This article is part of an ongoing series created to help you land awesome travel jobs and seasonal work so you can travel the world and get paid to do it!
The goal is NOT to sell you the dream – we keep it raw and real here.
That’s why each article in this series was written by an expert who has actually lived the experience so you can learn about the reality of the job and the unique lifestyle that goes with it.
Now get cozy. Below you’ll find an incredibly comprehensive resource designed to help you become a river rafting guide and land the best whitewater rafting jobs in the world (even if you have no experience).
Enter Juniper Rose, when I met her she was living in her car and leading trips down the world famous Gauley River in West Virginia. She took time out from being a rock star river rat to share her secrets to becoming a river rafting guide. Take it away Juniper…
How To Become A River Rafting Guide
Part 1: Becoming a Whitewater Raft Guide
My Job is Better than your Vacation — the phrase is not only emblazoned across a bumpersticker on the back of a dusty truck, it is the motto of the raft guide who drives it.
If you think you might like to go rafting every single day rather than once in a lifetime and it sounds pretty good to never wear anything other than board shorts and Chacos, you might be in the right spot.
Whether it’s pointing out eagles on scenic floats in Alaska or charging through house-sized waves on the Zambezi River in Africa, every raft guide took their own path toward the seat at the back of the raft.
This could be the start of yours.
Mine started when I was 12 years old and my family took a rafting trip on a local river in Northern California. I never forgot the guide who navigated a route between the boulders, shouting commands and telling jokes all the while. I had no idea then what it took to be a raft guide, but I was intrigued. At 13 I attended my first raft guide school and when I became a raft guide I joined a close-knit world wide community. Since then I’ve boated in numerous states, countries and continents, and I’ve been pushed beyond more physical and mental boundaries than any other challenge I’ve encountered in life.
While raft guiding is an exhilarating adventure, it is still a job. If you show up to guide training expecting a summer of relaxing on the river, you may want to adjust your perspective. Prepare yourself for mornings when your guests show up nervous and unaware that whitewater rafting includes getting wet, days when your hands are so numb you can barely grip your paddle, and evenings when you’re unloading heavy rafts long after the sun has set on your image of a glorious life as a carefree raft guide. But most of all, prepare yourself for never being content working any other job again. Facts are, if you love water (even when it’s going up your nose), meeting new people makes your day, you get a thrill out of near misses and can handle responsibility when things go wrong, raft guiding could be the most rewarding way you ever find to make a living.
It wasn’t until I spent a year away from guiding and working behind a desk that I realized I couldn’t live without it. I quit my job and began paddling rivers across the U.S. and the world. Along the way I’ve learned that raft guiding will never be a route to a full bank account, but it can be a route to a full life.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had in my life and the best decision I’ve made. I just love the unpredictably of it all. You never know what is going to happen and what you are going to see when you are going down a river — and I don’t think very many jobs can give you that.”
— Andee Dow, Colorado based whitewater raft guide
Part 2: Do you have what it takes?
After guiding for more than 30 years across multiple states and countries, Raymond Fillpot says there are two steps you need to take before making the decision to pursue the raft guide life.
“Make sure you lose the will to live and all hope for your future.”
Fillpot began guiding during college in ’83 and while he now has multiple degrees he has never used them to earn money and, at age 52, says he never plans to. He has dedicated his life to the river and the community that comes with it.
Fillpot said over the years he sees trends in who makes it as a raft guide.
“They have to have a passion for the river, live for the moment, like to challenge themselves and deep down just like people,” he said. From there, “Show up, strap in and give it your best shot — but it ain’t for everybody.”
Starting out as a raft guide in the United States begins with guide school. Ranging from seven to 10 days of concentrated on-the-job training, guide schools are typically hosted by companies who are looking to hire a percentage of the students to work in the coming season. Because of this, choosing to attend a guide school at the company you want to work for is your best bet.
Choosing a Company
Start by researching regions, rivers and the companies that operate there. As a beginner guide it is a good idea to choose a company that operates on class II to III whitewater.
Many companies operate on a range of rivers from class II to class IV or even V. Google will be your best tool in the research phase, from there you can use job boards to see who is hiring. If a company is not listed on a job board but you are interested, contact them directly via their webpage to enquire about guide school.
Generally offered in the spring, guide schools are designed to push you to your limits. Expect to show up before light, go home after dark, raft through any weather conditions, be forced to swim intense rapids, learn as many knots as the Boy Scouts and be ready to take some amount of hazing by guides who are looking to put rookies through the paces. Guide school is competitive and instructors are prepared to weed out those that aren’t a good fit.
