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Qualifications for Wilderness Trip Leaders


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May 15, 2006, 12:55 PM

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Qualifications for Wilderness Trip Leaders Can't Post

by Paul T. Sheridan, M.Ed.

If you've supervised the wilderness tripping staff at a summer camp, then you've had nightmares. You know the ones I'm talking about — the ones that wake you up in a cold sweat from just vividly seeing one of your trip leaders make a series of astonishingly stupid errors. And that series of errors has led to a camper getting seriously injured, or worse. As you awake from your troubled sleep, you realize that the group you'd dreamed about is deep in the woods. You haven't heard any bad news outside your dream, so you resign yourself to hoping that no news is good news, head for the coffee pot, and then to the trip house for another day of work.

The truth is that no one can offer any advice that will make the dreams go away entirely. The unenviable situation of the summer camp wilderness trip director is that she must send trips out into the wilderness with leaders with less experience than the director herself. These trips are usually far removed from the support structures offered by civilization and by most well-run summer camps — most notably modern medical services. On a trip, the leader — or, more often, leaders — must serve as the entire risk avoidance and crisis management system until such time as the group returns home.

What can help is to provide you with some of the tools that can make certain that your leaders are as ready as possible for the situations with which they must deal in the wilderness. In the summer camp environment, you really only have two opportunities to ensure that your leaders are good ones — hiring and training. In hiring, you assess qualifications, and in training, you help the trip leader bring them up to snuff for the coming season. Thinking about qualifications in a rigorous way will help you do a better job of selecting qualified leaders and training them to meet their potential. In order to examine these qualifications, let's look at them in four groups: hard skills, soft skills, judgment, and certifications.

Hard Skills

Hard skills are defined as "the technical competencies needed to conduct physical activities skillfully and safely" (Knapp 1990). First among these hard skills are the technical skills required to safely lead a group in whatever mode of outdoor travel is required by the trip. Examples of these skills are the ability to rock climb to a certain grade or to paddle a certain class of whitewater. Safety and first-aid skills also fall under the category of hard skills. These include injury prevention and management, rescue, navigation, weather reading, and water safety. Organizational skills are required as many programs require trip leaders to plan and prepare for each wilderness trip. Environmental skills, especially knowledge of and commitment to Leave No Trace practices, possessed by a trip leader allow a summer camp to reduce the environmental impact of its trip program (Gass & Priest 1997; Phipps & Swiderski 1990; Priest 1990a).

Hard skills are usually the easiest skills to assess and the easiest to teach. Either someone can paddle a canoe, or they can't. If they can't, it's usually fairly easy to teach them to do so passably. For wilderness trip programs, it is important for trip leaders to have certain hard skills, but these are of less concern to directors than soft skills and judgment. In a recent survey of directors from American Camping Association (ACA) accredited camps in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, hard skills were ranked last among soft skills and judgment in terms of importance for wilderness trip leaders (Sheridan 2003).

Soft Skills

Soft skills are almost maddeningly difficult to measure in adventure education, but are very important for any wilderness trip leader to possess. Phipps and Swiderski point out that "soft skills are complex in nature, yet critical in maintaining harmonious relations in expedition settings. Maintaining harmony, in turn, affects the goals and safety of the group (Phipps & Swiderski 1990)." Soft skills are best defined as "the interpersonal, people skills of outdoor leadership (Phipps & Swiderski 1990)." These include, but are not limited to, an understanding of group dynamics, an awareness of how psychology and motivation can affect actions, a flexible leadership style, effective communication skills, an empathetic nature, excellent problem-solving skills, a commitment to ethical behavior, and an ability to work under pressure (Priest & Gass 1997).

Soft skills are much more difficult to assess and teach than hard skills. Which would you rather assess and teach — navigation skills or an empathetic nature? The tool that you have at your disposal for assessing soft skills is questioning your job candidate and his or her references thoroughly. Present your candidate with scenarios that would require the use of soft skills, and see what the candidate says. In training, discuss the goals of your trip program again and again. If your goal is to produce the next generation of hard-core rock climbers, backpackers, and paddlers, that's great. Hammer that home, and that's what your trip leaders will act on in the field. However, more often than not, the goal of summer camp wilderness trip programs is the fun and emotional growth of the campers. If that's the case, make sure your trip leaders know it and know it well. The people we hire as wilderness trip leaders occasionally forget that the reason they're in the woods with kids is the kids, not the woods. Make sure they don't forget, and keep using soft-skill scenarios in training to hone and assess your trip leaders' soft skills.


Some writers have placed judgment under the heading of soft skills (Phipps & Swiderski 1990). I've chosen to give judgment its own heading because of the abundance of research and discussion on the subject. Problem solving is defined by Simon Priest as taking "the known values of input variables (the information available to [the leaders]) and calculat[ing] (by some method of reasoning) the desired value of an outcome variable (participant safety) (Priest 1988)." Good judgment is defined, then, by one's ability to accurately estimate variables when they are unknown or unclear. Priest argues that judgment can only be learned through experience (Priest 1988).

