how to become an expedition leader

Updated: Jun 19

What is an expedition leader? What is the job like? How do I become one? All of your questions will be answered, but to give you more context, I'm going to begin by telling you my story.


My Story


As many of our readers know, my wife Breanne and I have embarked across this globe on extended travel trips abroad. Our passion for long-term travel was something that we discovered in 2017 and now occupies the deepest parts of our core. It has chiseled us both into well-rounded individuals and offered us an education that no school could ever achieve. Back in 2018, while out on a 15 month extended travel experience, I started asking the questions:


How can we as a society make travel experiences available to all walks of life as a form of education?


What would the world be like if everyone used travel as education?


How can I pay forward my travel experiences, that I feel so privileged to have, in some way?


Upon returning to the USA in late 2018, Breanne and I were searching for careers that we could settle into -- at least for a little bit. That is when I discovered a nonprofit that combined my passion for travel and youth. The organization sends kids on experiential learning expeditions both within the USA and internationally. Even better, through generous donations from individuals and corporations, they provide cost-free travel expeditions to youth living with disabilities, youth living in single-parent homes, youth in the foster care system, and youth living in lower socioeconomic demographics. It was easy for me to fall in love with the organization and I knew I had to join their team. Through some perseverance and sharing my passion for travel, I landed a job as the Annual Giving Coordinator. For the next year, my task was to bring in revenue from individual donors that shared the same aspirations that I have for youth and their future.


After a year spent doing the behind-the-scenes work, I knew it was time for me to get out on the front lines and get my hands dirty. That's when I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a youth expedition leader. In the latter part of the year, I jumped right into the certification training and, by January 2020, I found myself leading my first youth expedition for a group of 25 middle school students through the lush country of Costa Rica! That expedition left a lasting impression in my heart and I knew immediately that leading expeditions would be something that I'll continue with for many years to come.


Let's dive into the nitty-gritty of becoming an expedition leader. Here is an all-you-need-to-know guide to becoming an expedition leader and what it's really like:



What is an expedition leader?


There are many terms for this type of job: expedition leader, adventure guide, outdoor adventure guide, camp director, and probably a few more I am missing. I will use the term expedition leader since that's the term I'm most familiar with.


Expedition leaders can travel domestically and/or internationally and work with all age groups. So you might be thinking -- what is the difference between being an expedition leader and a tour guide? An expedition leader is there to provide an educational aspect to travel and to dive deeper into cultural and societal topics. I'm not there to teach the kids about Costa Rican ecosystems, for example. My role is to dive deeper and discuss bigger issues with the kids like physical or mental barriers that may change the way we view the world and help the kids with service projects in local communities. In my case, one of my priorities throughout the expedition with youth is to teach a curriculum that is focused on helping youth process and grow from the travel experience (basically experiential learning).


In addition, I'm also there to play the role of hype man. By bonding with the kids and simultaneously growing into their friend and mentor, I'm able to emotionally connect with the kids. I lead games and activities throughout the trips that aid in their learning and understanding of the experience. By the last day of our Costa Rica trip, the students were all in tears sharing how the experience changed their lives.


On my expeditions, I am provided with a local tour guide who passes on their expertise to the kids and plays the "tour guide" role. For example, during my Costa Rica expedition, I traveled with a local Costa Rican who knows the country through and through. He was able to provide local culture ins and outs, accurate timelines, communicate with other locals in Spanish, and give the kids any warnings or information.


Another piece of being an expedition leader is becoming certified as a Wilderness First Responder. This is in case of any medical emergencies that might occur during the expedition.



What certifications and/or training are required to become an expedition leader?


Although these requirements vary from one company to the next, here is a list of general qualifications:


- About half of the companies who hire expedition leaders require a bachelor's degree of some sort. The other half may be willing to forgo the bachelor's degree if you have experience with the population you will be working with (youth, adults, individuals with disabilities). In any case, education is valued and important.


