Coronavirus - Outdoor Instructors Feel the Pinch

© Richard Prideaux

While the world has many bigger things to worry about right now, the impact of the pandemic on freelance outdoor instructors has been devastating. Richard Prideaux of Original Outdoors examines the overnight collapse of an entire sector of the outdoor economy, and the livelihoods that rely on it.

  • At time of going to press we await a Government announcement on support for the self employed, expected later today (26 March).
  • It's also worth mentioning a hardship fund for outdoor freelancers being set up by the Outdoor Industries Association: "As well as continuing to lobby for the self employed sector we want to specifically address these 12,000+ people with not only no future income but no savings for food now, today" says Andrew Denton of the OIA. "They've just exited a tough winter, were about to take in the bumper Easter business, they have loans, capital costs, canoes on hire purchase etc… they need help now, not in two months time back dated..."

Is the freelance instructor sector going to survive the Lockdown? I'm not quite sure where to begin with this, as it's a subject which not only affects me, but many of my oldest friends and colleagues. It's also, currently, a relatively minor issue when there are daily updates about the exponentially increasing death toll and infection from COVID-19, lockdowns and imminent economic regression around the world.

But, quite frankly, we're probably buggered.

Where now for freelance instructors?  © Richard Prideaux
Where now for freelance instructors?
© Richard Prideaux

The UK world of outdoor instruction, guiding (mostly with a small 'g') and coaching is built almost exclusively on a foundation of self-employed freelancers. The economic fallout of Foot and Mouth back in 2001 and closures of local authority-owned outdoor centres led to a move toward a gig economy, especially within the past fifteen years or so. Some freelancers have a 9-5, Monday to Friday job and then work in the hills during summer weekends – but there are a substantial number of full-timers who bounce between work in different activities and areas all year round. The majority of these are not 21-year-old van dwellers, they are people running a small business and feeding their families.

All my work, all of my clients, just disappeared overnight...

At the time of writing it looks like The Lockdown is with us for the foreseeable future, and access to the outdoor spaces that are our workplace is likely to be curtailed for a long time. Mountain Leaders, Mountaineering Instructors and other outdoor training professionals are by no means unique in facing a loss of income in the coming months – but I think that the freelance community of outdoor leaders is going to be more severely struck than other sectors of the tourism world.

The Season

2020 started off badly. Anybody who relied on a winter of snow and ice in Scotland for guiding and instruction work found themselves hunting for patches of slushy snow for most of the season – and then dodging avalanches and sharing photos of poorly-bonded layers when the snow did arrive. Never mind though – The Season is about to begin!

The Season – roughly from April until October – is when you earn the bulk of your income as a freelance outdoorsmith. It might be a cocktail of Duke of Edinburgh training and expeditions, navigation courses and days on your local Big Hill (Snowdon, Scafell, Ben Nevis, insert local peak). It might be a raft of charity challenges and corporate days. It might be working on summer camps and doing that weird mixture of rock-and-water on coasteering or canyoning trips.

In my case (not really a freelancer anymore) it is everything from training the military and SAR teams to wandering along beaches saying interesting things about winkles. You take the work, you respond to the requests on the Facebook freelancer pages and you ready yourself for long days working outdoors and not many free weekends.

Then your clients cancel. Not a few – all of them. The businesses who were hiring freelancers for individual jobs cancel. You're told to work from home, stay local and stay away from other humans. Otherwise your nan will die. You can't really argue with that.

You issue refunds. Credit notes. Reschedule trips and courses. Hope that there will be enough of The Season left this year to make some income.

Winter's a tough time to earn a living on the hills, so we were hoping for a bumper spring...  © Richard Prideaux
Winter's a tough time to earn a living on the hills, so we were hoping for a bumper spring...
© Richard Prideaux

A Fragile Economy

Working in the mountains (or in 'the outdoors') has always been seen as a desirable career, but not necessarily a financially stable one. The income is fairly low; on average you will be working 2-4 days per week from April to October for roughly £120-£150 per day, minus expenses. It is unlikely that you will make more than £15-£17,000 in that period, and you will be working pretty much every weekend and dreading injury or incapacitation. You will have insurance to pay for, kit to buy and maintain plus all of the other costs of being an adult working in a relatively rural area.

And then you're competing for freelance work with someone who earns £60k a year in their management job and wants to be an Epic Mountain Guide during the weekends.

So – low job security, high competition from people who can pick and choose the jobs, and not much chance of building up savings or a cash reserve. But you get to climb mountains for a living, and The Season is coming.

It's not just walking, trekking and climbing instructors who will be affected – the above could be written about mountain biking, kayaking, SUP'ing or any other adventurous outdoor activity. Most full-time instructors will have qualifications and awards for multiple activities anyway.

Many well-established names in the outdoor instructing world have chosen to increase their income and the security of their business by becoming a provider of the courses and award schemes offered by Mountain Training UK and Ireland. But on Tuesday last week it was announced that all courses offered by their franchised providers would stop.

I had the opportunity to speak to John Cousins, CEO of Mountain Training UK and Ireland:

"It was a very difficult decision we had to make to suggest to people that they suspend their courses" he told us.

"Most providers had already made that decision themselves, with many of them shutting until May and even into June."

It is an uncertain future indeed, and not unexpectedly John was unable to say when providers would be able to start offering courses again.

