Dec 11, 2009 at 4:44 pm #1252454
How does one become a "professional backpacker"? I know there are many out there that are actually getting paid to walk around in the wilderness.Dec 11, 2009 at 5:18 pm #1552877
I wasn't aware that there were very many. Andrew Skurka is the only person I know whose full time job is backpacker. But there's lots of ways I can think of to be a paid part-time backpacker:
Writer/photographer for outdoor-oriented publication – still need to put your time in at the office, but you have a legitimate cause to hit the trail regularly.
Racing – If you can get sponsors, this has plenty of promise.
Guiding- Tends to be seasonal, tends to be oriented towards mountaineering, and you may have to supplement your income from other work.
Gear tester for some gear manufacturer
Get hired on as an instructor at NOLS or a similar type of organization
Work temp jobs in the off-season – this would involve your ability to get work (and presumably an apartment) when you run low on money and basically you'd be free to live on the trail whenever you get enough money saved up to leave the job.
Boy Scouts- Basically volunteering, but feels like a part-time job.
Biological/Geological/other science-related fieldwork – these jobs can be hard to get, and compiling the research, writing papers and giving presentations when the fieldwork has concluded takes place in dimly-lit, dungeon-like offices.
Forest Ranger – duties can vary, but you're probably going to have daily duties that restrict you from living on the trail.
Entrepreneur – ???Dec 11, 2009 at 10:27 pm #1552945
@sarbarLocale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Let not forget that doing it for a living (and rarely does one make more than a bare living!) takes a lot of the fun out of it……particularly if hiking is a form of relaxation…Dec 11, 2009 at 10:44 pm #1552954
@foundLocale: Sacramento, CA
I disagree with that Sarah.Dec 12, 2009 at 12:23 am #1552966
@dirk9827Locale: Pacific Northwest
MMaybe more…but really, I think carving out your own niche is probably the route for the most monetary success. Certainly, self-promotion is important. If you can get people to buy into the fact that you are THE expert, build up a loyal following,and work it, you might be able to get a sponsor or two, and maybe a book deal.
Sadly, the type of backpacking that makes one famous is that of extremes – hike a huge circuit or complete some other feat of time or endurance that nobody else has cooked up. Scott Williamson, the first to yo-yo the Pacific Crest Trail in a single season and current speed thru-hike record holder at 66 days, acknowledges that he isn't getting rich from his PCT prowess.
The issue is that there is relatively little money in backpacking equipment compared to other "individual" sports such as golf, which has a huge following that thinks nothing of throwing down a thousand bucks on a set of irons.
If you don't care about the money, being a back country ranger sounds interesting. You won't make much at all, the work is largely seasonal, but as they say in that business, "you are paid in sunsets."
Which ain't a bad way to make a living.Dec 12, 2009 at 7:48 am #1553005
@sarbarLocale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
To Peripatetic…let me phase it this way:
For me in the past 5 or so years hiking became mixed with my living. And what I found was that I often felt I needed to be working when all I wanted to do was goof off. By that – I knew I shouldn't waste that gorgeous meadow, or view – I should whip out my cooking gear and do testing. That my husband should always have his camera gear on his back (no matter how heavy) to do said filming. Slowly it sapped the fun out of our hiking. There were times I didn't want to cook – all I wanted to do was pull out some bread, PB and a can of pop and call it a day – and enjoy the view.
Once I realized the issue it was causing I made sure I only worked on certain trips and that the rest were pleasure. It saved my love of what was paying the bills.
My second love after hiking is sewing. In college to pay the bills I worked in a fabric shop. For a couple years after I HATED sewing. The job wrecked that love. I swore I would never do that again.
Ask many a person, if you take upon a job doing a hobby as your full time employment you do run the risk of burnout and finding on your day off that you have no desire to go do said hobby anymore.
More so…outdoor careers are rarely careers but instead jobs. Being a ranger or park worker doesn't pay well, considering how many have college degrees. Yes, you will have fun, you will see a lot….but will you have anything to buy a house or retire on? What happens when a person decides to get married or start a family? Can a person support that with a job that has little or no benefits and a small paycheck?
