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What it’s like to be a professional expedition leader

A guide to what it’s like to lead expeditions for a job

Professional explorer jobs certainly demand from you many things, but they can be hugely rewarding. We spoke with several expedition leaders and all round adventure enthusiasts to find out what it’s actually like working as a qualified expedition guide.


Firstly, becoming an expedition leader isn’t an over night move. You need to get some qualifications, plenty of experience in the field, and earn some credibility before anyone in their right mind will put their safety and success in your hands. We actually wrote a little about this topic: How to become a Professional Explorer.


I’ve had many long conversations with expedition leaders in my time, some of which you can listen to on our podcast, Expedition REAL… and I can tell you one thing that all of them had. Passion. Raw unadulterated passion and love for what they do. I get the feeling every time I speak with someone like Dixie Dansercoer, that there is nothing on this planet he’d rather be doing than guiding and exploring for his work.


For sure, there’s a tonne of things to think about and you must be prepared both physically and mentally to be successful, but guiding can be a long and prosperous career move. So, let’s jump straight in with my observations of pro explorers.


You need to find balance


The nature of the job is that you’ll be away from home for long periods of time. Sometimes, an expedition can last 100+ days, and when you are home you’ll be training and preparing for future journeys. Life then becomes about balance in a different way to most regular jobs.


You’re not just managing your time effectively, but you have to remain focussed on the blessings of life when you’re at home, it’s not good enough just to go for date night with your partner, you must truly appreciate these things because you might well be away for several months.


Balancing your expedition with normal life doesn’t have to be difficult, and actually I think your time on trips will serve you well in prioritising what’s important at home.


Mountain sunrise


The job is hard, and the job is dangerous


Depending on the guiding you’re doing, your risk will vary. But, there is no getting away from risk when your job is to guide people to the farthest flung regions of the globe. It is paramount that you learn to appreciate risk, and carry this appreciation with you as a passenger.


Appreciating the risks will help you plan for and avoid them as much as possible, which will keep you and your paying explorers safe on any expedition.

Professional guiding is tough too, not just on the physical, but the mental. With experience and training come resilience and toughness so it does get easier with time. You should be prepared to face extremely tough physical conditions, trekking sometimes 100s of miles pulling weighted pulks, monotonous long days, and dealing with various challenges with your team that can arise.


Sometimes the success of the expedition depends entirely on your ability to endure discomfort and pain. To give you an idea of some of the kinds of things an expedition leader will do, see the Royal Geographical Societies list of expeditions.


You will see a lot, and see things more than once


The nature of taking people on expeditions for a living is that you’ll be travelling a lot. It’s an amazing way to visit the world and get stuck into the nitty gritty of each country or location. You’ll also have the opportunity to visit the same place many times and become a true expert in that field. In fact, becoming the expert on a specific location is a huge selling point for paying customers and expedition companies that might want to employ you.


So, if you’re looking for a job that will let you travel to new places all the time, then professional guiding might not be the right way to go. But if you want a job that lets you travel a lot, and to immerse yourself fully into cultures and landscapes, then it’s certainly a good route!


Passion for life is the fuel


I’ve never been crude enough to ask about earnings, not because it’s not a curiosity of mine, but because I’ve never needed to. Professional expedition leaders get paid in life credits. Of course, they earn actual money, but I’ve always understood that their choice of profession was a love affair first, and a means of making money second.


The pros often run their own expedition companies or schools which bring in the moola, but a proper reputable guide judges their success on the amount of meaningful experiences they can bank, not how much money they can extract.


If you choose to become an expedition leader, the number one thing you need to have is lust for life…if you want to be successful at all. In my most recent chat with Jasper Gibson, he told me the key to his success was to “Stay stoked”, and make sure that you’re pursuing your goals for the right reasons. In doing this, Jasper has built a career photographing the worlds best climbers, skiers, and kayakers and quite literally lives life on the edge.


Lone climber on mountain


It will make you a tough SOB

I’ve never spoken with an expedition leader who is incapable of handling hardship. The good ones have learned to deal with the harshest conditions on Earth, ones that could kill you in minutes, and they’ve done so with military grade precision and rhythm that only comes with constant exposure. They’ve learned hard lessons quickly, and understand their bodies and they mind states and know exactly whats needed at any time.


Following in their footsteps will certainly toughen you up, and give you the tools to tackle almost any problem that comes your way. In fact, being tough is pretty much the only way you will make it long term as a professional expedition leader. Those who worry uncontrollably, break under stress or moan when they’re uncomfortable just simply don’t last.


This doesn’t mean they they’re not nice people- quite the opposite. In my experience, pro guides are super friendly, passionate and totally in love with the world and people around them. Remember- passion for life is the fuel.


Further reading

Interested in this topic? Check out some more articles we’ve written about expedition leadership:


How to become a professional explorer

Top tips for excellent expedition leadership


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