“Realize that fewer than 20 percent of the people that show up for guide school end up finishing it and becoming checked out guides,” Fillpot said. “If you want it bad enough it might happen, but you can’t do it for the money. It ain’t about the money, it’s about the passion for the river and it’s about the people that you work with. If you’re in it for the money or the glory or anything like that, you picked the wrong thing to do.”
From Trainee to Guide
After guide school, those who make it through continue to train until they are offered a test, often known as a “check-out trip.” During this test you will guide the raft but a senior guide will ride in the boat beside you to evaluate your skills. You will be judged not only on your ability to steer a raft but also on professionalism, people skills and your knowledge of the region and river hydrology. Having someone fall out of your boat during a check-out run or even flipping a raft isn’t cause for failure if you respond to the situation in a way that shows the instructor you are competent. Being a guide is all about split-second decisions and taking action.
Many aspiring guides are unaware what guide school will entail and the challenges they face can send them packing.
“I kind of went in not really knowing what to expect,” Colorado based Andee Dow said of her guide school. “I definitely under estimated how much guides really do so it was a shock when I went into training.”
The physical and mental strain of guide school had Dow, a freshman in college at the time, unsure whether she wanted to go on.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a pansy honestly, so when I was in training it was really intense,” she said. “But honestly in my life it’s helped me out a bunch because it’s really gotten me out of my box and made me more adventurous.”
Most guide schools do not require any prior experience to join and have little to no prerequisites.
“Before I trained to become a raft guide I’d never been rafting,” said J.D. Whitehead who has now been guiding in West Virginia for four years. “The first week or so I wasn’t real fond of the decision I’d made. I was a little scared, but I didn’t have enough money to go home so I stuck it out.”
Whitehead said what kept him going was his willingness to try hard and ability to work with people.
“I feel that maybe more than 50 percent is knowing how to deal with people,” he said. “They’ll let anybody do it as long as you don’t quit. Your mistakes are so magnified when you make them you’ll learn quick.”
Part 3: Guiding Culture
If you ask a raft guide why they stick with guiding, it’s not the river, it’s not the endless vacation, it’s not the travel, or the adrenaline rush. As good as all those aspects are, there is one thing that tops it all — the community.
“I love the river community, I love the people in the river community,” said Fillpot. “Every single day is a special day when I get to go to work with the men and women that I love so much.”
The bond that is formed in a river community is based off a shared passion for the outdoors but also on a commitment to each other and the safety of the guests everyday when a group of guides set out on the river, Fillpot described.
“The average person doesn’t know what we do, they don’t know how hard we worked to get there, and when we’re really good we make it look easy, but it ain’t easy,” he said. “It’s not easy taking mouth-breathers into a situation they got no business being in and taking them out the other side.”
“There aren’t many professions that breed the intense camaraderie that raft guiding does,” said Whitehead, a 34-year-old raft guide.
It’s a feeling only a job that toes that line between life and death can give you.
Whitehead, formerly in the Navy, said the way raft guides depend on each other creates similar relationships to what can be found in the military.
“Whether you particularly like a person or not, when you work with someone they can potentially save your life or the lives of others that are in your care,” he said. “If you see someone else in the water or their guests in the water, whatever feelings you have outside of work are non-existent due to the urgency of the situation.”
When you set out on the river with that day’s set of guests, not only do you have your own team on board your raft, you are also working with a team of guides. It’s not uncommon for companies to have up to eight boats per trip making their way down the river as a unit. Each trip can only go as fast as the slowest guide and crew, if one person flips or gets stuck, all the guides must stop and do whatever they can to help. However, the time you spend on the water is only one portion of the raft guide life. Working as a raft guide isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle.
The first summer I became a raft guide I lived in the back of my Toyota pick-up in a gravel parking lot. I wasn’t alone, fellow guides parked along side me. I’ve spent seasons living in a tent, a tarp shrouded platform, a car, a hostel, and a salvaged 1800s covered wagon. Being a guide is all about being flexible and taking whatever comes your way.
Of course, you don’t have to live under a tarp to be a guide, but if you don’t find a way to get out of paying rent you won’t end up with much money at the end of the season. Plus, one of the best parts of guiding is minimal living expenses and the experiences that come with it.
Many companies have some sort of guide camp. In some cases this might be a space at the outfitters base, a campground, or a field where guides are permitted to set up camp. Other times showers and kitchens are provided to guides. Whatever it is, if there is a pack of guides living there, it’s likely to be a good time.