For some this is OK. I know for myself I couldn't do it. The trade off is to big.
Or as my husband puts it – he would rather work a stress filled IT job that pays extremely well and spend his days off out having fun – knowing that we can do that and plan for our early retirement – where we won't have to worry.Dec 12, 2009 at 2:58 pm #1553099
@antigLocale: Pacific Northwest
YMMV Sarah, YMMV. To some of us, having a job that we enjoy doing is worth much more than having a job that pays more. I'm sure that there are people on this forum with jobs that they love so much that they didn't even consider about retirement. I'm sorry that you haven't experienced this before but I'm glad that you're content with what you're doing. Furthermore, to some of us, the backpacking light philosophy carries over to our life philosophy. Some people can live on a much lower salary than you and are not enslaved to the American world of consuming.
Personally, I gave up a high-paying mechanical engineering career to do something I'll truly be able to be comfortable with when I'm on the dying bed. It seems normal for an American to seek material wealth as an end in itself rather than a means of an end–perhaps of happiness. Not only does it seem paradoxical to use material wealth as an means to happiness but if one could achieve the true end through different means, then let them be. You would be surprised that the majority of the population live under the terms that you have described and most of them could live happier than a more wealthy family.
In the end, we're only human. We all have different opinions, let's not focus the ones where we differ but instead, the ones that we have in common. Let's not go about imposing our will onto others but to discuss the things that we came onto this forum to discuss.Dec 12, 2009 at 3:31 pm #1553108
I would backpack for minimum wage if someone was willing to pay me to do it. Give me some gear, minimum wage and off to see the world I go.Dec 12, 2009 at 3:45 pm #1553109
"Personally, I gave up a high-paying mechanical engineering career to do something I'll truly be able to be comfortable with when I'm on the dying bed. It seems normal for an American to seek material wealth as an end in itself rather than a means of an end–perhaps of happiness. "
Hi Jeff, I agree with many of your sentiments. But it's not always about material wealth. Sarah has children. Children aren't inexpensive, and that's not even including toys and such, just the basics.
But more to the point, every thing has tradeoffs. I can't say I hate my job, I don't. But I don't love it either. It's a means to an end. I'm good at it, I enjoy it most days, and I can certainly be comfortable having done it at the end of my days. I'm not wealthy, and don't aspire to what most consumers consider a wealthy lifestyle. But thanks to my job I'll retire around 55, with a small pension and (thanks to my military career) decent health insurance (worth much more than you might realize) and the ability to backpack and travel (cheaply) and have a tiny (but comfortable) house and perhaps a small organic garden, etc.
What I'm saying (poorly, and with way too many words) is that living on a higher salary doesn't mean you're enslaved to the American world of consuming. For some it's simply part of a long-term plan that works for them. Sounds like Sarah and her husband have a pretty good plan that is working for them. Sounds like you have a pretty good plan that works for you. Of course, the proof of the plan is how well it holds up decades from now.
All the best, DougDec 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm #1553115
I may not believe what happened with Sarah could happen to me, but I know the feeling. Surely it's happened to everybody in some form or another, losing your passion for some pasttime or simple pleasure after a systematized routine of it gave you a bit of an O.D. Maybe something as simple as a breakfast cereal that you used to like so you bought an ultra-size box of it at Costco. Trying and failing to eat it all before it expired, you eventually got queasy and haven't touched that brand of cereal ever since. There's an ever-increasing list of energy bars that I simply can't put in my mouth anymore after trying to finish extras from hikes I overbought for. But that's neither here nor there.
Let's get back to talking about ways to get paid to go backpacking.Dec 12, 2009 at 4:09 pm #1553116
@sbhikesLocale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
You could go backpacking and write a book. It's being "paid", but it's not really enough to live on. Could blog about it, too. Maybe you could make a couple hundred bucks a year on ads on your blog. Maybe that's all you'd need if you were a professional backpacker.
