How I Became An Outdoor Instructor And You Can Too

Ever wondered what it’s like to work in the outdoors? Want to have the mountains for your office, but don’t know where or how to get started? I interviewed Hev Lewis of Average Joe Adventures about her life as an Outdoor Instructor and how she got there.

Emily: Heya! Would you mind introducing yourself and giving us a little back story?

Hev: Hello! I’m Hev and I’m an Outdoor Instructor and Blogger based in South Wales. Over the last 8 years I have worked for various companies at different levels. I finished my BSc Hons in Outdoor Education with Environmental Education from Liverpool John Moores University and gained my ML Summer, SPA, UKCC Level 2 Paddle Sports Coach, 4* Canoe, Local Cave Leaders Award and DofE Gold Assessor Status.

Emily: Wow, that’s a real range of qualifications!

Hev: I currently work full time for Hampshire County Council at their Outdoor Centre in the Brecon Beacons. Each day can be different depending on the group we have in; anything from year 6 residentials, to GCSE climbing, to teaching PGCE students the importance of Outdoor Adventurous Activities in the curriculum.

“I’m a professional shoelace tyer, rope inspector, boot buffer, drying room sweeper and risk assessor.”

Emily: Did you always want to work in the outdoors?

Hev: I never intended to be an Outdoor Instructor. I chose my degree because of the Environmental Science and the Geography… Education studies and Outdoor pursuits were a bonus. Whilst I was at Uni, I spent my days off climbing, walking and paddling with the like-minded people I was surrounded with. I spent my summers doing ‘seasons’, working for Acorn Adventure and Call of the Wild. These early experiences were essential for my development as an instructor. I got the end of my third year and despite the never ending pursuit of qualifications, the quiet winters and famously low wages, I knew I wanted to be an Outdoor Instructor – a decision I have never looked back on.

Emily: So how did you do it?

Hev: I began by freelancing, not too successfully, but learning quickly from the people who took a chance on me. After a year of working for various people, I got a full time job working for the Fairbridge program in Cardiff. I spent a year taking young people with a variety of needs out to do different activities, including NNAS (National Navigation Award Scheme), NICAS (National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme) and the UKCC Paddle Start Awards. I learnt so much within a year working with some brilliant people, both colleagues and clients. They taught me so much about myself as well as the job I do.

In Feb 2014 I was being pulled up a button lift on my skis in the Nevis Range, Scotland, when my phone rang with news that I’d got a full time job working for Hampshire in the Brecon Beacons. Woohoo! It may not be everyone’s dream, but my long term goal was to get a job in a LEA Centre (Local Education Authority) and I’d achieved it within 2.5 years of leaving uni.

Emily: You say it’s not everyone’s dream job. What are the best bits of working as an Outdoor Instructor?

Hev: Some of my most memorable days out are the days that I look around and get a ‘wow’ feeling. I’m so blessed to do my job, to be able to give people memorable experiences, take them to amazing places and teach them all about the world around them.

One recent day that’ stands out in my mind was a sunny day instructing a group with a variety of special needs. A young man with Cerebral Palsy didn’t have the confidence to climb as he thought he was unable. He referred to his left and right as ‘good side’ and ‘bad side’. With some coaching and support he got to the top of two separate climbs – with a big grin on his face and a change in attitude towards his ability. That’s why I do my job; for the people I get to work with and the life-changing impacts that the activities we offer can have.

Emily: That sounds really rewarding. He’ll probably never forget that climb either. Where is your job taking you at the moment?

Hev: In the long term, I’m aiming to gain my MIA (Mountaineering Instructors Award) and hopefully one day my IML (International Mountain Leader). The latter is a long term goal, hopefully using the experience I gain travelling over the next 15/20 years. It’s my post kids, me time plan.

MIA however I’d like to gain sooner. Gaining the 30+ VS 4c multipitch climbs feels like a challenge as I’m pushing my climbing grade to achieve it, but it’s good to have something to aim for and one day it wont be pushing it, it’ll be my grade.

As an instructor I’m always asking clients to push themselves further out of their comfort zones, it’s good for me to never forget what that feels like. Being able to relate to the feelings and fears that clients are having is what makes me good at my job.

Emily: What’s it like being a female instructor in what can often feel like a male dominated Industry?

Hev: Working in a male dominated industry can leave you feeling a bit weak, men are generally stronger and taller making some tasks, such as loading a canoe on the top rack of a trailer, appear that bit easier. It took me a few years to realise that I can do things just as well as they can, I just do it differently. Usually in a less macho way that isn’t a strain on my body. I’m ok with not damaging myself in order to prove a point. If my body fails, that’s the end of my career in the outdoors and many of my hobbies too!

I do feel that I need to gain some higher level qualifications such as the MIA to be taken seriously by other instructors. I know that’s a pressure that I put on myself but, like anyone with a passion for their career, I want to be respected by my peers. Especially in South Wales, I don’t know many female instructors that have stuck with it and worked their way to higher qualifications and positions within the local centres, it’s still a male dominated industry.

The statistics drawn up in January 2017 by Mountain Training reflect this, with only 18% of ML holders, 16% of SPA holders and 11% of MIA holders being female! Keep climbing the ladder and only 6 % of MIC holders and 4% of British Mountain Guides have breasts! If that doesn’t inspire you to, as my boss says ‘get your big girl pants on’ and push yourself harder to gain the qualifications you want, I don’t know what will. There’s definitely been a movement of strong women in the outdoors over the last year or 2 thanks to campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and most recently REI’s ‘Force of Nature’. Hopefully we will see the fruits of this continue and the number of female instructors will continue to increase.

Emily: For the people reading this interested in becoming an Outdoor Instructor, how should they get started?

Hev: There are many routes to becoming an Outdoor Instructor, mine is just the one that I chose. If you don’t have financial responsibilities such as a mortgage or kids, I always advise you start with a traineeship at a centre. As well as learning the ropes from experienced instructors, you can also decide if it is something you want to purse before throwing yourself in full throttle. No matter your situation, find a local climbing/caving/canoe club to gain experience and start to work towards qualifications.

For more information on gaining qualifications or to find your local clubs you can visit the relevant National Governing Body sites below:

MLT – Mountain training association (Climbing and Mountaineering qualifications)

BMC – British Mountaineering Council (Climbing and Mountaineering advice and guidance)

BCU – British Canoe Union (Canoeing and Kayaking)

BCA – British Caving Association

DofE – Details on how to become a supervisor or assessor

You don’t have to do it full time and you don’t need to have qualifications in all pursuits either. I know Firemen that Instruct Caving and Canoeing. I’ve worked with Mums and plumbers who assess DofE or Coach competitive paddlesport. Teachers that are also paid to run their school’s outdoor department. A B&B owner that takes his clients mountain walking and climbing.

Freelance wages start at around £100 per day, increasing depending on the level of qualifications you gain. Just be sure to put aside Tax and national Insurance and register as self employed if necessary. The best sites to find outdoor jobs are BlueDome and the Institute of Outdoor Learning where you can also find a wealth of knowledge on Best practice and any upcoming events.

 

Hev Lewis is an outdoors-y type with a passion for adventure, food and travel. When she’s indoors you can find her doing some sort of craft with a glass of wine in her hand and a dog curled up on her lap.
 
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