Stacey Hostetter left a high-paying job for the raft guide life and now lives at a guide camp in a leaky RV that she describes as being filled with stray cats and piles of dirty laundry.
“It’s nice to just wake up and you are surrounded by friends, there is always somebody wandering around looking to do the same thing that you want to do that day,” she said. Most summer nights a crowd of guides will be found in front of her RV sitting on anything from coolers to kayaks, drinking moonshine and burning old chairs and whatever else she throws on the fire.
“The fact is that I love going to work because there is amazing people there that I work with, and amazing people that I get to hang out with later,” Hostetter said.
Part 4: A Guide’s Cost of Living
Life as a raft guide can be glorious, but not in the way of fancy cars and diamond rings. If you are a raft guide you are likely to develop a sincere appreciation for living on free food, air mattresses and PBR.
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Making the Shift
When Stacey Hostetter went rafting for the first time she was then working as a cocktail waitress.
The high adrenaline sport immediately had her hooked. At first she paid to go rafting nearly every weekend. After a year she realized the balance was wrong. She quit her job, bought an RV and moved to Fayetteville where she has worked as a raft guide for the past four years.
“For me, rafting made me happy so the more I could do it the better,” she said. “I knew I would make a lot less but I had money saved and I was like, ‘alright whatever.’”
Since the decision to quit her job Hostetter’s lifestyle has gone through a drastic change, but she doesn’t plan on returning to the “real world” anytime soon.
“I have definitely got lazy with paying back my student loans since being a raft guide,” she said. “I am much more aware that I can’t afford the name-brand detergent that I would like — or the name brand anything that I would like — now if it’s Great Value it’s good for me.”
Perry Hopkins just completed his first year as a guide and has experienced a similar sense of fulfillment, despite the empty pockets.
“I grew up in suburbia and what people from suburbia do is they go to college, get a job, work for years and be semi happy with their lives,” Hopkins said. “Coming here and finding out that you can not just be a guide but you can make a living through guiding really opened up a whole lot of options for things to do with my life.”
Hopkins was 32 college credits away from a double major in geology and industrial engineering when he noticed all of his friends who were graduating were going into unsatisfying jobs he had no interest in.
“I wasn’t really doing the best in college, I wasn’t really happy anymore,” Hopkins said. He decided to put his education on hold and try a different lifestyle. “I came down here and tried it for a year and was happy. That’s all it was, I just found happiness in doing this type of thing.”
Hopkins is aware if he graduated he could be making $60,000 a year. As a raft guide he expects to leave the season with a few hundred dollars saved.
“I don’t drive a nice car and I live in a four-walls-and-a-tin-roof shed with one electrical cord for most of the year, but the main thing is — I’m happy with it.”
Raft guides are typically paid per trip. For a full day trip this will generally range from $60 to $90 for a beginner guide. A half-day trip can pay $10 to $20 less per trip. On top of this you have the potential to make tips. Most companies provide lunch on the river to anyone on the trip, including training guides, but unless you are working an overnight trip (where all food is provided) you are on your own for breakfast and dinner.
First year guides will most likely spend two to six weeks rafting without pay during guide school and the training period that follows. This will mean long days on the river, working hard to prove that you are ready to take on the job of a guide, but leaving at the end of the day with no pay or tip.
When it comes down to it, most guides’ main expenses are food, beer, gas and gear. By living at a guide camp you can usually nix (or at least dramatically minimize) rent and any bills such as electricity, water and internet. As for food and booze, that is of course based on the individual. The great thing about the period at the beginning of your guiding career is it will give you ample opportunity to hone your dirtbag living skills. From cooking oatmeal on a camp stove before work to salvaging left overs from the on-river lunch to eat later for dinner you can get by on very low food costs.
Guides are responsible for providing their own river gear, which can be one of the main expenses when getting in to guiding. You should expect to spend at least $300 on gear to outfit yourself with the required gear — a personal flotation device, helmet, knife and throw rope. Some companies will require other gear.
Other expenses can include guide school and medical and swift water rescue certifications depending on the company. Some companies provide free guide schools and other trainings while other companies charge. Guide schools can range from free to upwards of $1000 so take this into consideration when choosing a company.
Note: The amount guides are able to make and save varies depending on the guide, company and river. Amounts usually ranges from $1000 to $5000 per season (a season in the U.S. typically runs from May – September).
