A Career Guide For Outdoor Activity Instructors

orange square The term "activity instructor" is a bit of a catchall, and can be used to label people who teach climbing or badminton teachers. However, generally when people refer to this occupation, they are talking about someone who works at an outdoor centre which specialises in outdoor pursuits - think archery, abseiling, obstacle courses and orienteering. For the sake of this guide, this is what we mean too. In the following guide we will take a look at how to first get started in working outdoors, and how multi activity instruction can either be an enjoyable gap year experience before university, or the catalyst for a long and rewarding career.

Outdoor activities are generally split between land and water, with examples being climbing and abseiling, hill walking, obstacle and rope courses, paintballing, quadbiking. And on water, canoe and kayaks, raft building, sailing, windsurfing. Most inland centres will take people to a local lake or river, or even to the coast if it is not too far away, but if a centre is located next to the sea, they are there to specialise in all things boats. If you do not have any preference or long term goals for the types of activities you would like to teach, head inland and experience a bit of everything. Else if you know you want to be teaching people on water, then look for a specialist watersports centre.

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First Step

If you are completely new to outdoor adventure work then we recommend you think about sending your applications in to a few of the multi-activity centres. Often set in impressive grounds, especially in rural parts of the UK, they usually focus on residential holidays for school or youth groups and offer them everything from wide games and obstacle courses, to kayaking and sailing. The work is seasonal so each year they will need a large intake of new staff to replace the lot who worked the previous year. This means they are not afraid to take on staff who are enthusiastic about working outdoors, if not actually qualified. The market is dominated by a handful of large companies, and also Local Education Authority controlled centres (LEAs), though these are starting to be sold off by some local councils as part of public sector cost saving measures.

With strict discrimination laws in place, you should not be put off if you are looking at this as a career change and you aren't exactly a new school leaver. While it is true that most instructors will be around the eighteen to twenty one age group, this is more to do with the relatively low wages on offer, and the seasonality of the work. You will however be expected to be fit and healthy as the nature of the work means being on your feet most waking hours, and many activities can be rather strenuous.

Another reason this is a great first step is that they will train you to the standard required to teach their clients. A few of the main employers at this level offer apprenticeship schemes as a way of getting started in outdoor education. We have written a more detailed article about this, which you can read here. Your first month or two will be learning the ropes, figuratively and sometimes literally, giving you the confidence to introduce a group of beginners to a new and unfamiliar activity. Even if there is no apprenticeship funding involved, on the job training is an obvious choice for any centre worth working at. Having the facilities available in-house, and the qualified senior instructors on hand to look after the coaching, it just makes perfect sense to train up your staff as they work. This is a massive advantage for you as it means you can quickly advance your career potential, through practical experience and paper based award schemes. Often at little cost compared to if you were going to get qualified independently.

If we have convinced you that a multi-activity centre is a good place to apply, when should you start looking? Not every company starts their recruitment at the same time, but you will find that most want their new recruits in place between October and February. This is certainly the busy period here on Best Adventure Jobs for the multi activity centres. Selection days or weekends are the favoured way to recruit staff for the larger centres as it allows them to see how you will get on in the field (literally). As well as our tips to passing selection (below), have a look at our article which describes the characteristics employers are looking for. You may be asked to role play some outdoor activities, and talk about the challenges you will face in the role. Other centres favour the more traditional individual interview route, and even the big centres will need to recruit year round to cover for staff who move on before the end of the year. Don't allow the seasonal nature put you off if you are looking for something more long term. You can either leave with a lot more experience, or if you impress enough you can stay on and become a senior instructor. Promoting from within happens all the time - think about it, they know you well and they can save on advertising costs. Assuming you are serious about working in the industry, then work hard, impress whenever you can then if there is a vacancy above you, you may find the odds are much better than getting a job in the open market.

Selection day advice

We cannot promise that the following will secure you a handshake and an invite to work for your chosen company for the following season, but the we do regularly speak to the companies concerned and they have given us an insight into what they are looking for in a candidate. And we are more than happy to share that advice with you.

✔ One really important piece of advice is make sure you read and remember the information that they send you prior to selection. This will include where to go, what time to arrive, and what to bring. "You'd be surprised how many people are completely disorganised in this respect and this creates a terrible first impression".

Make sure you arrive on time. This may sound obvious, but if the interview is not on your doorstep, research the location and don't rely on a sat-nav to do all the work for you. You don't want to arrive stupidly early, but nobody is going to think bad of you if you do arrive in plenty of time, and this actually gives you an advantage as you will get to meet and make a good early first impression on the staff. By the time they have shaken hands with fifty other people, your name and face will probably stick better.

Bring the right kit with you. You are highly unlikely to be asked to bring spray decks or caribenas, but you are likely to be outside and it may well be raining, so appropriate clothing will certainly be requested.

