How to Make Money as a Hiker, Climber, or Just Plain Mountain Bum

“I make about as much as an average dentist,” world renowned rock climber Alex Honnold said in the Netflix documentary Free Solo. But, you don’t have to free solo El Capitan in order to make a livable income as a climber, hiker, or even just a plain mountain bum. Here, I’ll explain some of the best ways to sustain yourself in the great outdoors.

Become an Outdoor Guide

This could include organizing group hikes, teaching valuable outdoor skills like how to self-arrest in the snow, or how to use navigation tools to hike off-trail.

You could offer your services through sites like Airbnb Experiences, Vivator, or Tripadvisor.

Reshape Your Current Career

Mercer Hathorn is a counselor in Boone, North Carolina who takes her clients outdoors for their sessions at her clinic Thrive Therapy Boone. Clients get to choose between hiking, kayaking, or biking during their one hour session instead of sitting on a couch. This is an example of how different careers can be rethought to get people outdoors. Sessions cost $110+.

Be a Park Aid

At Washington State Park, park aid Katie said the best part of her job is getting to spend all day outside without having to talk to anyone. People appreciate her work, she gets to pick her own projects, and see her efforts making the park look better.

The pay bracket in the state of Washington is between 16/hr to 18/hr. But in the Seattle area you get an extra 5%. Additionally, there are a lot of perks and job security in working for the government.

“I do a lot of hiking on trails to see if I need to clear a trail or if there are any trees or branches that need to be cleared. Sometimes I dig up trees and replant them if they’re in an area they’re not meant to be or if they’re seedlings. I trim invasive plant species. I clean the trailheads and the bathrooms. It’s not glamorous but it’s something that’s really important.”

Interestingly, moving up to a park ranger isn’t necessarily better because they do a lot more paperwork without spending as much time outside. “Park aids get to do all the cool stuff,” Katie shared.

Start a Career as a Park Ranger

For people who want to be a Park Ranger and avoid the paperwork overload, the best avenue might be becoming a backcountry ranger as they also need to do a lot of trail repairs. The average pay of a backcountry ranger in the USA is between $40,000-$55,000/ per year.

Work for an Environmental NGO or Charity

There are many websites and resources outside of the government that post NGO and Charity jobs that are focused on the environment, such as Trout Unlimited which is a nationwide conservation fisherman group that offers hands-on wildlife experience jobs and volunteering opportunities.

If you have a science background you could apply to be a wildlife biologist, a forestry worker or geologist. One cool option is being a snow scientist. They spend 8 months of their year backcountry skiing, taking core samples and getting their data. If you don’t have a background in environmental science, there are a lot of internships and entry level positions without the same barriers to entry.

Work for Patagonia (or other outdoor stores)

Every outdoor guru should at some point read Let My People Go Surfing, by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. The book talks about Patagonia’s commitment to their employees by offering ample time off and benefits. Because, as Patagonia’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Dean Carter, told a crowd, “We want them to be who they are.”

It’s obviously paying off because the company only has a 4% turnover rate.

Patagonia and other outdoor clothing and gear stores often have a real commitment to ethical practices and to giving huge job perks, especially for those passionate about the outdoors.

If you would prefer working at smaller, local outdoor stores. Here is a list of the best outdoor stores in America.

Freelance Online

Freelance allows for more flexibility and freedom, while still utilizing your existing skill-sets to seek out freelance opportunities. As a freelancer, you can work from anywhere in the world. At a set amount of hours or by project-based gigs in order to curate a lifestyle that is more fitting for you. The more enterprising you are the more likely you are to succeed.

If freedom is more valuable to you than climbing the career ladder, this route is for you. But oftentimes when people hear the word “freelance” they have a hard time conceptualizing how to get started in a generalized career. Here are some ideas to get going.

  1. Upwork

Upwork is one of the internet’s best kept secrets. It’s a platform of largely project based jobs that you can apply to in order to make extra cash.

The upside is that you can apply for projects that sound interesting to you. The more gigs you do, the more visibility you have on the platform. If you do good work your employer might hire you again, which means you can start building a freelance portfolio.

The downside is that Upwork takes a significant cut of your earnings ($0-$500 in earnings from a client: 20% service fee applied to earnings. $500.01-$10,000 in earnings from a client: 10% service fee. $10,000.01 or more in earnings from a client: 5% service fee).

  1. Start an outdoor blog

If you’d rather branch out and make money your own way, consider starting an outdoor blog or vlog to capture your outdoor pursuits. If you take on an unusual journey (think: solo female cycling the silk road) then you can also appeal to organizations and brands that might be willing to sponsor you. If your content is successful enough you could be picked up by local channels or outlets that want to promote you on their networks.

This approach takes a lot of work and it’s usually best if you have some initially saved funds beforehand as the ROI can take a while. However, once you start to get noticed online you can actually make a living being a content producer. Bloggers make an average of $37,000/a year according to Indeed.com.

  1. Sell Stock Photos or Footage of Nature

If you’re a photographer or have a high quality camera, consider selling stock footage and images for premium users. According to Photutorial.com selling stock photos can get you between $0.30 and $99.50 per (royalty-free) per sale, but no less than $0.10. While selling stock photos under an extended license can earn you up to $500.00 per sale. In summary, stock photos earn around $0.02 per image per month.

Stock footage pays higher dividends. Most start at earning around $50 per month at the beginning. However, once you build a high quality portfolio, you can earn hundreds and even thousands of dollars a month.

  1. Write outdoor books

Apart from writing a blog, you could also write outdoor books, from field guides, to “how-to” books, to travelogs. Look for a literary agent to help you get the book published by a larger distributor or else self-publish.

Want to write something shorter? Many outdoor blogs and companies need content. By reaching out to them directly, you could become a paid contributor to their blog. Every time your name appears on a website that is publicity for you which you can share on your own channels and add to your portfolio. For a 500 word article good writers can be paid anywhere from $25-100+ dollars, depending on the website

While you’re pursuing your dream outdoor job, these extra tips will help you save money and still spend time outdoors.

  1. Accommodation Saving

House sit for free anywhere in the world while looking after animals or watering plants by applying for short and long term house sitting gigs on sites like Mind My House.

You can save accommodation fees by car camping to national and state parks where campsites can be anywhere from free to $10. Invest in a national park annual pass which waves national park entry fees. Or choose to camp in wilderness areas for free (but with less security).

  1. Labor for Room and Board

Wwoofing exchanges labor for free room and board on a farm. There are lots of opportunities like this that can be found with a bit of digging. You can also find them on platforms like Work Away, which offers a wider variety of free labor in exchange for free board.

  1. Affordable Gear

A final money saving tip is to try to find good deals on second hand gear. Some great sites I use are Outdoor Geek, Gear Trader, and even Poshmark where you can find great deals on brands like Patagonia and Cotopaxi.

Until you find your dream job in Jackson Hole, happy trails!

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