Gadd’s Truth: Living the Dream

Will Gadd climbs new routes on Irish sea stacks in Donegal, Ireland, on 23 March, 2020. // John Price / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202004170111 // Usage for editorial use only //

I’ve always found it ironic that the big outdoor industry trade shows are held in mammoth indoor event centres last used for, say, an office furniture convention. But that’s the nature of the outdoor “business” world: most outdoor industry jobs end up being inside just about as much as any other job, but with lower pay because we’re doing it “because we love it.”

What’s my answer to the question of, “I’d love to spend more time doing what I love outside—how do you make a living in the outdoor industry?” Don’t get a job with an outdoor-oriented company if you truly want to be outside all the time. In fact, most outdoor industry jobs aren’t about being outside or “doing what you love” any more than most jobs. Because the truth of any job is that someone is paying you to do a job that makes them money, and you doing what you love isn’t likely to bring them dollars.

The “outdoor job” seekers I speak with range from seven-figure investment managers shelling out more in car payments than most outdoor jobs pay monthly, to bright-eyed students desperate to escape a “normal” career path that seemingly leads to a florescent cubicle with all the inescapable force of a tractor beam.

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool 

How much time do you really love spending outdoors? Over the years I’ve met very few people who want to spend weeks outside at a time. I like to realistically spend about 25 per cent of my time outdoors per year. (Don’t tell anyone, but my house is my favourite place to spend time after a big trip.) But some people love being outdoors, so here are a few job suggestions where the majority of the job is really outside.

In rough ascending order of pay, education and social interaction levels (funny how all three of these often mesh): tree planter, raft guide, sport instructor, outward bound/backpacking trip guide, timber cruiser, mail carrier, professional mountain guide and commercial fishing.

All of these jobs are outdoors a tremendous amount of time, and with rare exceptions pay starts at minimum wage and tops out at about $100K. But you’re outside a lot, and sometimes even doing what you love. I love my days guiding; but I don’t like trips longer than a week as I want to do my own sports at least as much as I teach others—but I’m selfish that way, and, honestly, I don’t enjoy being outside all the time.

Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool 

Everybody seems to love the idea of being outdoors until it’s day 10 of beating the ice out of the bottom of a raft and making less in 12 hours than some “professionals” make hourly. So, the first guidance is that if you value money, regularity, safety, benefits, relationship stability or anything else related to normal definitions of “success,” then direct outdoor employment is not likely to take you there.

Next up are the kinds of jobs you find at the outdoor trade shows. These tend to pay somewhat better depending on what exactly you’re doing, and at least you’re working for a company that may respond to, “So, ah, I’m going climbing on Baffin Island for a month, any chance I can get that time off?” better than a non-outdoor company. One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received came from the founder of one of the best climbing magazines in the world, Michael Kennedy, as we drove in the morning darkness to work at his magazine (I was his first-ever intern). At the time, I was trying to be a professional sport climber and Michael, one of the most successful and accomplished alpinists in the world in addition to running his magazine said, “Climbing is great, but it’s not the only thing. Make sure you know how to do something well so you can get a job when you need to.” I learned to write and produce media thanks to Michael and the others at the magazine, skills I still rely on today when the pro-athlete biz is slow.

John Price / Red Bull Content Pool

At an outdoor trade show, you’ll find designers, salespeople, buyers and just about every other job imaginable. Everyone is hustling to sell their gear or themselves, and over the years I noticed a few things. First, the most successful are there because they really do love the outdoors, and they use that passion to build whatever business they are in. From Charles Cole, who founded 5.10, to Peter Metcalf, who grew Black Diamond from near-death to a huge brand, the best love the outdoors, even if they spend less time there.

“Sales rep” is probably the best compromise I’ve seen in the outdoor industry between time spent outside, engagement and pay. Sales reps sell and service outdoor accounts, and so that means travel, but often with time to hit a ride, climb or paddle session. And good salespeople are judged primarily on one metric: sales. Hit the numbers and all the selfies on top of peaks just add credibility, as does taking calls while on a ride or flying your paraglider over the mountains.

John Price / Red Bull Content Pool 

There is another option: get a “real” job. I never climbed harder than I did while working 40-plus hours a week running magazines and doing qualitative market research. I loved the creativity of the business world, and without a family or other time constraints, I could work hard and play hard every night and weekend. While North America is relatively barbaric when it comes to vacations, many of my friends from Europe enjoy six to eight weeks off per year, and thus have successful careers in addition to being outdoor crushers. That’s harder to do here, but I’ve seen it done. One of the best paraglider pilots I knew was out every single flyable day, but made a very lucrative living selling agricultural equipment. He’d sit on the hill talking shop on his cellphone until conditions improved, then still take calls in the air with a quick, “Mike here, flying, call you back in a few hours?”

Finally, I believe any job is an accumulation of skills. Get good skills, work hard, try new stuff, do a lot of whatever blows your hair back and life will be good. Life is a game of potential, outdoors or not, and waking up stoked for the day’s possibilities is a sign you’re meeting your potential—not someone else’s.

See you outside.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue. (“Gadd’s Truth,” page 22).

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