Training to become an International Wilderness Guide

When I first heard the term ‘Wilderness Guide’ I pictured the chubby little boy from Pixar’s Up, plastered with Scout badges, toppling over from the weight of his gigantic rucksack. I was on a guided trip in Lapland, spending a week husky sledding across the Finnish tundra, and after a day of being in the Arctic landscape I had fallen in love. Chatting with my American guide, I asked her jokingly, “How do I get your job?” She told me about this course in the south of Finland, taught in English, where you spend 10 months training to become a wilderness guide. I returned from that trip with a new found focus - I needed to get on that course.

Two and a half years later I’m looking a lot like Russell from Up. I have a 80 litre rucksack with so many things hanging off it that I look like Buck-a-roo. I’m dragging another duffle bag of gear filled with everything I guessed I might need for a year of adventures in the Arctic. After applying twice, I had finally been accepted onto the International Wilderness Guide Course at Tredu in Finland.

The Wilderness Guide Course

The course covers a huge amount over 10 months. Along with a group of 15 other international students, I would study full time and undertake 5 expeditions to obtain the qualification. The essential topics of the program are: nature and tourism, practical wilderness skills and customer service. It included planning and implementing our own expeditions, plus learning to write solid safety plans.

The main focus was on wilderness skills such as navigation, shelter building, cooking, Nordic skiing and gear maintenance. Then implementing these skills in practical situations throughout the year on expeditions in Russia and Finland. The 10 months are jam-packed with a balance of classroom-based studies, work experience, spending time out in the forest and on trips.

What appealed to me most about this course was that it was a full-time immersive experience. You live on campus in a giant yellow cabin set back near the forest. It felt like a huge commitment, most of us had moved from a different country to this small college in the middle of nowhere. It was quite intense at times, being fully absorbed in one thing, but it was also such a great way to learn and develop the skills we were being taught.

Our first week was spent camping in the forest. We learnt all the basic skills like fire making, cooking outdoors and shelter building. It gave us the chance to connect as a group, to learn about the people we would be living and studying with for the next year. What was so nice about the qualification was that they don’t assume any prior knowledge. As a really diverse group from lots of different countries we all had totally different skills and goals. Our two tutors appreciated that and just taught everything from scratch.

For me, I expected the group to be a big bunch of like-minded people. But in reality it showed me how diverse your appreciation for nature can be; it made me re-consider my image of a what a ‘guide’ is. My tutor once said to me, “Some guides will stick to the path, others want to explore the unknown” and it’s true. There isn’t a right or wrong way of leading a group. It doesn’t always have to be super extreme stuff - we are all different.

What was the best thing about the course?

For me, the best bits were the expeditions we went on:

  • 9 days hiking in Russia

  • 6 day ski trip in Syöte, Finland

  • The Bear Ski: a 9 day solo cross-country skiing trek in the Hammastunturi wilderness area of Lapland

  • 5 day paddling trip on a river and lake route in Central Finland

  • 6 day trip to the Archipelago of Baltic Sea to explore plant and bird life

On each of these expeditions, we had always planned every part of the trip - from the itinerary, to the food and the detailed safety plan. These trips allowed us to practise everything we had be learning in a more realistic environment. We would each have our moment to take the lead and be in charge of the group.

We were encouraged to approach this role with our own style and personality. For me these trips are when everything came together (or they went so wrong that I knew where I needed to improve). The real test for me during this course was the 9 day solo ski trip. This was where I would really be on my own, trusting the skills and confidence I’d built throughout the year in order to complete the expedition.

“Learn to live with uncertainty”

This was a piece of advice given to us by our tutor. We worked on how to handle that fear, gaining the confidence to deal with unexpected things and to not be scared of not always knowing everything. Learning to trust your skills, your response and your own ability to handle whatever would be thrown at you. It was one of the best skills I learnt.

What was the hardest thing about the course?

The hardest thing was the list of 350 species we had to learn to identify. Flowers, fish, trees, mushrooms, bird songs, animal tracks - the list seemed to be endless and when I first saw it I just couldn’t see myself ever learning that many things. I wasn’t easy, it took hours of making and memorising flash cards, long walks in the forest looking at my surroundings and trying my best to identify everything I passed - what helped was to create narrative or a story that made each species interesting or relevant. On most of the tests I just scraped a pass, but it felt good to prove to myself that I do have the capacity to retain that much information.

