How to Become a River Guide
By: Justin Malloy
When you close your eyes and imagine your dream job, what does it look like? Does it involve spending your time in the outdoors, exploring magical places, and building connections with people from all over the world? Do you wish to balance your day between cooking gourmet meals and navigating big, splashy whitewater? Are you passionate about the desert and want to do your part in protecting it? Then stop dreaming… a career in river guiding may be for you!
River guides come in all different shapes and sizes, from all types of backgrounds, and with varying levels of experience. While the history of comercial river rafting started with primarily brawny white men, it certainly is no longer the norm as we enthusiastically believe folks of all backgrounds & identities belong in these incredible backcountry areas. When I arrived at Holiday, I had just moved to Utah from the concrete flatlands of Ohio. I had never set foot in a raft. Another rookie that same season had never been on a river in any context before training, yet she became one of the hardest working and most talented young guides on our staff. So what makes an individual a good candidate to be a guide, and how does one acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful?
To gain some insight on the topic, I chatted with Holiday’s Director of Operations, Tim Gaylord. In describing his ideal candidate, he began with a list of intangibles; skills that cannot be taught and are prerequisites to being a quality guide. “They need to have great customer service skills,” he said. “It’s also important that they are passionate about the natural places we operate in.” Upon hearing this, I thought about Holiday’s mission statement: “to preserve our nation’s wild lands… by providing our guests with an enjoyable wilderness experience with an opportunity to learn about the natural world.” It seems Tim has made this mission the foundation of his hiring process.
He went on to describe how important it is for a candidate to have an ability and willingness to learn new skills and an open mind. No matter your level of experience, if you get hired on at Holiday, you will have a lot to learn, not only in terms of rowing a boat, but also about the natural environment, history of the lands & peoples, camp procedures, and more. If you think you know better, or struggle to understand the “why” behind our systems, you may not be successful. Energetic and enthusiastic individuals tend to excel the most, no matter your experience level.
One firm requirement to become a river guide: be at least 21 years of age and physically able to do the work required. If you are under 21 but still want to pursue the career, consider applying to work on our warehouse staff. You can gain valuable experience, learn how everything works behind the scenes, live on site, develop relationships, and enter guide training the following year one step ahead of everyone else.
Application and Interview
If you feel like this might be a good fit for you, the first step towards becoming a river guide is to apply! Holiday’s job application begins like any other: personal information, education and employment history, date available to work, etc. If you lack experience in the field, you may become discouraged on the next two pages of the application where it asks for your certifications, skills, and relevant experience, but stay motivated! Most of these items can be attained or learned during training and on the job. Be honest with your answers and know that if you possess the personal traits outlined above, we want to interview you! Next is the employee questionnaire, which is a unique aspect to Holiday’s application and is your chance to describe yourself in fun and creative ways.
After completing and submitting your application, our operations director, Tim Gaylord, will review it and decide if you are a good candidate to interview. Putting your best foot forward here is critical. Tim is an especially gifted judge of character, and this step in the hiring process is by far the most important. Make sure to be professional, prepared, and punctual. Remember the traits he used to describe his ideal candidate, and do your best to display those in yourself.
If your interview goes well and you earn an invitation to training, then congratulations! This is when the hard (but fun!) work begins. Guides are required to have a wilderness medicine certification, and Holiday offers deeply discounted classes for our in house staff every spring through Wilderness Medical Association at our location in Green River. The minimum requirement at Holiday is a Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA), but we also offer Wilderness First Responder (WFR) courses. The formal guide training begins immediately after the WAFA and WFR classes have ended.
The guide training lasts about two weeks and is free of cost to trainees (most companies charge for their guide training). It begins with a day at our Green River warehouse where Tim and senior guides will teach you about our company history, warehouse operations, boat rigging, and general expectations. The following day you will head out with veteran Holiday guides on a single day river trip to practice the basics of rowing a boat and learn river vocabulary. Next, you will embark on the first of a series of multi-day river trips, where your trainers will do their best to teach you everything you need to know. You will practice loading and rowing a boat, setting up camp, preparing meals, tying knots, rescue skills, and more. You will experience what it’s like to swim a rapid and right an upside down boat. Your trainers will provide knowledge and interpretation of the area’s history, geology, ecology, and more, and will invite you to give an interpretive talk as well as share your own knowledge with your trainee peers.
Trying to absorb everything your trainers teach can feel like trying to drink water from a fire hose. With so much to learn, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. However, we understand that very real dynamic, and as such, will manage our expectations of new hires accordingly. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, be assertive, and absorb as much as you can. Showing your willingness and ability to learn is key to your success during training.
Also pro-tip, even with all this newness, try to be your authentic self. We are proud to have a wonderfully inclusive and approachable guide culture; and we recognize the more we can all be honest, ask questions, & risk vulnerability, the faster we grow as a fully functional team!
Although the formal guide training only lasts two weeks, any veteran guide will tell you that your training really extends through your entire first season. Usually only one or two of the most qualified rookies are ready to start guiding immediately; most of us need more practice. Luckily we will head out on trips either riding along with an experienced guide or rowing a gear boat. These trips are opportunities to practice your skills, gain knowledge, and get to know your fellow guides. You will be required to row the rapids on each section of river before ever guiding it with guests.
This all may sound like a lot of hard work, which it is… but it is also filled with unforgettable experiences, immeasurable personal growth, and will lay the foundation for your career as an outdoor professional. Some prospective candidates may be discouraged by the amount of training required, but it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind. All jobs require learning and training, but very few offer their training on whitewater rafting trips. This is necessary groundwork to become an experienced guide, and experienced guides can make a pretty good living. Also, Holiday offers room and board, so you are able to have a relatively cost free summer. When you take all of this into account, a guide’s rookie season can be a priceless experience.
And Beyond… A guide is always learning
This summer will be my tenth season guiding full-time for Holiday and I am still learning new things every year. While I have become a competent trip leader, it didn’t happen overnight. Throughout my time on the river, I have learned so much that is applicable to all areas of life: adaptability, leadership, resourcefulness, communication, and decision-making are just some of the skills I have honed through guiding. It has been an incredibly rewarding career and one that I would highly recommend to any like-minded individuals. Holiday hires new guides, warehouse workers, and van drivers every season, so if you’re interested, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!
Originally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.