Part 5: Preparing for the Unknown
A raft guide’s office is the river. Those in the profession often have the exterior of being carefree nomads, living out of their cars, spending nights partying and days telling inappropriate jokes. But, when it comes down to it, raft guides are not amusement park ride operators. The rafts are not on tracks and, no, the river does not go in a circle. Raft guides are dealing with a force of nature that can be playful and light at one moment and terrifying and destructive the next. When you choose to put yourself in the guide seat, you are taking responsibly of the lives of the people in your boat and the other guides on your trip. You will make small decisions that have massive consequences and a moment of faltering or hesitation when it comes to a maneuver or a rescue could mean someone’s life.
If you decide to be a raft guide there are several steps you can take to better prepare yourself to handle the situations that could arise. Whether or not it is required by the company that you work for, at a minimum you should be first aid, CPR and AED certified. In addition, taking a swift water rescue course is essential. If you work as a raft guide for an extended period of time it is a matter of when, not if, you will need to participate in a rescue. Being prepared will not only make you a more competent guide but also of higher value to your company.
“It takes a split second for something to happen,” said Andee Dow, who has been at the scene of multiple rescues during her four years as a guide. “It definitely opens your eyes to the potential of what rivers can really do. You need to think long and hard about if you’re ok with being 100 percent responsible for other people. You have to be willing to cope with what can happen.”
Taking a swift water rescue class can also help you to decide whether being a raft guide is for you. Videos, discussions and scenarios handled during the class are often enough to make a potential guide realize that they are not prepared for the responsibility that comes with being a raft guide.
Swift water rescue classes are sometimes provided by companies during guide school. It is not uncommon for students to choose not to continue the guide school after seeing the situations they could potentially be confronted with.
“I don’t think people really realize, they think, ‘yeah I’m going to be living the little hippy life, I’m going to be a raft guide,’ but you also have got to know that you’re dealing with nature and nature is unpredictable,” Dow said. “That’s the part I love about it though, you never really know what to expect out there, you have to be prepared for everything.”
Part 6: Guide to travel, travel to guide
Are you comfortable diving in to unfamiliar waters? Do you like the idea of learning the guiding commands in multiple different languages?
For Raymond Fillpot, traveling has become an avenue to guide on new rivers, and guiding has allowed him to travel to new places.
“I wanted to travel and I love going places and seeing other rivers but I don’t have a lot of loot,” Fillpot said. “I figured out that I can go some place and work and make enough money to afford the plane ticket there and back. A lot of times I end up coming back with the same amount of money I left with but basically I get a vacation for free.”
Fillpot has guided in more than 15 U.S. states and several countries.
“It lets me go places and do things,” he said. “What most people pay to do, I get paid to do. Plus I love every minute of it, it’s like I never have to go to work because I love people and I love paddling whitewater and I love my family I work with.”
Getting a Job Abroad
Going about getting a job as an international guide is not as structured as getting a job in the U.S. It will vary greatly from country to country and company to company, but training and work arrangements are often less formal than in the U.S.
Building your guiding skills and your network within your home country is essential before attempting to guide abroad.
“It’s basically networking, that’s what it is,” Fillpot said. “Here in the states you go online and they have all the processes and rules. To go down south (to guide in the Southern Hemisphere) you’ve got to know somebody that knows somebody.”
Taking the Leap
While nothing compares to making connections in person, reaching out to companies via email or on online forums can also get you a job. Like most traveling experiences, guiding abroad is often about taking a leap of faith.
I didn’t know anyone who had guided in South Africa or anything about the companies there when I decided I wanted to guide there. I reached out to companies throughout the country and was invited to visit several companies but not offered a concrete job with any. I bought the plane ticket, traveled to the unfamiliar country and showed up at the base of one of the companies I had corresponded with. While the owner had not offered me a job through our email correspondence, when I proved I was serious, he had me working on the river by the following weekend.
“The biggest hurtle to get over to try to go guide abroad is just getting over your own fears,” Andee Dow, who has guided in the US for four years and Costa Rica for one season, said. “It is definitely scary. That was my biggest challenge for sure, once I got out of my head and just went for it it came together.”
The International Community
Guiding internationally can open up travel opportunities in nearly every continent. Some of the most popular travel guiding destinations include New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Ecuador, Costa Rica, South Africa and India. Guiding abroad can not only give you a chance to fund your travels but it can also provide a unique traveling experience that you can not get when traveling as a backpacker or traditional tourist. It gives you an opportunity to be a part of a foreign guiding culture and immerse yourself in a specific location rather than traveling from place to place. It can also allow you to take river trips that most others are paying to experience. For those who have decided to embrace guiding as a way of life, finding companies to work for in the opposite hemisphere can allow guiding to be a year-round gig rather than just being able to work for a few months out of the year in the U.S.
