How to Land Your Outdoor Dream Job
Ever dreamed of working as a photographer, wildland firefighter, or gear designer? Six pros tell you what it takes to get their careers.
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It’s easier to roll out of bed in the morning when you love your job, and we love ours. Getting paid to test gear and write about the outdoors is a privilege, and there are many more dream jobs out there that involve leaving the desk and playing in nature. Ready to make a career switch? Here are a few tidbits from six professionals about how to break into their respective fields.
Fighting fires is by far one of the most adventurous—albeit dangerous—jobs in the outdoors. Entry-level positions are temporary, but with training, experience, and more than a little grit, you can work your way up to permanent seasonal roles with health insurance and other benefits. A number of different agencies, from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management, hire wildland firefighters. But plan ahead: The Forest Service starts accepting applications almost a year in advance. “Get to know somebody who can help mentor you through the process,” says Sarah Jakober, a wildland firefighter for the Forest Service heading into her 11th season. “The best way to get to know someone is to find out the general region that you want to work in, and then go to that office and network.” Oh, and you’ll have to pass a fitness test, so you better start training.
You can start becoming an adventure photographer today, thanks to social media: Instagram is Evan Green’s favorite free tool for sharing his work and getting discovered. “You never know who’s scrolling through those hashtags,” he says, noting that he’s been hired for work through the platform. Realistically, you’ll probably need a day job while you’re breaking into the field: Before the National Geographic Adventure contributor launched his freelance career, he was building his portfolio and improving his skills on the side while working full time as a geologist. “Putting yourself out there helps,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to get out of your shell, but people seem to appreciate when I reach out, and ask what they’re working on and how I can help.” For more in-depth guidance, check out our How to be a Pro Outdoor Photographer online course.
Designing a backpack or a hiking boot is a bit like putting together a puzzle: What features or functions are missing and where do they go? These are questions Gamu Moyo, a garment designer at Fjällräven, asks herself when she’s creating a new piece of clothing for hikers and adventurers. But in order to make it unique, she always puts her own spin on an idea. “Apart from learning to understand the fashion industry and working on your own skills when it comes to drawing, sewing and designing, I think it is really important to find your own way, be confident, and stay true to yourself,” she says. While a degree in gear design is certainly beneficial, Jeana White, vice president of New Ventures at Adventure Ready Brands, started in the industry as a sales associate at an outdoor retail store. “A solid grounding in retail and connecting with a few strong mentors can put you on the start to a great career path,” she says.
Whether you’re writing for your favorite brand’s blog or on assignment for a major magazine, storytelling has many levels. Diana Lee is a full-time librarian who writes on the side for Canada’s Get Out There Magazine, tourism boards, and outdoor gear brands. “What motivates me to write is asking myself, ‘What would be helpful to know if I was getting into X?’ or ‘Why should people check out X?’” Lee says about coming up with ideas to pitch. “The librarian side of me always wants to be helpful, so I enjoy sharing tips or resources to help people make more informed decisions.” Before sharing your idea with editors, she suggests digging up publications’ pitch guides and researching their audience, topics, and preferred formats. Another way to go about learning more about the pitching process is by connecting with writers who work for those outlets. Dreaming of joining the staff of a magazine or editing copy for a gear company? Writing will let you put together a portfolio, start making a name for yourself with editors, and, last but not least, learn how the editorial process works. If you’re not sure where to begin, Backpacker’s How to be an Outdoor Writer online course is one way to learn the basics.
Getting paid to hike is the ultimate dream. But the best trail guides aren’t just strong and fun to be around, they know how to inspire and educate their guests as well as lead them safely through stunning scenery. Carina Leveriza studied everything she could about the flora, fauna, geology, history and topography of the canyons of Sedona, Arizona, before she was hired as a guide at Enchantment Resort. “As a guide, you want to impart to guests that there’s more to hiking than following your steps and enjoying nature,” Leveriza says. “Go in depth. Then the guests will become chattery. That means they are being enlivened by what they’re seeing.”
Chasing bugs and animals in the woods isn’t just child’s play: People make careers out of studying wildlife as biologists and researchers. Jeff Higdon has a PhD in the field and focuses on walruses and other arctic mammals in Manitoba, Canada, through his consulting company, Higdon Wildlife Consulting. Even though programs in biology are available at community colleges and trade schools, he says, nowadays you need an advanced degree from a university to be competitive in the field. The most common places to land jobs include governments, Indigenous organizations, nonprofits, environmental groups, and land trusts. “A lot of smaller certifications are important too,” Higdon adds. “I’ve never worked a job where I didn’t need to have an up-to-date wilderness first aid certificate. This is the case for anybody working in remote areas.” Depending on the position, training for boating, off-roading, and firearm safety might also be required.