Outdoor Learning

If you’re passionate about the outdoors and enjoy working with people, your military experience could provide fantastic grounding for a career in outdoor learning.

The outdoor sector employs numerous former Services personnel who have chosen to utilize their adventurous training and leadership experience in the civilian outdoors. According to The Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL), this is a growing sector with a wide variety of employment opportunities – and the skills and experience that you bring from your time in the Forces will be valued by employers.

The IOL prefers not to refer to the outdoor sector as a single industry, because it encompasses a huge variety of organizations and jobs – roles range from expedition leadership to the therapeutic use of the outdoors. Many people who go into a career in the outdoors will move between different types of employer – including educational institutions, private companies, voluntary organizations like the Scouts and governmental organizations such as the Social Services.

The majority of employers in this sector are small organizations; in fact, according to the IOL, one third of outdoor providers employ fewer than five staff. A lot of outdoor professionals also operate as sole traders; one of these is Cliff Giddings, a former Royal Marine who runs his own business under the name Wild Side Ventures (www.wildsideuk.com). After leaving the Marines, Cliff took an access course in environmental science with outdoor pursuits; he then completed a degree in outdoor education at Strathclyde University. Like many people working in the outdoors, he has had a broad range of jobs since. He was a co-founder of an outdoor centre, taught students on NC, HNC and HND programmes at North Glasgow College, and spent five years working for the Airborne Initiative, a now-defunct scheme through which former Forces personnel used the outdoors as a medium in the rehabilitation of young offenders.

Since leaving the Airborne Initiative in 1999, Cliff has worked overseas as a canoe guide in Burma and a facilitator of adventurous activities in Africa, Thailand and Malasia. But at the age of 38, he now wants to settle down and focus on his company: “I’ve got a small business which is growing and seems to be good. Nowadays I want a more stable lifestyle and to spend maybe two months a year maximum on expeditions.” The rest of the time he works as an independent outdoor instructor, facilitator and leader, and is employed by a wide variety of clients, including Service units.

Cliff enjoys the camaraderie that comes from working alongside other “outdoor folk” and says that he feels privileged to work in this industry because “you’re giving young people and others the chance to get a feel for the environment and the custodianship of the planet. Whenever you go to bed, even if you’ve had a stressful day, you can sleep because you know that you’ve done something which is ethically sound – something you can believe in.”

There are many different routes into an outdoor career – including further and higher education, traineeships and work experience. Steve Lenartowicz, Chair of the IOL, says that “no one route is necessarily better than the others.” The avenue you choose depends upon your previous experience and how much time and money you are prepared to spend in order to become qualified. For between £1,000 and £5,000 you can pay for an instructor training programme, usually run by a college; alternatively you could complete a traineeship at an outdoor centre, during which you will either volunteer your services in exchange for training, or be paid a small wage. A number of colleges offer Scottish/National Vocational Qualifications (S/NVQs) in outdoor education, while universities including Lancaster, Strathclyde and Exeter run degrees focusing on the outdoors. The Guide to a Career in Outdoor Learning, published by the IOL, details the different routes and lists training providers.

Whichever route into the industry you take, you will need to attain industry standard qualifications – National Governing Body (NGB) awards – that permit you to instruct activities such as canoeing, rock climbing, mountain walking, sailing and orienteering. These are awarded by organizations such as the Mountain Leader Training Board and the British Canoe Union. It is not necessary to be qualified in each and every activity, but the more qualifications you have, the easier it will be to find employment.

The good news is that it is possible to achieve National Governing Body awards through adventurous training in the Forces. But you need to ensure that before you undertake any relevant Joint Services Adventurous Training, you register with the relevant civilian Governing Body so that the course can be recognized and accredited. As Major Kevin Edwards, Chief Instructor at the Joint Services Mountain Training Centre, explains: “You can’t write to the National Governing Body with your Joint Services qualification and expect to get an equivalent qualification handed to you.” Instead you have to think, and plan, ahead: “The onus is very much on the individual to make sure they’ve registered with the National Governing Body and have met the National Governing Body pre-course standards beforehand. We can then massage the course, make sure it’s registered and that we have an appropriately qualified instructor.”

With a sufficient number of National Governing Body awards acquired through military service, you may be able to enter employment in the outdoor sector without further training, but it’s worth getting some work experience first. Leading groups of children is a very different ballgame to working with Forces personnel, as Jason ‘Jaz’ Baughan learned when he left the Royal Marines after 13 years service to become an outdoor instructor. Jaz, who now works as a freelance instructor and expedition leader, suggests that people looking to enter the civilian outdoor sector should “Get as much experience working with different groups, including kids, as you can. Believe it or not, employers aren’t very impressed when they find out that all you have is military experience.” For this reason, Jaz also suggests that, if you can afford to pay for it, you should take your NGB assessments outside the Forces. Even if you complete the relevant adventurous training through the Services, you can pay to take your assessments in a civilian setting, and this will show that you’ve “broadened your horizons.”

It’s unwise to enter this profession expecting to make a lot of money. Outdoor learning is a popular sector and many jobs are not highly paid. It’s also worth noting that much of the work is seasonal, so you may have to find other employment for part of the year in order to keep afloat financially. But when it comes to career progression, the IOL’s Steve Lenartowicz says there is “plenty of opportunity for good people who are flexible, skilled and have the right people skills.”

If you plan to start a career in this sector because of your passion for the outdoor activities themselves, bear in mind that promotion may involve moving away from these to take on a more management-orientated position. Instead, many outdoor professionals choose to specialize in a specific area of the sector after completing their NGB awards. This might involve further developing your people-focused skills in order to work in development training with children who have social and behavioural problems, or in management training. Others choose to go into expedition leadership, run NGB courses, or work in outdoor centres with residential school groups – often on a freelance basis.

As the IOL put it, many outdoor sector workers “are free spirits, who prefer the great outdoors to what they see as the bureaucracy and routine of indoor work.” It’s hardly surprising then that, like Jaz Baughan, a large number of people working in the outdoors opt for a freelance career. This can offer lots of flexibility, as Jaz explains: “I can book up work and cancel work whenever I want. I’ve just been traveling around south-east Asia climbing for three months and now I’m back at work and haven’t had day off in three weeks. You can work when you want; it’s great.” In order to have a successful freelance career, you need to make lots of contacts and be constantly proactive so that you’ll be the first name on employers’ lists when they need staff. Jaz’s advice is “write to everybody, phone everybody, and send your CV off everywhere. Get booked up with as many different employers as possible and, because the work is seasonal, get your winter qualifications (eg Winter Mountain Leader and snow sports NGB awards) if you can. Just try and fill your calendar.”

People who enter careers in this sector tend to do so because they have a passion for it. The IOL describes outdoor professionals as “a very committed and values driven bunch who’ll go the extra mile for each other.” If you too genuinely believe in the power of the outdoors to improve people’s lives, then you could find a rewarding career in outdoor learning.


Qualities looked for by employers in this sector include:

A passion for the outdoors
The ability to encourage and motivate people
Communication skills
Responsibility, reliability and adaptability
Team working abilities


Institute for Outdoor Learning
01768 885 800

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