Guthrie adds to Priest's analysis by pointing out that decisions requiring judgment are often made in a preconscious stage, using what he calls tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge, says Guthrie quoting the philosopher and scientist Michael Polanyi, is a form of knowledge that is generally unarticulated, even when articulation is attempted. However, tacit knowledge carries with it "the certainty that other forms of knowledge have . . . [should] be distinguished from intuition, gut feelings, or mere personal opinion . . . [and] is not ‘subjective.' It is not based upon a person's ‘whim' (Guthrie 1996)." Examples that Guthrie provides relevant to the field of adventure education are reading a river, identifying a participant's difficulty with a particular skill, and following an overgrown, poorly maintained trail. Guthrie is in line with Priest's work in that he argues that tacit knowledge can only be gained through experience (Guthrie 1996).

If it is clear that judgment is somewhat ephemeral — difficult to teach and evaluate — it is equally clear that a good sense of judgment is an essential quality in a wilderness trip leader. "Throughout the emergence of the outdoor leadership field, judgment and decision making have been identified as two of the competencies most essential to quality leadership of outdoor adventure education experiences (Cain & McAvoy 1990)."

A good friend of mine, also a trip director, once got a fortune cookie that told him, "Judgment comes with experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." The fortune cookie made us laugh, but only as our stomachs did somersaults. Bad judgment on the part of your trip leaders in the field can be disastrous. As with soft skills, your best bet for assessing (in the hiring phase) and teaching (in the training phase) judgment in your wilderness trip leaders is the use of scenarios. A scenario that forces a trip leader to make a tough decision in a controlled environment allows him or her to flex the judgment muscle and receive feedback in a controlled setting — without the repercussions of making a bad decision in the field. Take some of your experiences and perhaps some of your nightmares and turn them into narratives in which your trip leaders can decide what to do in those tough spots. Their responses will help you assess and augment their sense of judgment.


Certifications are important, but the question of which certifications should be required of summer camp trip leaders is far from resolved. Numerous nationally-recognized, quality certifications exist that aim to provide a standard by which some of the hard skills mentioned above might be evaluated by employers. These certifications include, but are not limited to, wilderness first aid (National Outdoor Leadership School 1995; Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities 2001; Wilderness Medical Associates 1996); canoe and kayak instruction (American Canoe Association n.d.); rock climbing and mountaineering instruction (American Mountain Guides Association n.d.); and swift water and high angle rescue (Rescue 3 International 1997). Whether or not these certifications provide an effective means for trip leader candidate evaluation is a subject of much debate. Those in favor of the use of certifications cite the high risk that is involved in adventure education, and see certifications as a measurable means of curtailing that risk (Cockrell 1990).

While this might seem sensible on the surface, there are those who vehemently disagree with the practice. Bill March, former deputy director of the Outdoor Training Center in Scotland, referred to the practice of certification as "a meaningless charade, a license to kill, and a scapegoat for the bureaucrats (Cockrell 1990)." He and others claim that the extreme variability of the wilderness environment makes it impossible to certify an instructor as safe and that a reliance on certifications by adventure education employers makes it easy for them to pay less attention to the most important issue, instructor judgment (Cockrell 1990). Still others point out that many certified instructors are nonetheless unqualified in the certified area, that soft skills are impossible to certify, that certification is a costly burden and time consuming, and that those with vast experience and no certifications are more qualified but ruled out by certification requirements (Attarian 2001). While there is no consensus on the issue of the certification of wilderness trip leaders, trends appear to indicate that employers are requiring more certifications of leaders than in years past. The increase of adventure activities, combined with increased focus on safety and liability, has led to a majority of outdoor educators in America supporting certification (Cockrell 1990).

The question still remains — which certifications should you require of your trip leaders? According to the same survey mentioned earlier (Sheridan 2003), very few camps require wilderness trip leaders to attain sport-specific certifications (such as American Canoe Association Instructor, American Mountain Guides Association Top Rope Site Manager, or Swiftwater Rescue). This is probably fine for most camps. Unless you are setting up your own anchors on rock climbing trips, running serious whitewater, or participating in other high-risk, knowledge-intensive activities, you should be able to focus on three kinds of certification — lifeguarding, CPR, and first aid.

American Red Cross Lifeguard Training (LGT), or its equivalent, is required of trip leaders by ACA for any camp that leads water-based trips or allows swimming on trips (ACA standard PT-2). Simply put, if aquatic activities occur on your trips, then there must be a lifeguard on those trips. In order for LGT to be considered valid, the certified person must also be certified in American Red Cross CPR for the Professional Rescuer. So, if your trips include aquatic activities, then ACA standards make the decision for you as to lifeguarding and CPR certifications. If your trips do not include aquatic activities, ACA standard HW-1 requires there to be someone present in camp and on trips with some level of CPR certification. The level of CPR certification is dependent on the response time of emergency medical services (EMS) to the camp or trip. For more information regarding ACA-recommended certifications for aquatics staff, see the article, "Finding Those Elusive Staff — The Lowdown on Lifeguards" on page 50.

