things to do in Waterton in the winter

What does it take to become a certified hiking guide in Canada?

How do you become a professional hiking guide or a certified hiking guide in Canada? It’s a question we at Uplift Adventures get asked a lot and there are many factors that go into it. 

In order to be a professional hiking guide in Canada, you must adhere to high standards and stringent regulations set in place for the industry. While not all guides are equal, there are norms that apply to guides across North America, and it takes much more than having a good sense of direction and a love for the outdoors. A big difference between being an enthuasist and a guide is an expectation there will be a standard of care, organization, and professionalism with the outdoor activity. A guide becomes responsible for the safety of the group, managing risks, and the logistics of the trip. A guide takes on a lot of added responsibility for other people and do everything possible to keep their clients safe, while enriching their outdoor experience.

There are three main certifying bodies:

  1. The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides(ACMG)

The ACMG is one of the leading organizations in North America for technical guiding. It has a stellar reputation and is the highest level of certification that guides in Canada can receive. Being certified with the ACMG is a highly rigorous, long, and technical process that involves intense exams. In fact, according to the association, there are only about 1,500 certified ACMG guides in Canada (across all disciplines), which makes this level of accreditation one of the most prestigious certifications a professional guide can get. 

But getting certified with the ACMG is much more than just a credential—it’s a statement and a promise. Guides learn many technical skills that help ensure a rewarding and safe experience for their clients, from risk management to emergency response and group management. They endure rigorous testing and examinations on their abilities and are then regulated to perform those abilities.

The ACMG has three different streams of certification—climbing instructor, hiking guide, and mountain guide—and several sub-streams within them. Many members are certified in more than one discipline. 

Uplift Adventures Founder and Lead Guide Heather Davis is a certified ACMG Hiking Guide and Winter Hiking Guide.

“The certification dictates what I can do as a guide and sets terrain parameters to where I can guide. As a certified all-season hiking guide, I can take my clients off-trail to explore off-the-beaten path locations that a guiding company without this level of certification isn’t legally permitted to do, and may not have the technical knowledge to do safely,” she says. 

ACMG training provides what is known as hard-skill, technical guiding.

“I’ve been examined on how I conduct multi-day trips, my leave-no-trace methods, how to set up backcountry camps, risk mitigation, and my off-trail navigation, just to give an example of a few hard skills I’m certified on. Navigation is a big one because it’s not just about using a GPS—I need to know how to use topographical maps and a compass, and being accurate consistently,” Davis says.

As an accredited Winter Hiking Guide, she also has the knowledge and skills to lead hikers safely outside in winter conditions, which requires special knowledge of adventuring in the elements. Winter guiding includes skills like using ice cleats and snowshoes, recognizing ice hazards, winter camping and emergency shelters, avalanche terrain recognition, and others.

The Association of Canadian Mountain Guides sets a pretty tough standard when it comes to guiding. To get accepted into a program, guides have to go through many years of training and apprenticeship. 

“Even before you’re accepted into your program, you have to prove you have a certain degree of experience and knowledge, so not just anyone can be accepted into the program. You need to have a lot of training and practical experience to even be considered. Then once you’re accepted, you need to work hard to get through the program. People do fail and ACMG expects a high quality of understanding from their students, which keeps the standards really high,” Davis says.

You may be surprised to learn that Wilderness First Aid (WFA) certification isn’t part of the ACMG guiding courses. Guides need to have WFA to be a good member in standing, but it’s not part of guiding school, so it’s an additional commitment guides are required to take on outside of ACMG training. 

“WFA is a reactive skill. To be a good guide, one of your primary goals is to prevent any medical emergencies and to anticipate potential issues before they happen. WFA is good to have as a backup in case something happens, but prevention really is key,” says Davis.

To complete a Hiking Guide certification with ACMG, expect it to take two to three years. The first portion of the course is a 9-day course both on and off-trail and in the classroom. Once this course is passed, then the student can become an Apprentice Hiking Guide and must complete a set amount of days under the supervision of a guide within the same discipline. Once this is completed, the student can apply to take their final exam, which is a practical exam, mostly off-trail and for multiple days. The winter accrediation is an additional course.

  1. Interpretive Guide Association(IGA)

Certifications with the IGA focus on interpretation, the soft skills of guiding. The institution was originally designed for guides working within Canada’s national parks to ensure consistent, accurate information is given to visitors. 

“The knowledge I gained from my IGA training was incredible. I learned so much about the mountain park history, flora and fauna, and interpretation. I love sharing this with my clients and strongly believe having this knowledge makes me a better guide,” says Davis.

IGA certification focuses mostly on hiking skills on non-technical terrains. All guides operating in Canada’s national parks are required to have some level of certification with the IGA. 

“For example, I can’t work out of Waterton Lakes National Parks or Banff or Jasper without being certified with the IGA,” says Davis.

However, guides sometimes seek certification beyond just the IGA, because this certification alone is limiting. Guides certified with IGA alone can only guide on-trail day hikes. 

  1. Outdoor Council of Canada(OCC)

The OCC was designed for educational systems to help get kids outside, so teachers and instructors working with kids can provide due diligence for risk management and a standard of care —but the level of guiding and decision making of what they’re allowed to do can be limiting.

“From my understanding, their itineraries and trips have to be really dialled in and well-communicated with their institution. As an ACMG guide, I can make more decisions on the fly, while OCC-certified guides do not have the same flexibility,” Davis says.

There are some very knowledgeable OCC guides who do additional courses and practical skills to be great at their jobs. Several kid camps and schools will certify their guides or teachers under this certifying body, and incorporate some additional training camps. An advantage to this training is that it is not as time intensive to become certified, but it can be frowned upon by others in the industry who see this certification being used beyond the standard operating procedures set out by OCC.

At Uplift, we ensure all our guides are certified for the activity they are guiding. Many of our guides are certified with ACMG as a Hiking Guide or Apprentice Hiking Guide, and currently all of our climbing instructors are Top-Rope Climbing Instructors with ACMG. Our interpretive programs typically employ a guide certified with the IGA. We also work with our new and apprenticing guides one-on-one to provide them with mentorship prior to them taking out their first trip alone.

Make the most of your outdoor experience

If you’re looking for a fun and exciting way to explore the wonders of the great outdoors, hiring a certified hiking guide is a surefire way to enrich your experience. A certified guide’s ability can be defined by a reputation of safety and reliability. As a customer, you know you’re getting the knowledge and skills of a professional who’s been examined and tested, so there’s a certain standard you can expect. The certifying organizations also require guides to be members in good standing, which includes completing continuing professional development hours each year.

“If you’re paying for a guiding service, you want to know you’re getting what you pay for. It’s a good idea to ask the guiding company which associations they’re certified with, or check their website. Many companies often promote their certifications or training on their website on their About Us section,” Davis says.

You can learn more about Uplift Adventures’ certifications at the bottom of our About Us page.

Ask us anything!

Do you have questions about our certifications or the rigorous training we’ve had to go through to get to where we are? Let us know in the comments.

Are you curious what our backcountry guides pack in a wilderness first aid kit? Find out in our video.

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