Outdoor Activities Instructors lead, supervise and teach individuals and groups in the outdoors.
Outdoor Activities Instructors lead and supervise groups and individuals in the outdoors, ensuring their safety and teaching skills and techniques relevant to the particular activity being undertaken. They may work with novices or more experienced clients, and with young people or adults, including groups with special needs. Instructors are employed by private companies as well as charities, local education authorities and other organisations. The emphasis may be on recreation, self-development or teaching activity-specific skills.
An Outdoor Activities Instructor might deliver short sessions or be responsible for a group on longer trips/expeditions. The role also extends beyond the activity itself – in residential centres instructors are likely to be involved with general housekeeping duties and are responsible for all aspects of the welfare of the group.
Trainee instructors can expect to earn the National Minimum Wage. With a few years experience this rises to between £12,000 and £18,000, dependent on the environment in which you are working – public sector workers are often better remunerated. At a local authority run outdoor education centre staff are often paid according to a teaching pay scale. As a senior instructor you could expect to earn £25,000 or more, while a Head of Centre can earn in excess of £40,000. Bear in mind that senior roles carry many additional responsibilities over and above those expected of an Outdoor Activities Instructor.
As well as their salary, instructors may receive other benefits as part of their employment package. In residential centres instructors often “live in” and receive free or heavily subsidised on-site accommodation, meals and utilities (heat, light etc).
- Leading/instructing individuals or groups on a particular activity (e.g. hillwalking, mountain biking, caving)
- Briefing participants about safety and logistics
- Designing outdoor activity programmes and products for different groups
- Designing learning resources for groups
- Delivering training sessions or lessons in the outdoors and/or in a classroom environment
- Driving groups and equipment to the activity site (often involving a minibus and trailer)
- Complying with health and safety legislation, outlined by the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority (AALA), and according to in-house procedures
- Carrying out and updating risk assessments
- Recording accidents/incidents and writing incident reports
- Cleaning, maintaining and preparing equipment (e.g. climbing ropes, canoes)
- Assisting with catering and housekeeping duties
- Liaising with other outdoor users and organisations regarding local environmental conditions and site-specific issues (e.g. safety issues caused by rockfall)
The qualifications you need will partly depend on where you want to work – private company or outdoor education centre –and the type of activities you will be delivering.
There are an increasing number of higher education courses available in outdoor subjects. A quick search on the UCAS site reveals more than 120 courses with an “outdoor activity” element. There are more than 30 course providers and subjects covered are wide-ranging – everything from Outdoor Leadership to Adventure Tourism and Sports Science. The emphasis may be on education, management or sustainability and some courses are geared more to those wanting to enter the commercial activity sector.
A degree course in an outdoor subject is an excellent basis for becoming an outdoor activity instructor but you should choose your course carefully. Also remember that practical experience is essential in this industry, so a vocational course which involves plenty of hands-on experience or opportunities for work experience is preferable.
MLTUK Training Scheme
Instead of studying for a degree in an outdoor subject, you can also gain leadership awards which indicate a level of skill and competence in a particular activity, as well as more general leadership and group management skills. Mountain Leader Training UK (MLTUK) organises and manages these training schemes in the United Kingdom. The qualifications are widely recognised in the outdoor industry, and you may find having them is actually more useful than a degree because they indicate a high level of skill and competence in a specific area. The training and assessment elements for each award take between 2 and 5 days, but you will also be required to have built up significant personal experience, recorded in a logbook, over a period (usually at least a year) prior to taking the award.
- Walking Group Leader award (WGL) – for leaders of walking groups in summer conditions in non-mountainous hilly terrain.
- Mountain Leader award (ML) – for leaders of walking groups in summer conditions in mountainous terrain.
- Single Pitch award (SPA) – for leaders supervising people on single pitch crags and climbing walls.
- Climbing Wall Award (CWA) – Introduced in 2008, this award is specifically aimed at leaders supervising people on indoor climbing walls.
As well as this overall co-ordinating body, each of the four home nations has its own board which oversees the training and assessment of individuals in that country. To find out more about the awards, and training courses in your area, contact your relevant training board:
Mountain Leader Training England (MLTE)
Mountain Leader Training Northern Ireland (MLTNI)
Mountain Leader Training Scotland (MLTS)
Mountain Leader Training Wales (MLTW)
In addition to the above MLTUK awards, the following are relevant to Outdoor Activities Instructors:
- The British Canoeing Union (BCU) Coaching Awards. There are two coaching awards – Level 1 and Level 2, and further details can be found on the BCU website.
- The Scottish Mountain Bike Leader Awards. There are two awards – Trail Cycle Leader (TCL) and the Mountain Bike Leader (MBL). Contact Scottish Cycling for details.
- The Local Cave and Mine Leader Award (LCMLA) is a qualification appropriate for leaders taking groups caving (or “potholing”) in a single caving region. Contact the British Caving Association for more details.
An up-to-date first aid qualification, preferably one which is specifically geared to the outdoors and remote situations, is essential. It is also a requirement for all of the awards listed above.