Are you still a "backpacker" if that's your way of life?Dec 13, 2009 at 1:14 am #1553206Dec 13, 2009 at 3:05 am #1553209
@foundLocale: Sacramento, CA
Thanks for the honesty of your answer. I struggle with the reality of creating a wilderness focused career. I'm working through it. In general, I agree that it requires sacrifices that most are not willing to accept. In reality, finding a spouse who is an "earner" is what most people do. Any rich BMWs (Burly Mountain Women) want to apply?
As an alternative option, I live what BPL markets as an "ultralight lifestyle". I hike/travel/live more than I work. And I work for low wages. I save more than I spend when I'm working, and I take most of the year off to travel and hike. A "professional" backpacker is the only job I've had for a decade.
Currently, society's "reality" strikes, not because I am broke. How do I live long term? Genuinely, the only sustainable solution that I see is to continue to live "light weight". I consider focusing on travel, purchasing a "tiny house", truck expenses, health insurance and adding to a retirement plan. At twenty six, that's the most realistic path. Some have talked about the path to becoming professional at backpacking as an analog to becoming famous. I don't think that being a "famous" hiker is something realistic, nor something that I desire. Marketing is shallow. Few people have succeeded, and I don't honestly know how deep that success is. The short list is brief: Ray Jardine, Colin Fletcher, Andrew Skurka, Ryan Jordan,… It's not a path that is realistic for most.
If one simply want to earn while spending time backpacking, the jobs are more numerous. I'm not here to name then, I don't want the competition. See you on the trail!
jackDec 13, 2009 at 6:04 am #1553224
Jack, I really like your philosophy on this. I've been trying to get into that kind of lifestyle for a few years, although mostly I've been bouncing from one seasonal job to another with semi-extended vacations in between. Since my last job ended in September I've been only halfheartedly looking for the next one since I know I'll be out west on the PCT this summer, and with the "lightweight lifestyle" I think I'll be able to make it until April without a job. I just keep looking for one for the winter because I can't think of what else to do.
If you look at The Big Three of off-trail life (for me, they're health insurance, house, and car), they can eat up a ton of money that seasonal work can rarely support. But it's not impossible. How do you deal with those, if you don't mind me asking? For me, health insurance is the biggest pain in the tuches…
Back to the original question about jobs in backpacking, I've been looking at wilderness therapy for troubled youths, Outward Bound/NOLS instructing, etc. Those all seem like good options for working in the outdoors. I tried leading a trail crew on the AT a couple summers ago, which wasn't backpacking but it was fun in the woods, along with lots of playing in the mud. Unfortunately, that only seems to happen in the summer. Winter outdoors jobs are a lot harder to find outside of ski resorts.Dec 13, 2009 at 8:43 am #1553241
@creachenLocale: East Bay
Flyin Brian Robinson is speaking today in Pleasant Hill, Ca at the Winslow Center at 2:30.. "Triple Crown Presentation"
He has to be a professional with sponsership. Should be very interesting and fun.
-JayDec 13, 2009 at 12:34 pm #1553301
@antigLocale: Pacific Northwest
Seasonal work can surely support health insurance, house, and a car if you are not picky. There are various forms of low-income health insurances available. If you qualify, which I'm sure a seasonal worker would, they are only about $50-$150 a month depending on what contract you choose. House…I really don't see why you would need a house if you are into a radically simple sort of lifestyle. Apartments are cheap and could be even cheaper if shared. Most apartments don't even require you to stay very long either–which is good for a traveler. Alternatively, you could build a small cabin somewhere in the middle of nowhere for under $20,000 including the land if you try. That tinyhousesblog.com mentioned somewhere was a great read. Finally, a car. If you must have one and would not opt for municipal transport, a bicycle, or a motorcycle, a used car is probably the best option. Again, if you take the effort to look, you could get really good deals. The only problem that you might think of is car insurance. Technically though, you don't need anything other than liability insurance to be legally insured in most states. That wouldn't run you too much unless you have a bad driving record.Dec 13, 2009 at 5:08 pm #1553393
@sbhikesLocale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Jack, You are 26 and saving for retirement. I saved for retirement and then the bankers took it away in the crash, and now I'm underemployed and no longer contributing to it. I see your way of life as my future, not my past.