What about first-aid certification for summer camp wilderness trip leaders? The aforementioned standard HW-1 requires that on a trip where access to EMS or rescue services is more than one hour, the trip leader must be certified in wilderness first aid and CPR. "Wilderness first aid" in this standard should be understood to mean a course that provides at least sixteen to twenty hours of training. What this means in practical terms is that most camps have the choice of certifying their leaders in either Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR). Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA); Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO); and the Wilderness Medical Institute (WMI) of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) offer both courses. WFR is a seventy-two-hour course that can cost between $400 and $800, depending on the course sponsor, while WFA is a sixteen-hour course that usually costs between $125 and $250, depending on the sponsor (WMA 1996). WFR is the course recommended for trip leaders by WMA, while WFA is recommended for "anyone likely to be assisting a WFR certified leader, as well as wilderness trekkers looking for a less rigorous course (WMA 1996)." In the survey mentioned earlier (Sheridan 2003), 51.6 percent of the camps surveyed require trip leaders to be certified in WFA, and 22.6 percent of camps required trip leaders to be Wilderness First Responders.

Whether your camp should require WFR or WFA is not an easy question. Certainly, WFA meets the ACA standard. However, if your trips go deep into the wilderness, WFR is probably the better option. Of course, it's difficult to hire people already certified in WFR, so the increased cost of the certification (in terms of time and money) is not an issue to be taken lightly. And moving to WFR doesn't solve all your problems. A WFR card does not guarantee that the holder will react appropriately in a wilderness emergency. Experience, intelligence, good judgment, and a calm head are all more important than the card in the trip leader's wallet. Each camp has to weigh the costs and benefits of requiring one certification or the other.

Hard skills, soft skills, judgment, and certifications are all important. Once you seriously focus on these qualifications, the nightmares can actually increase — because you'll rarely find the perfectly qualified trip leader — and now you'll be more aware of their inadequacies. But the stakes are high — no member of your seasonal staff bears more individual responsibility for campers' safety than your trip leaders. The nightmares when I'm sleeping are worth it if they reduce the chance of facing a nightmare when awake.

American Canoe Association. (n.d.). ACA instructor certification.

American Mountain Guides Association. (n.d.). AMGA programs and courses. Retrieved January 29, 2003 from

Attarian, A. Trends in outdoor adventure education. Journal of experiential education, 24(3), 141-149.

Cain, K.D., & McAvoy, L.H. Experience-based judgment. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.) Adventure education (pp. 241-250). State College, PA: Venture.

Cockrell, D. (1990). Outdoor leadership certification. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.) Adventure education (pp. 251-262). State College, PA: Venture.

Gass, M.A., & Priest, S. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Guthrie, S. (1996). The role of tacit knowledge in judgment and decision making. Proceedings of the 1995 International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education. ERIC Document # ED404083.

Knapp, C.E. (1990). Processing the adventure experience. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.) Adventure education (pp. 189-197). State College, PA: Venture.

National Outdoor Leadership School. (1995). Wilderness Medicine Institute course descriptions.

Phipps, M., & Swiderski, M. (1990). The "soft" skills of outdoor leadership. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.) Adventure education (pp. 221-232). State College, PA: Venture.
Priest, S. (1990a). Outdoor leadership components. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.) Adventure education (pp. 211-215). State College, PA: Venture.
Priest, S. (1988). The role of judgment, decision making, and problem solving for outdoor leaders. The journal of experiential education, 11(3), 19-26.
Rescue 3 International. (1997). Class descriptions listing — Rescue 3 International. Retrieved January 29, 2003 from
Sheridan, P.T. (2003). Retention of wilderness trips by summer residential camps. Unpublished Masters' Thesis. Duluth, MN: University of Minnesota Duluth.
Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities. (2001). SOLO Wilderness Emergency Medicine School. Retrieved January 29, 2003 from
Wilderness Medical Associates. (1996). Wilderness Medical Associates courses. Retrieved May 28, 2003 from

Paul T. Sheridan, M.Ed., was the wilderness trip director, along with Dylan Chernov, at Birch Trail Camp for Girls in Minong, Wisconsin from 2001 to 2003. He recently finished his M.Ed. in environmental education from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Wilderness FirstResponder, lifeguard, American CanoeAssociation Instructor, and Whitewater Rescue Technician, and he currently works as a wilderness counselor for the Ascent Therapeutic Adventure Program in Naples, Idaho.

Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

This ACA Camping Magazine article is reproduced with the permission of the American Camp Association

American Camp Association
5000 State Road 67 North
Martinsville, IN 46151-7902
Map to ACA
Phone: 765-342-8456
Fax: 765-342-2065

(This post was edited by ACACamps on May 15, 2006, 1:17 PM)


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