Guide to a Guide

When you go on a vacation, the goal is to experience something new, something fresh, something different.  The journey is to explore the out-of-the-way and the uniqueness of a location.  You can get the mega-business, fast food chain, taste the same anywhere hamburger  — well anywhere, why would you want to have this on your vacation.   Vacations are to experience the out-of-the-ordinary, to live life, to savor the moment – a moment that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.  When hiring a guide for your vacation, ask yourself, “Do I want the fast food chain version of a guide, or do I want the gourmet chef version of a guide?”

Local Guide/Instructor or Major Tour Operator.

“Shop Local” is a movement that is gaining strength in the United States. When it comes to guides, hiring a local guide has great advantages.

  • Local knowledge.  The local guide has local knowledge that has been gained from years of traveling the land.   Tour operators are always looking for the newest trend in vacation destinations.  These trendy spots are exploited until the original attraction is no longer appealing – maybe the fad has faded or maybe the spot has been over used, or become too crowded, or even restricted because of over use.  The local guide often avoids the trendy because the local guide knows of the path less traveled, which will make all the difference in a memorable retreat.
  • Local Safety.  Local guides that have extensive experience on the land will through this experience have gained an intimate knowledge of safety concerns that may be present on the trail and in camp.  Let’s face it, no one can guarantee a completely safe experience, the local guide though knows what to look for in nature to stack the odds of a safe adventure in your favor.
  • Vested Interest. Local guides have a vested interest in protecting the resources from which they earn their living.    This means they want their next client’s adventure (your’s) to be just as pristine as their last client’s, so they take the extra time to preserve and conserve the landscape for future visitors.

The major tour operator has its place.  Many extremely popular destinations exist and the major tour operators have for well over century been able to provide excellent services to these locations.  The experience however is often more along the lines of a specifically designed tour for the location rather than a personally designed tour for the individual.  These are tours of the places most traveled rather than the “places less traveled.”

Career Guide or Summer Job guide

Your annual vacation may be as important to your health and well being as your annual physical check-up.  For your check-up, isn’t it better to go to a career medical professional instead of, lets say, a lifeguard who has basic first aid and a CPR certification.  Sure, the lifeguard can give you the rote head-to-toe examination, but the career medical professional has gained the experience to ask the deeper questions regarding your health.  Similarly, the career guide knows the deeper questions to ask in order to match your interest and abilities with the backcountry terrain in order to provide you with what you really need for your retreat from your everyday life.  The summer job guide knows the terrain that was outlined by the tour operator, and that’s it.  The career guide who is intimately familiar with the local terrain can open the doors to a plethora of options which may better suit your needs for an outdoor retreat.

A Few Questions to Ask

References.  Ask for references for the guide, not just the tour operator.  Remember the tour operator’s main function is to fill pre-designed trips.  They have a number of seasonal guides that go out into the field with the clients.  The tour operator is not likely to be the person who will be in the field with you.

Familiarity with the environment and location of the trip.   Has the guide been to the location on a few scouting trips or has the guide spent years in the local?  Too often, guides are sent to a location a few days in advance to “scout” a trip.  They learn the route, a few plants, the location of some cool sites (probably on the list of things to show provided by the tour operator) and then they are “experts” on the area.  The experienced guide may go scout a water resource to make sure it is still viable, this is just good common sense, however the experienced guide already knows the route and the multitude of variations of the route, including escape  routes and alternate routes to take if something like the weather does not cooperate in providing you the perfect backcountry adventure.

Experience teaching outdoor skills.  If you are looking for an education based experience, how long has the instructor been teaching the set of skills you are seeking.  Has the instructor been teaching the skills as their primary profession for a decade or more or has the instructor taught the skills for a  summer before becoming a senior staff member or before deciding to hang up a shingle of their own?

Guide/Instructor to Client/Student Ratio.   Make no mistake, when it comes to learning outdoor skills, more direct participation of an experienced instructor with the student will make a difference in the skill retention and in the appreciation of the experience.  Outdoor education is an arena where small ratios are essential.

Meet the Desert DAWN Instructor Guides