Part 7: Getting Geared Up
Once you become a raft guide your expenses can be kept low, but the initial investment on gear can feel large. Some companies require purchasing gear prior to guide school, but most will provide gear for guide school to give potential guides the opportunity to see whether or not they are going to continue to pursue guiding before making the investment in gear. If you are unsure whether or not guiding is for you, choosing a company that allows you to borrow gear would be a good bet. Once you become a guide you can often get deals on gear through your company’s pro-deals . When you do decide to purchase gear, be prepared to spend $300 or more depending on the quality of gear you want.
What you’ll need (Required):
Personal Floatation Device (PFD)
Many companies require guides wear Coast Guard Approved PFDs, but from there the fit and style of the jacket is up to you. Approximate price ranges from $90 to $300+.
Unless you are working only on class III and below, a whitewater approved helmet is required by most companies. Approximate price ranges from $60 to $200.
For your safety and that of the other guests and guides most companies require guides carry an easily accessible knife so they can cut themselves or someone else free in the case of an entanglement. The knife can be as simple as a pocket knife in the pocket of a lifejacket, but most guides carry a knife specifically designed to be attached to a PFD for easy access in case of an emergency. Approximate price ranges from $20 to $100.
A rescue rope, also known as a throw rope or throw bag, is carried by each guide for rescue situations. Approximate price ranges from $40 to $100.
Additional gear (recommended):
Some companies allow guides to use customer paddles provided by the company to guide with, but many guides prefer to use their own paddle. Most guide sticks are larger and sturdier than a customer paddle and make guiding easier and more efficient. Approximate prices range from $50 to $300.
Having a dry bag or box along on your raft is required by some companies for guest convenience incase guests bring something along that they want to keep dry. Regardless of whether it is required by your company, bringing one along provides not only an extra service for guests but can also be nice to have for your own use. Approximate prices range from $20 to $200.
You can choose to guide in anything from an old pair of sneakers to specialty whitewater shoes. If you have some shoes or sandals you don’t mind getting wet you can start with those, however as your guiding progresses you may want to consider purchasing a type of shoe that has an added grip on the bottom and is designed to wear in water. Approximate price ranges from $60 to $200+.
As you continue to guide and potentially raft during the shoulder seasons or winters, you many need to purchase warm gear such as neoprene layers, gloves, dry top, dry pants or dry suit.
Part 8: Do you have what it takes?
There is no profile of a raft guide. There are no prerequisites. No formula. Raft guides can be young or old, rafting all of their lives or rafting for the first time. If you want to have a different adventure every day on the job, you love talking to new people and you are prepared to take on the responsibility of having other people’s lives in your care, you might have what it takes to be a raft guide. Whether you are a student with summers free, have a full time job and want to explore something new on your weekends, or are looking for new direction in your life, attending guide school could open up new adventures and even an entirely new life path.
I have been a student who guided during summers, a weekend warrior working behind a desk during the week and I’ve given up on trying to keep myself from the river and followed currents across the world.
Guiding plays a different role in everyone’s life. What role will it play in yours?
“I like being challenged at work and feeling like I work to grow physically and mentally. Guiding has given me confidence and new purpose. I want to continue to be a raft guide until my body says no.” — J.D. Whitehead
Whatever your current life goal is, consider yourself warned. If you pursue raft guiding you may never be content working another job again. Be prepared for your bank account, living conditions and personal hygiene to rapidly decline while your people skills, shoulder muscles and self-confidence skyrocket.
What is it that keeps raft guides coming back for more?
“You don’t really realized the gravity of what you’re doing until you actually take customers down (a river). It is one of the most rewarding things. I love the customers and I think it’s really fun. They come from everywhere, of all abilities and I love being able to take some middle-aged housewife down who is scared shitless and have her have an amazing time and she loves it at the end.” — Andee Dow
“The high I get when I get done on any trip makes me feel like I could do things I never thought I could.” — Stacey Hostetter
“Everyday is a special day man, that’s why I love it. Everyday is a snowflake, it keeps me in the moment more than anything else. When I’m on the river all I think about is that day, that single day.” — Raymond Fillpot
About the author:
Juniper Rose has been whitewater rafting and writing about her adventures since first attending guide school at age 13. Since then she has pursued rivers all across the United States and the world, guiding everywhere from her home river in California to South Africa. When she’s not charging whitewater, Juniper works as a multimedia journalist and occasionally updates her adventure blog. Juniper loves talking to other travelers and making new friends — connect on Instagram or Twitter @juniperjrose, via her website, or email her at [email protected].
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