Think about why you are there and what the staff are going to be looking for. You will probably find that some people on the selection with you will fancy themselves as a bit of a Bear Grylls, but trust us, when you are asked to take part in team games, it is not who is fastest up the rope ladder that interests the selectors, but rather who is good at helping or encouraging others. Make sure you articulate your strengths, and if you are able to demonstrate that you can relate to other people around you, that will be spotted. And if you only take one quality along with you, you could do worse than making sure it is patience! Children especially can require lots of encouragement to overcome their fears and take part in an activity. Checking your ability to suppress frustration is something the selection will almost certainly test for.

✔ Above all, remember that it is still an interview, so be professional. Just because you are outside on a rope swing or an obstacle course, doesn't mean you should act as though you are running wild with your friends. Enjoy it and have fun, but take it seriously and listen to what is being asked of you.

An alternative starting point

There is another way to get started as an activity instructor and that is to take one of the many comprehensive training courses on offer - we have cherry picked the best of them for our courses page. The main advantages are the speed at which you can get qualified and the level of qualification you can achieve in such a short space of time. Not having to mix learning and teaching, you are free to concentrate on your own development, rather than on the beginners in your care. Shorter courses lasting six or twelve weeks will still probably get you more paper qualification than you would get working a season at a centre. The main disadvantage is the cost and the fact that you will not be earning any money while you are on the course. These courses are not cheap, with the average price for six months exceeding the £5k mark. But before you write it off as a bad idea, remember what you are going to get from them. A list of qualifications as long as your arm, some great teaching coaching experience and a serious advantage over your peers once you are all in the same boat in terms of experience. Of course not everyone can afford to stump up this kind of money, even if they want to, but if you can scrape it together, it may be a great way to give yourself a head start. We work with a few companies who offer these courses, and some of them are sold out more than a year in advance, such is their popularity. There is even the possibility of being offered a permanent position at the end of the course if you impress enough and they happen to have a vacancy - it does happen. Then you will be the one training other people to become instructors.

Moving on

Perhaps you are not fresh from college or university. You may have already been through the process described above, or you may have picked up a few of the governing body coaching awards. What options are available to you to get higher up the food chain? Well the next step after being a multi activity instructor at a large centre, is either work at a smaller centre offering multi activities, specialise in one activity area at a smaller centre, or head back to a different large centre. The easiest is always going to be the latter because as we have already discussed, they need to employ lots of people each year and if they know you can already do the job, you are a safe bet. However, repeating this entry level job isn't going to push your career forward at any great speed. At the risk of sounding like your parents, in most cases we'd advise you to specialise if you want to work up to a higher salary and have better career options.

The larger centres are designed to offer taster sessions, so their staff need to be proficient and knowledgeable, but not necessarily experts. That is fine when you are teaching beginners, but when a centre is offering training sessions, perhaps in climbing or white water rafting, you aren't going to have any chance of landing the job if your own abilities are lower than the clients you will be helping to teach. For that reason, smaller centres are going to be far more picky when it comes to recruitment. The main way you can increase your chances of employment at this stage is to develop your own skills and qualifications. Those large centres are churning out thousands of people with one year and a couple of NGBs under their belt (more about NGBs here). Some will go on to university, but many will hit the market with very similar levels of experience and qualifications. Grab any opportunity you can to differentiate yourself, either by gaining extra experience, or by spending your cash on a 3 star kayak course rather than a new ipad.


Most useful qualifications?

Most useful qualifications?

People often ask us which NGB qualifications they should be looking at achieving in order to kick start a career in outdoor adventure. To be honest is isn't an easy question to answer because it really depends on what you are planning to do long term. If you are completely new to the industry and looking to get started, you can either build up a few qualifications on your own, or you can try to get employed with a multi activity centre, who will usually offer you some NGBs as part of your training and qualification - this way you will also get some great experience too. Whichever route you decide, this article takes a look at which qualifications are most useful for budding instructors.

Most useful qualifications? >>

Mountain Instructor awards

Mountain Instructor awards

Following on from our Mountain Leader page we now take a look at the even more serious Mountain Instructor scheme, overseen by Mountain Leader Training UK. The leader awards are great qualifications to have on your CV and very useful when it comes to introducing groups to our upland areas, but for serious climbers and budding mountaineers the MIA and MIC scheme is the next target on the horizon.

Mountain Instructor awards >>

DofE Assessor

DofE Assessor

The Duke of Edinburgh scheme is well known to most people, but how many know about the expedition element of the award which requires small groups to make their way, unaided, across wild terrain, for up to four days and three nights of wild camping? To make sure each group successfully completes their expedition, we enter the secret world of the assessors - the people who shadow the candidates, often unseen, as they trek through the wilderness. Read our interview with Georgina and find out how you too can add expedition assessor to your outdoor instructor profile.

DofE Assessor >>