- Another vital piece is a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Certification. This will provide you with the level of medical training that you will need for the expedition should there be a medical emergency. I completed my WFR certification through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in September 2019 in the beautiful mountain town of Lyons, Colorado. My course was an intensive all-day course that lasted nine days (and some evenings). NOLS provides training all over the world and is considered the gold medal for this type of certification. My course cost was $750 USD, including all of the course materials, but excluding meals and lodging. The course was a hell of a lot of fun and useful. I recommend the course to anyone who spends frequent time in remote nature, whether or not you aspire to be an expedition leader. The course includes mock rescues and scenarios that feel very real, which really helped me feel prepared and filled with knowledgeable information.


- Lastly, most companies will require you to attend training on their specific program/curriculum prior to leading an expedition. These are generally 1-2 week programs with meals, flights, and room and board included. I attended a week-long training course with the nonprofit that I work for. During this training, we learned how to teach our curriculum to youth, played hours of icebreaker/team bonding games, and walked through various scenarios.



Where do I look for an expedition leader job? What kind of job can I get?


A lot of expedition leader jobs are seasonal and occur from May through October. However, the application processes are typically January through March. May through October is the prime travel/camp season in most parts of the world, which makes for a busy life during those six months. You must have a flexible job that allows you to leave for expeditions during the summer, or use your vacation time for trips. This is probably the trickiest part of this type of job.


Below are a few companies that work specifically in youth international travel:


Rustic Pathways, EF Travel, STA Travel, Greenheart Travel, Wilderness Adventures, and Putney Student Travel (National Geographic's youth travel partner)


Here are some various job boards that list every type of travel, including domestic, international, summer camps, adult, and youth:


Adventure Job Board, Adventure Jobs North America, Adventure Jobs, and Indeed using the various keywords for the type of job you are seeking.



How much does being an expedition leader pay?


So you might be thinking, "Wow, this is the dream job! You can travel the world and get paid to do it." If you are thinking that, you aren't totally wrong. Especially if you are like me and have a passion for helping others access and discover the world.


The pay range is anywhere from $80-$120 per day you are on an expedition. This also includes travel days before and after the group arrives. This pay is in addition to your free flights, free lodging, and free meals each day. The trip is 100% cost-free as a leader. The greatest part, for a world traveler like me, is that the company will pay for your flight back to your "home" country. This means that no matter where Bre and I are living in the world, my flights will be paid for.


While this sounds like a dream, I'll be the first to admit that the pay isn't great. The hours are long and there isn't much time for rest. Assuming I was making $100 a day, here is a breakdown for you. On my recent expedition, I was up at 6 am every day and usually would get into my room for the night around 10-11 pm. Typical days were 14-16 hours -- meaning I was earning about $6 or $7 USD per hour.


However, I never think about the money or low hourly rate because, for me, I am living my passion. I am bonding with kids in ways I never thought possible. I witness kid's love for travel begin to grow, knowing I played a vital part in that growth. I am right there in tears with the kids at the end of the trip when they're saying that their lives are forever changed. I was, and never will be, a youth expedition leader for the money.



Can your spouse or significant other join on the trip?


The short answer is no. As an expedition leader, you must be focused on the kids, the trip, and providing the best experience for everyone involved. Most companies don't allow spouses on the trip, even if they too are a certified expedition leader, due to distraction. This is the hardest part for Breanne and I to manage.


However, there are travel perks for us both. Say, for example, that I lead a trip through Japan for two weeks. My trip is cost-free and I'm in Japan while Bre is in Mexico. Bre can fly to Japan (we pay for flights out of pocket) at the end of my expedition and we can travel together through Japan for a month. After we are done traveling, my flights back to Mexico are paid for by my company. So, we've essentially paid half price for round-trip airfare from Mexico to Japan. We plan to take advantage of this in the future and have the opportunity to visit places we've never seen before.


Becoming an expedition leader has been one of the most rewarding professional developments I have endured. In the future, I look to use my training as a tool for personal growth and refilling my cup with so much love and hope for the future of this world. Bre and I will always encourage each other to chase experiences like this and we challenge you to do the same whether it is becoming an expedition leader or not. Whatever it is, get out there and figure out how to make it happen -- you won't regret it!


As always, let us know if you have any specific questions or comments regarding leading expeditions. We'd love to hear from you.


For love and adventure,

Daniel


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