- Sufficient competence in your specialist activities to be able to support and teach others undertaking that activity
- Excellent leadership, group management and communication skills
- The ability to empathise and support individuals in situations which are physically and emotionally demanding
- Good organisation and a logical approach
- Reliability and time-keeping skills
- Enthusiasm for the outdoor environment and your specialist activities
- Patience and tolerance towards those lacking in confidence or behaving in a challenging way
- A calm and reassuring demeanour
- The ability to assess a situation rapidly and act decisively under pressure
- Familiarity with office work, computers and relevant software packages
- A full, clean driving licence is usually essential for Outdoor Activities Instructors, and a Minibus (D1) Driving Licence is advantageous.
Outdoor Activities Instructors spend much of their time out of doors – indeed for many that is the real appeal of the job – but also involves some office work. Hours tend to be long and, in residential centres, can include night duty. As all outdoor activities carry a degree of risk, Outdoor Activities Instructors may encounter danger in their line of work.
Those considering a career in the outdoors but lacking experience can complete a placement as an Assistant Leader/Instructor working alongside a qualified instructor. Some centres and private sector employers take on trainee instructors with no formal qualifications but some experience of the outdoors, as well as plenty of enthusiasm, will be expected. For more senior roles, you will be expected to have several years experience as an instructor, together with some/all of the qualifications outline above.
There are hundreds of potential employers in the UK, offering opportunities for Outdoor Activities Instructors at home and abroad. Many are small residential centres or privately-run activity providers, but some of the larger employers include County Councils and Local Education Authorities as well as:
There are far more trainee Instructors than there are Heads of Centre, but if you enjoy what you are doing and take opportunities for training and development, progression to more senior posts with better pay is certainly possible. However, such progression may mean that you spend less time out of doors and working directly with groups.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is very important in the outdoor industry – it is essential you undertake courses to keep your qualifications current and your skills up to date. Joining the Mountain Leader Training Association is an excellent way to access opportunities for further education, experience and training.
Also known as…
- Outdoor Pursuits Instructor
- Outdoor Pursuits Manager
- Activity Instructor
- Activity Leader
- Activity Guide
What’s it really like?
Martin Skinner is Head of Centre at Pendarren House Outdoor Education Centre in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Martin has worked for over 30 years in residential centres, which were known as field studies and outdoor pursuits centres when he started, but are now referred to as outdoor education centres. Pendarren House is run by a local authority, rather than a private company, and as Head of Centre Martin is paid as a Headteacher on the Leadership Scale.
What motivated you to become an Outdoor Activities Instructor?
I started as a biology teacher but found the four walls of a classroom a bit limiting for my subject. Then I discovered that there were jobs where you could teach field studies and adventure activities all the time, and I was lucky enough to get the first one I applied for.
What did you do before you became an Outdoor Activities Instructor?
Professionally I was a teacher. Recreationally I was a climber. I was fortunate to go to a school (as a pupil) where I was introduced to caving, orienteering and mountain walking. I didn’t study Outdoor Activities at College but trained to teach biology.
Can you describe a typical day at work?
I have not been doing the same thing for the past 33 years! Nowadays my job involves managing my Centre (the staff, the budget, health and safety), planning programmes, raising funds and talking to clients, also training staff and monitoring safe practice. When I started, a typical day would be meeting my group at 9am, reviewing the previous day, briefing the students and issuing kit, driving a Land Rover to the venue, completing a caving, climbing, canoeing or mountain walking day and returning to the Centre at about 5pm. In the evenings we would give talks to the students and supervise their free time. This has gradually evolved into what I do now.
What are the best and worst aspects of your job?
The best thing is seeing students learning and enjoying themselves, and often having life-changing experiences. In terms of what I dislike – filling in questionnaires!
What are the three most important skills you think are essential for your job?
Empathy – trying to remember what it feels like to do something (an abseil or being away from home) for the first time.
Tolerance – when you don’t get the response you hoped for.
Energy – you work long hours in this line of work.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the outdoors?
If you enjoy seeing people grow it could well be for you. If you think of it as a way of gaining outdoor experiences for yourself then the responsibility and the repetition will probably get you down.
What is job security like in this industry?
In the public sector there is often talk of cutbacks and O E centres closing because, unlike schools, they are not statutory (yet). In fact it doesn’t happen as much as it is talked about.
Are there more men than women in your profession? Do you think men and women approach the job differently?
Yes and yes. Nowadays there are more women in senior positions than when I started but I don’t think the overall ratio of men to women in the field has changed much. Of course men and women have different skills to offer overall, but all of the necessary skills can be demonstrated by men or women
Is there any other inside-information you could give to help people considering this career?
Outdoor Education is a very diverse field – introducing activities to children, instructing high level skills to adults, working with challenging young people, providing activities for people with disabilities. Some providers specialise in one activity whilst other instructors take their charges pond dipping in the morning and caving in the afternoon. Research the sort of Centre you want to work in, or the sort of provider you want to be; at some stage you will probably want a change, and for a career progression in the public sector you probably need as wide a range of experience as possible.