As for the big three and how to deal with them?
Health Insurance. Go without. Use the free clinic. (That was my way of life in my 20s.) Go to Mexico when you need to see a Dentist or get some medication.
House. Don't buy one. Rent. The best thing with renting is when the plumbing needs fixing, you don't have to pay for it. If you do own a house, rent out some rooms.
Car. Your car is one item that you own that supports your job. There are other things, such as your clothing, convenience foods because work takes away too much time to make food, lunches out, happy hours you have to attend to look like you're a "team player", hair cuts, and probably many other things. What I'm saying is, your job is a big huge expense, and your car is just part of that. Perhaps with a job change, you won't need a car and maybe you won't need a lot of the other things.
If you do really need a car, get one you can live in in a pinch, and get a used one. Many times an old clunker that runs is cheaper than something nicer. Use it up and then buy another one rather than fix it.
Now your life is so cheap, you can save your money for backpacking without having to sign your life away to a full-time job.Dec 13, 2009 at 6:48 pm #1553444
The big 3…..here's my 2 cents.
House: As people said…apartments are cheap.
Health Insurance: I haven't had medical insurance since getting out of the Army in 2003. If something really bad happens, there is this law in the United States that says a hospital cannot deny you service. And unless my arm fell off, there is no need for a doctor.
Car: I'm 33 and I haven't driven, legally, a day in my life. And since being out of the Army, I have lived in Pittsburgh, PA, Portland, OR, Telluride, CO and Boulder, CO. I've also spent significant time in Eureka, CA, Santa Cruz, CA and Moab, UT. All without a car. Go Greyhound. Hahaha. OR buy a beater van and live in it.
And for the fourth thing mentioned, retirement….I'll just keep my mouth shut.
The reason i'm interested in the whole "getting paid to backpack" thing is because I honestly don't need the 3 things mentioned above in my life. It's not a priority. As I said before, they could pay me a monthly salary based on a minimum wage pay scale and I'd be happy. That's enough money to keep me fed, maybe replace broken and/or worn out gear, and possibly spend a night or two a month in a comfy hotel room to get cleaned up. The rest of the time, I'd be in the wilderness….not worry about having to pay a mortgage or car payment. :)
And lastly…about seasonal work. That's the golden ticket.Dec 13, 2009 at 7:18 pm #1553455
Ok, so a car, health insurance, and a house aren't necessities.
Not trying to be too harsh here, but honest.
But why should anyone pay you to backpack? Product endorsement? Testing? Book deals? Photography?
So what can you do (or have you done) that makes you noteworthy?
Can you do do something nobody else can do? Go somewhere nobody has ever been?
Can you do something someone has already done, but much, much better or in a way we've never seen?
Look at the sponsored outdoor athletes, writers, photographers, and adventurers you'd be in competition with for those dollars- that's a tough crowd.
You've got to convince me, the reader, the buyer, that you've got something to offer. I might be wrong here, but I doubt anyone is going to give you gear or money to do something average.
I just ordered Erin McKittrick's book. What her and her husband did was bold and beautiful and I want to hear about it. So I'm paying their publisher. And the publisher is paying them.
What do you have to offer?
Seriously, I wish you luck in finding it: you've got some major adventures ahead if you're serious.Dec 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm #1553468
Well in that case, it sounds like I'm doing things pretty much the right way already…. at least as far as it can be done. Retirement? I don't even know what that is :)
The health insurance thing still bothers me. With all the wear and tear I put on my body by hiking and climbing most of the year, I basically have to hope that the few times something really goes wrong I'm on the job so I can use worker's comp. Oh well. Worry about it when the time comes.Dec 13, 2009 at 8:55 pm #1553480
@ngatelLocale: Southern California
Professional Backpacker? Doubt there have ever been more than a handful who have ever been truly financial independent from this.
