As Adventure Travel Booms, Guides Say Goodbye To The Dirtbag Life


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Mike Kmit didn’t always set out to become a full-time outdoor guide. Fresh out of business school in 2017, he was juggling part-time jobs as an overnight camp instructor at the Phoenix Zoo and as a footwear specialist at the REI store in Tempe, Arizona.

“I had a colleague at REI who worked as a tour guide and he always had exciting stories about the gig,” Kmit said. His interest piqued, he enrolled in a wilderness first responder course with NOLS and quickly landed a job leading day hikes, biking and rafting out of Scottsdale for local outfitter Arizona Outback Adventure (AOA),”

“I was hired, largely, to smile and point out waterfalls while the lead guides took care of most of the real guides,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my training would be short and would go like this: come as a guest for two training trips, learn all you can, then fly, little bird!”

Five years later, guiding is Kmit’s daily life. He now leads hiking and camping adventures as a full-time, multi-day interpretive guide with REI experiences.

In 2020, 160.7 million Americans aged six and older participated in at least one outdoor activity, a total of 7.1 million more participants than in 2019, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. As more novices venture outdoors, guiding them has become big business. REI in particular has seen an increase of more than 60% in the past 12 months for its REI Experiences offerings, a growing list of 124 multi-day adventure trips led by professional local guides across the United States.

As the business has grown, so have the opportunities for guides. After REI acquired AOA in 2019 to develop his ability to guide and travel, Kmit says his life as a guide has completely changed. Until then, he’s scrambled for consistent hours, scraped his entry-level salary and played it safe on backcountry adventures due to his limited health insurance coverage.

After the acquisition, REI changed its compensation format from a daily rate to an hourly rate to gain a competitive advantage in a tight labor market. Kmit’s upgraded gig guaranteed a 16-hour workday plus overtime, which quickly adds up. To boot, guides received health insurance with an HSA option, and they became eligible for paid vacation and sick leave, a 401k plan, annual bonuses, and even sabbaticals — all the perks of a guiding profession. quality and well balanced. He no longer lived the dirty lifestyle.

Mike Kmit at Utah’s Tricky Arch

“[Before guiding with REI], I remember feeling like it was a privilege to do the work that I do,” Kmit said. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a decent living, especially when you’re responsible for keeping people safe in the backcountry and in life-threatening situations.”

Kmit’s story mirrors the journeys of many US-based guides in the industry – a journey that requires grueling hours of work, technical know-how and vital wilderness skills (built up over many years tireless in the field). Colby Brokvist, expedition leader, guide, trainer and author of The professional guide’s manualsays that transitioning to full-time work, or even leading global expeditions, requires an additional level of experience, leadership and professionalism in the guiding world.

“It’s easy to go there and do a rafting trip or top-rope climbing for a day, but it’s not until [the guides] have long-term wilderness experience that they get to the heart of the orientation: real-life leadership, team and risk management, as well as operations and logistics execution,” said said Brokvist. “Things like this require operating at a higher level and come with more experience, training and a greater knowledge base.”

Kmit and Brokvist also attest to the fact that guiding is a profession with multiple professions.

Not only do they provide an entertaining and awe-inspiring wilderness experience; They also take on the role of leader, role model, coach, environmental teacher, and literal rescuer.

“Each guide has different skills, stories and passions that they bring to the job every day,” Kmit said. “Whether [travelers] want to hone their hiking or camping skills, or learn about flora, fauna, geology, native cultures, and other elements of the natural world – guides will be able to talk about these things. You walk away from a trip not just loving a place, but feeling a depth of connection you wouldn’t get from just showing up and reading a few signs.

In his book, Brokvist describes one of the many roles guides have to play as “the interpreter”. This role requires guides to develop curiosity in travelers by helping people think more deeply about where they are.

“Being the interpreter means guides can provide information and commentary throughout the trips that focus on things like responsible visiting and conservation, social empowerment and amplifying local voices. Guides can help connect guests with local stories – whether ecological, cultural, social, economic – to build deeper connections with the people, places and wildlife they visit.

The guidebook market may only be growing as well. In addition to multi-day adventure trips, REI also continues to run day trips and educational programs in 14 cities to teach and help people hone their outdoor skills for activities like camping, cycling, boating and rock climbing.

Mark Seidl, vice president of the REI Experiences division, says the company has big goals to meet and drive demand for multi-day adventure travel, tours and rentals; the goal, he says, is to get 3 million people out each year. The company also recognizes that the quality and performance of its team of thousands of guides remains a major reason for their success.

“We believe that the guide is the product and is the most important part of the customer experience. REI is committed to attracting and retaining the best guides in the industry, whether seasoned or just starting out. career path, and our benefits and compensation reflect that intent.

As interest in guided outdoor adventures continues to explode, outfitters like REI have their work cut out to continue attracting and hiring high-quality guides suited to lead groups in the wilderness.

“What was once a summer hustler has become a respectable year-round gig with long-term opportunity in terms of salary, benefits and quality of life,” Kmit said. “It is now possible to see guiding in a professional light.”


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