The other part of the course that I personally found hard were the water-based activities. Over the year we covered most of the ways you could enjoy the Finnish nature: hiking, skiing and paddling. With over 188,000 lakes it is a big part of the landscape and an amazing way to enjoy your time there. We spent a week learning basic paddling skills in both kayaks and canoes. We later did a 5 day trip along a beautiful route through central Finland so these skills were essential.

Now, I am not a water baby. I grew up in Mid-Wales and I barely even remember learning to swim, it’s just somewhere where I don’t feel very comfortable. As part of our training we were required to learn rescue techniques in both the kayaks and canoes. This meant the dreaded Eskimo roll. The idea of it is that, if you capsize in your kayak, you can us the power of your hips to flip yourself back the right way. The thought of this was terrifying and something that took me so long to master. Mainly just the mental side of calming myself down when I was in an uncomfortable situation. After hours of practising and building myself up, I completed it successfully and it felt like a real triumph.

How does it compare to the Mountain Leader (ML) Qualification?

With it being a full time course, the International Wilderness Guide is really different. I haven’t done my ML but I have a lot of friends who have and it’s just a totally different way to learn to guide. Of course, both courses are suited to the countries they are designed for. My course was based on Finnish nature and the landscapes they have there. So the navigation is a bit different, it’s more about learning to orienteer in dense forests and endless bogs whereas we have more mountains and interchangeable weather in the UK.

We studied and learnt as one large group. The support and friendships you make during the 10 months is so strong. As more than half of the group has moved abroad in order to study, you get a very dedicated group of people together for that 10 months. I’m sure it’s like the friendships you make on the ML training weeks but just times that by 40 weeks!

We completed two months of practical training, which is pretty much work experience. Most people head north to Lapland and go and work for a company either doing husky safaris or snowmobiles tours. It was a really good insight into the type of work available after we qualified.

I think the IWG course felt much more like studying for a degree, whereas the ML is you gaining a qualification. Although we do gain a qualification at the end, the focus is on learning skills and writing expedition plans, sussing out group dynamics and ultimately working out which type of guiding you enjoy. The ML is much more focussed on hiking and being the finished product through your own hikes and a week’s training ready for the assessment.

Best skill you learnt?

I don’t think it was one single thing. It was in the moments when all the skills we learnt came into play.

One day we got taken out to the wood for Survival Night. All we had on us was the clothes we were wearing, a knife and some matches. We then had to go and spend the night in the wilderness, make a shelter from what we could find in the forest and report back in the morning. I found a big spruce tree with big bottom branches and built my shelter around that, gathering moss to make a bed. As the sun went down the temperature dropped, so I went on the hunt for firewood. It was spring and the snow had only just melted, so it was quite hard to find dry wood. I found a huge dead pine that I ended up using for the whole night, lighting a small fire underneath to get it going. I found a great big rock that I placed near the fire and warmed for hours. Then when I was ready to sleep, I rolled it into my mossy spruce bed for the night to keep me warm.

Waking up hours later as the sun began to rise, feeling a bit cold but ready to get the fire started again, I realised how far I had come. I had arrived in Finland nine months earlier with no idea what I was letting myself in for, no idea of how to properly look after myself, but with a true love for nature. This course changed my life, it made me appreciate nature but also appreciate myself in a whole new light. It taught me such important life skills and it set me up for a future in the outdoors.

Would you recommend it?

100% yes, even if you have your ML a year spent in the Finnish forest learning to cook outdoors, whittle spoons, survive falling in an ice hole with all your kit on and then building a fire with frozen hands - it’s all just an amazing experience. It gives you the space and time to really focus on you, and what’s important.

Did it help you get a job in the outdoors?

Straight after graduating I had lined up a job to guide multi-day hikes in Norway and in Switzerland. Then I got offered a full time winter job on the husky farm where I had done my work experience. Along side all of that I set up my own business - wanting to guide hut-to-hut ski trips in Lapland (as these were always my favourite expeditions). Now, 3 years later, I fill my year with my own Sidetracked Adventure trips in Finland (and now Scotland!) and I do freelance guiding all over Europe. It was a great foundation for what I hope to be a long and happy career as a guide in the outdoors.

Sophie Nolan is a wilderness guide and the founder of Sidetracked Adventures. Her mission is to create proper adventures in truly wild places. She aims to give back more to the places she and her groups explore, than they ever take away from it. 

You can follow Sophie on Instagram @sidetracked_adventure