How to Become a River Guide

3 Min. Read
Three female river guides in big hats with big smiles

6 Easy Steps to Land Your Dream Job as River Guide

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a river guide. Their work is our vacation. They float wild and beautiful rivers for a living. They tell the best stories, the funniest jokes, and they even remain calm amid pure chaos. It’s only natural to envy a river guide. Here are six ways you, too, can make it happen.

1) Fall in Love

Find a river near you and dive in. Float it with friends if you can. Swim its deepest holes. Fish its riffles. Read everything written about its history. Talk to the locals, listen to the stories, and bring a field guide along to acquaint yourself with the plants and animals that call that river home. Nothing else will set you on a better course.

Group of paddlers giving the thumbs up on a calm stretch of the South Fork of the American River.

2) Take a Guided Trip

Look up the guided outfitters on the river you love, and book a trip. This is the best informational interview you will ever have. Introduce yourself to everyone you meet, ask your guide questions about the rapids, about the lifestyle, and get a feel if its truly for you. If you’re still interested at the end of the day, ask your guide how you can work there next summer, and take home an application.

3) Get in Shape

The rowing machine at the gym is your new best friend. Use it if you don’t have access to a boat. Nothing makes for a better guide than one who has a boundless zest for life. The key ingredient is energy and stamina. For your jokes to be funny, and your stories on point, you’ll need to be alert when everyone else is beat. Cardio. Core. Shoulders. And arms. Focus on those and you’ll be golden.

Guides doing raft flipping drills.

4) Get Certified

Make your application stand out from the crowd by completing a certified training course. Wilderness First Responder, CPR, and Swift Water Rescue courses will set you on the path to becoming a guide. Equally important will be gaining experience leading groups. If you’ve never done so, find a local non-profit and volunteer to lead tours. You’ll appreciate the practice speaking in front of groups.

5) Go to Guide School

In addition to working toward certifications, consider a guide-training course in the spring, which can teach you everything from basic hydrology and rigging rafts to how to set up a groover. Many outfitters hire new guides right out of guide school programs. Be flexible. Make yourself available, and find ways to help out.  You won’t start guiding big water on day one, but with a positive, proactive, helpful attitude the company will trust you soon enough.

6) Wear a Smile

The days often don’t go according to plan. Sometimes they’re long, hard, demanding days — both mentally and physically — and other times, they’re totally chill. Whatever type of day you have, you need to meet it with a smile. Practice this attitude. The future guests upon your boat will appreciate nothing more than a friendly, good-natured guide who has a strong desire to provide their guests with the best time of their lives.

Portrait of Tim Gibbins

Tim Gibbins

Tim Gibbins lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His articles have appeared in Outside magazine, The Oregonian, Montana Outdoors, and he has worked as a naturalist in Denali National Park.

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