Colin Fletcher is the only one I can name, and I haven't read anyone in the genre as talented as he was, or even close. Not to mention that he really was the pioneer of backpacking books.
As to not needing this and that, as others have posted. My goal in life is to be self-sufficient and never have to rely on assistance for transportation, housing, or health care. That is why I work hard and try to make a lot of money, so I will never, ever need the help of others if at all possible.Dec 13, 2009 at 9:33 pm #1553493
@jamespatsalides-comLocale: New England
Well, I explored these options at length this year, and concluded that I couldn't do it and keep a viable relationship with my wife, and support my 3 year old daughter, even though my wife has a well paying job.
There are attractive options for outdoors educators and guides, speakers and consultants on leadership, park rangers etc. None of these gigs pay well, but they do involve significant time outdoors, so if that's the goal… basic starting qualification is WFR and/or some kind of outdoors or environmental certificate or degree (you know, ropes/environment/geology/botany etc) – so that you have something interesting to teach. I had thought to combine with a creative outlet – perhaps poetry on the trail or something…
If you have ability, an interesting message or valuable topic to teach, and are not constrained by family or other obligations, you should go for it and live out your dream. Just remember – "vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare". You need to carefully set out your goals, then make a concrete plan of action to get there – just like planning any outdoors adventure! There is work to be done here. Don't assume that if you hang out a "guiding" shingle, people will just come. You need to attract people to your services. Marketing! A good exercise would be to make a "brochure" for yourself… what would you say? Why the hell would anyone hire ME, when they can hire Skurka instead!? What is MY message? How will I make a difference in my clients' lives? If you can't articulate it… it probably isn't a good path for your life! ;-)
In the end, this is your life – you get to choose to waste it or spend it wisely. If you have a passion to teach in the outdoors, combined with something meaningful to teach, if you have gift to give others – go for it! Just my $0.02.
Cheers & good luck!Dec 13, 2009 at 10:43 pm #1553510
@jephotoLocale: New Zealand
UK based Chris Townsend may fit into this category http://www.christownsendoutdoors.com/. One of the interesting things about Ray Jardine is that he has deliberately avoided sponsorship.
One other option of course is to make yourself several million by an early age and then live off that whilst you backpack. Or you could get yourself into something that pays so well you only need to work half the year or less.Dec 13, 2009 at 11:38 pm #1553521
@benwoodLocale: flatlands of MO
well, i have to say…
being a prefessional backpacker would be nice, don't take that job on the backs of others. sure there is the free clinic and the hospitals cannot deny you in extreme cases, but someone is paying for that health care. i think it is highly unethical to choose to not buy health insurance or pay for medical needs when you are able. renting a house is fine as you are paying extra for the added benefit of no worries, and the transportaion issue is up to you as far as how much you want to spend on a car.
anyhow, off political thoughts and onto reality, if you can find a way to market yourself, great! but as others have said, you need something spectacular and then it will still only last for a very limited time. guide services and NOLS are probably your best bet. it is possible to live cheaply so that you may work only part of the year and enjoy backpacing the rest. but don't be naive as to retirement. i used to be the ultimate anti-retirement, anti-establishment, anti-system guy you ever met. but the reality is that you need to be responsible for yourself because there might not be anyone else there for you, should you choose this path i would recommend getting a retirement acct. and health insurance because the time wiil come eventually.
just my $0.02. good luck.
ben-Dec 14, 2009 at 7:52 am #1553555
In my mind I'm a professional backpacker,i go solo therefor i have no need to empress anyone,never considered getting radio involved or having my trips televised.
I have the time to go and do so quite often.
I married a very ambitious women who simply would rather work then go backpacking and finds it surprising that i find it rewarding.
The best part….she thinks its ridiculious that i work full time so i guess self gratification it is,i hate to argue.
Backpacking is certainly not a career move but very fulfilling non the less.
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