a large group.” – Michael M, Ski and snowboard instructor for both students and fellow instructors.

“I love watching eyes light up in awe as humans see from a new perspective.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

“Educating with birds of prey” – Zac S. Previous outdoor educator with Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.

I get paid to PLAY, hike, climb, kayak, shoot archery, bike, snowshoe, ski….Things I do on my own for fun.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

“Helping people have that “ah-hah!” Moment. I love seeing and hearing people discover something they find truly thought provoking or exciting about the resource.” – Jen N. Park Ranger Interpreter, National Parks Service.

What Advice Did You Wish You Knew Before You Began Your Career?

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and tell your younger self an important nugget of knowledge? I know I have! Here’s what our panel of outdoor educators wish they had known before they got started. From practical tips to introspective knowledge, these pros have some in-depth insight.

“It is more rewarding than you would believe.” – Carl K. Snowboard instructor at Kissing Bridge.

“I wish I had realized how hard it is to land a full time job in this field.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

“That working with people in the outdoors is going to welcome a lot of varying perspectives. To be ready to work with people who may have never have had outdoor experiences and bear with them through processes that seem normal to you, but many people have never encountered.” – Jen N. Park Ranger Interpreter, National Parks Service.

“This is going to be harder than you think – make the most of every present moment.” – Cara M, Field instructor for Outward Bound.

“Invest in a good raincoat, a solid pair of shoes, and wool socks. Also you can never carry too much sunscreen or bug spray.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

What is One Thing You Hope Your Students Take Away from Their Outdoor Education?

When you have a passion for education, there’s always one big takeaway you try to give to your students. 

“I really hope that they take away a new perspective and appreciation of the amazing world we live in.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

“To preserve wildlife and care for the world we live in.” – Zac S. Previous outdoor educator with Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.

“When you do the thing that makes you nervous, that is when you grow as a person.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

“Empowerment, self appreciation, and confidence in their ability to be resilient in the face of challenges.“ – Jenna C. Course Instructor with multiple organizations including Big City Mountaineers, Earth Team, and BAWT.

“Helping students find their passion, find their activity of choice, and find jobs.” – Garth T. Instructor and risk manager at Utah Valley University Outdoor Recreation Management Department

What is Your Favorite Piece of Gear to Use in the Classroom?

Here at Outdoor ProLink we are gear nerds above all else, so we asked our eductors what is that must-have item you can’t live without in your outdoor classroom.

“Climbing gear! As an interpretive ranger, I create programs on pretty much whatever I want. I love getting to share my knowledge of climbing with non-climbing folk and advocate for safe and respectful climbing. I love getting to break down preconceived ideas that climbers are these dirty, careless people and help people see that (most) climbers are thoughtful individuals who care deeply about preserving the lands they recreate on.” – Jen N. Park Ranger Interpreter, National Parks Service.

“Pool noodles – like most other props they have many uses but they’re great for Whomping people and make fantastic lightsabers. It’s also easier to lead a debrief while holding one in your hand.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

“Live animals, it really draws people in.” – Zac S. Previous outdoor educator with Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.

“My Black Diamond Storm headlamp. If I have that in my pack it usually means I am leading a night hike and hopefully will get to share the night sky with my students.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

careers in the national parks
Jen N. gives a program about rock climbing in Zion National Park. It’s her favorite part of the week.

Final Words of Wisdom

Our pros share their insider tips for having a career in outdoor education.

“It takes miles of patience. It can feel like forever before you land where you want to be doing what you want to do and have stable employment to go with it. That being said, it is so rewarding to know that I have the opportunity to plant seeds in people that may just change their lives.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

“A career in outdoor education can be extremely challenging especially with a lot of outdoor education being seasonal work. Specifically as a park ranger outdoor education can be quite exhausting with how much time we spend just telling people “no, don’t do that, here’s why”. It can seem like being a park ranger makes you the bad guy all the time, but focusing on the positive impacts you have and the lasting impressions you make can make it all worth it.” – Jen N. Park Ranger Interpreter, National Parks Service.

“Adults love toys more than students do.” –  Cara M, Field instructor for Outward Bound.

“Social justice, equity, and inclusion discussions and actions should be a priority of all outdoor organizations, including corporations.” – Jenna C. Course Instructor with multiple organizations including Big City Mountaineers, Earth Team, and BAWT.

“You’ll have good groups and not so good groups, the weather will be unpredictable, and plans can change on the fly alot. But if you can take it all in stride, you’ll have a great time and enjoy what you do.” – Amy W. Challenge course leader for the YMCA and Adirondack Club.

Stories from Being an Outdoor Educator

What is life without a good story to share. Gather around our virtual campfire to hear our panel’s favorite outdoor stories.

“Glove training a Great-horned Owl was the coolest thing I could have ever done. The owl is used to this day as an educational ambassador.” – Zac S. Previous outdoor educator with Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia.

Owl training for outdoor education
Zac S. and his pal the horned owl.

“One time I was paddling a raft of sleeping students in the Everglades with my co-instructors and everything was quiet and peaceful (which it hadn’t been for days) and we were all teaching each other songs and singing. The water and the sky were the exact same color so you couldn’t see where the sea ended and the sky began.” – Cara M, Field instructor for Outward Bound.

“I had a student sign up for an advanced lesson after he said he has been snowboarding all over the world I took him down for my routine “warm-up run” to evaluate his abilities. He struggled to get his snowboard adjusted and it quickly became apparent that he was a very beginner rider. Halfway through the two-hour lesson we were riding up the lift and he said, ‘This is nothing like the Xbox.’ Trying not to laugh, I asked if he has been to all of these fancy ski resorts on the Xbox. He said yes. This great kid reinsured why I take every student on a “warm-up run” down a super easy trail to evaluate their skills.” – Michael M, Ski and snowboard instructor for both students and fellow instructors.

“One of my roles as a ranger is to create space for our resident bears as they come through our district. It is incredible to be able to watch these wild creatures do what they do best, but also get the chance to share the opportunity with the public who rarely get to see such things. Hearing the gasps of awe as a bear and cubs swims across a creek is a magical experience.” – Kelly M. Park ranger interpreter for the National Park’s Service.

The outdoor classroom is how you define it and there are countless opportunities to educate people in the outdoors. At Outdoor ProLink we understand the importance of passing on that valuable knowledge in the outdoors. We strive to support educators in their career to bring the outdoors into everyone’s life.

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