How to Find A Great Mentor (For a New Outdoor Activity)

Learning a new outdoor activity may be the spice of life, but it can also be difficult to get started in an unfamiliar type of adventure. My previous blog explored how to save money when acquiring gear. This blog is going to explore how to find a great guide or teacher, regardless of how much money you can shell out.

Sometimes, you need a mentor. Even for something as simple as hiking, there are numerous tips and tricks that you don’t necessarily want to learn the hard way. When it comes to potentially-dangerous adventures such as rock climbing, whitewater paddling, mountaineering, or backcountry skiing, a skilled teacher or guide is absolutely mandatory.

Make sure your teacher, guide, or mentor is legit – especially for dangerous activities

I think this is an extremely important preface to any other tips and tricks regarding finding a teacher.  It’s not worth risking your life or well-being for the sake of convenience or saving money. This is especially true for potentially dangerous activities such as climbing, canyoneering, backcountry skiing, skydiving, and whitewater paddling.

Even potentially sketchy activities can be extremely safe if you’re learning from someone who has excellent skills and great risk-management. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to have bad experiences with dangerous activities due to a lack of proper mentorship. While working as a flatwater kayaking guide, I heard numerous stories from clients whose first time in a kayak involved a near-death experience in whitewater that was initiated by a clueless friend or guide. Just because someone is a good friend or a paid professional doesn’t mean they have the right skills to help you learn. On the other hand, learning from a skilled teacher who has great risk management can mean that you have fun right away and never wind up in a dangerous situation, even in activities that are difficult for beginners.

Before hiring a guide or going out with an expert friend, figure out whether or not you’re willing to trust this person or organization. I’ve compiled some key questions to help you decide.

Before hiring a guide, ask:
- Does this guide/organization have good reviews online?
- Does this guide/organization mention possessing any core training or certifications?
- Do the employees seem experienced and professional?
- Is any loaner/rental gear clean and in good condition?

Before participating in a club, ask:
- Who provides leadership in this organization? Do they have risk-management experience?
- Does this club require activity leaders to have certifications and certain skills?
- Does this club have insurance and an appropriate legal structure?
- Does the club provide any first aid or emergency equipment for outings?

Before going out with a friend, ask:
- Is this person actually an expert?
- Does this person have common sense?
- Does this person have any first aid skills or emergency medical knowledge?
- If you have concerns or a problem, will this person listen to you and help you?
- In the case of potentially dangerous activities, would you trust this person with your life? 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it might not be a big deal for a simple activity such as hiking a short distance on a popular trail. However, for certain activities with a higher risk you should only accept a high-quality, trustworthy teacher or group.

If you’re getting a discount for a professional guide, make sure you tip them well

Sometimes, you might have the opportunity to hire a guide for cheaper than usual. Common discounts might include a group discount, an industry-professional deal, or a shoulder-season sale. As an outdoor professional with a tiny bank account, I rarely hire a guide for a new activity unless I’m able to get a steep discount. However, no matter how little money you have, if you hire a guide you should plan on tipping them the same amount or more compared to a full-paying client. Don’t be miserly just because they already gave you a good deal. These people are skilled professionals, and they work hard for their living – you should tip them accordingly. If you end up getting more involved in this sport, you’ll likely end up interacting with these same people on a more informal basis, and you don’t want to be labeled as a stingy, ungrateful person right from the outset.

Join a local club

There are lots of amazing outdoor clubs out there that can help you safely get started in a new activity at a minimum cost, and you’re likely to make some great friends along the way. This is particularly true if you live near a city. For example, a basic internet search for “outdoor club spokane wa” turned up numerous hiking clubs, the local mountaineers, a bicycle club, a geology club, and countless other adventure opportunities. If you’re looking for something specific, be aware that many smaller clubs update their social media pages much more often than an independent website, so Facebook and similar platforms are often your best bet for accurate information.

Find friends or friends of friends

Most experts gained their skills because they absolutely love a sport, and they’d probably be more than happy to share their knowledge with you – especially if you bring a nice picnic lunch to share, some good tunes, and offer to pay for gas if you’ll be driving a long way. If you’re looking for a mentor and you know some friends who have involvement in a particular sport, don’t be shy about asking around for someone who could teach you.

If you are going adventuring with someone you don’t know as well, you should treat it a little like dating. Ask your friends for their opinions on the person. Pick someplace public and safe for your first adventure. Communicate thoroughly about what equipment you should bring and ask them how you can be most helpful. You might not be able to offer any expertise in their sport, but you can do your best to be a fun companion despite being a beginner.

Look up classes and clubs at local colleges and universities

A lot of universities and colleges offer outdoor activity classes to their students, and if there’s extra room on the roster they may open up enrollment to the general public. This allows you to get good instruction at a cheaper price than you’d be able to hire a private guide, and you’re likely to get a much stronger introduction to the sport due to attending multiple class or club sessions. Kayak pool sessions and first aid certifications are two great examples of classes you might be able to take, but there are numerous other possibilities. Simply search for outdoor club or classes at your local university, and ask them if they allow enrollment or membership from the general public.

Once you’ve found a mentor, make sure you’re a great adventure buddy

Some potential outdoor adventurers never seem to get invited to activities, and some adventure buddies are the first one everybody calls when they need a partner for their weekend outing. The best way to learn a new sport and stick with it is to get involved in the community. How do you make sure you’re an ‘inviteable’ adventure buddy? That will be the topic for my next blog post – stay tuned!


Any additional thoughts or questions regarding finding a mentor for a new outdoor activity? Just let me know in the comment section below.