"We will listen to our providers in the coming weeks... and try to understand their views, along with the guidance of the government. There may be things we can help with such as blended learning with phone calls and online learning… but we don't know yet what will happen beyond April 30th."

"The activities that we (and our providers) offer are very engaging to a nation that we hope, very soon, will be looking to get out and re-engage. It's just very worrying if it goes on for a long time how we will rebuild."

It's hard to keep a safe distance in our line of work  © Richard Prideaux
It's hard to keep a safe distance in our line of work
© Richard Prideaux

Damage Control

What the hell are we going to do now? Income, such as it was, has come to a screeching halt, and we can't exactly work from home or away from other humans.

If you have read through to this point and are thinking that this is a wallowing, self-pitying piece from somebody who quite willingly chose this as a career, then you're absolutely spot on. But The Lockdown and the ongoing effects will have a devastating effect on this small sector of the self-employed market, and will likely see a complete change in the way many freelance outdoor instructors will choose to work in the future. Most of my friends work in this world, either full time or for a significant amount of the year. Some of my closest friends are technically my biggest rivals in business – but we try to work together and support each other where we can. I just hope that they survive all of this both in the physical sense and the not-getting-evicted-going-bankrupt-losing-everything-they-have-built sense.

Everyone is going to be pushed to the edge – it's just that some were living right on that edge even before all of this kicked off.

There is an oft-repeated piece of military vernacular; "no plan survives first contact with the enemy". Well, no business plan will survive first contact with the Coronavirus.

If your regular outdoor work came from schools, universities and other institutions then it is likely that there will be no procurement or purchase orders issued from those offices until the end of the summer. Some Duke of Edinburgh Award providers I have spoken to are making contingency plans for Bronze, Silver and Gold expeditions that will take place over the winter with participants sleeping in "alternative accommodation options" instead of camping.

For those who work on the adventure tourism side of things it might be a little better, depending how long restrictions continue. Once the population is free to move around again it is quite likely that they will want to come back to the mountains and the National Parks to walk, climb, run, ride and explore. How much money are they likely to have though? Will it go towards paying an outdoor professional, or will it be kept in reserve for an uncertain future?

As Anthony Eccles from Higher Climbing, a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor here in North Wales put it "how likely is it that someone is going to prioritise a multipitch climbing course over other expenses?".

I spoke with a few self-employed outdoor providers about this uncertainty.

"Most of the hotels, BnBs, and several of the companies here have said to the clients not to travel up - primarily to protect our community… we have three shops that you can buy food from and the supermarket is nearly an hour away" said Richard Pyne, of Rich Mountain Experiences, a Summer and Winter Mountain Leader based in Kinlochleven.

"I'm sure that after this we will see more people trundling around the UK for their holidays instead of abroad, and they will return to the Highlands. Right now though I am self-isolating and hoping that at some point I can travel down to see a terminally-ill family member before it's too late".

Most people I have spoken to are in damage-control, while also being socially responsible and isolating themselves from others. A common theme is trying to navigate the Universal Credit system (which is really, really not optimised for the self-employed) or applying for any kind of work that they can get in the meantime. There is (at time of writing) a hint of more possible Government support for the self-employed, but nothing is yet confirmed [we expect an announcement later today - Ed.].

"I'm staying at home and looking after my family… several people I have spoken to are just not going to return to freelancing after this" continued Anthony. "My work has just stopped dead".

I also managed to catch up with Lucy Wallace, resident of the Isle of Arran and a Summer, Winter and an International Mountain Leader with Arran Wild Walks.

"We're in a rocky boat at the moment - both me and my husband are freelance outdoor instructors. All my work, all of my clients just disappeared overnight"

"I feel that we are perhaps the forgotten side of the tourism and leisure industry. We're not a hotel, we're not a restaurant. I would compare this to Foot and Mouth in terms of financial consequences… I don't think anybody was really ready for this - we're all playing catchup with this one. "

Like everyone I have spoken to, Lucy saw changes coming for the outdoor guiding and instructing sector:

"We're all going to be looking at ways to protect ourselves and our income much more carefully in future. I think quite a lot of people will leave the industry... those of us that survive this will probably be looking for more resilience and more protection for their income."

But again, like everyone I have spoken to, Lucy is being proactive and solving immediate, solvable problems:

"I have volunteered with my local community resilience group... we live in a remote community with an aging population and a significant proportion are self-isolating. I'm also spending more time working on my garden and working on my website".

Doing What We Can

So that's it. Like everybody else we are living under the temporary-but-necessary restrictions of The Lockdown, but we cannot work from home. Nor will the freelance market be swift to recover from the effects of this unprecedented social and economic disruption. I really do hope that I am just being overly pessimistic, and that by June it will be business as normal and busier than ever. I suspect however that a few of my friends and contacts will have drifted off to more secure incomes and some established outdoor brands will quietly disappear.

On a personal front I'm trying to solve the solvable and focus on what I can do. When I work with some of my clients I like to bring up the idea of Circle of Influence vs Circle of Concern. Imagine a two-ring bullseye target – the small inner ring is your Circle of Influence, the much larger outer ring is your Circle of Concern. Right now I am looking at my Circle of Influence and deciding what I can do to improve my situation.

I'm tidying kit, completing some online and office work I can from home and doing what I can to help out friends and family. It's lambing season on a nearby friend's farm and we're working out ways that I can help them but maintain separation. I'm confident that I can see it through to the other side and will be back in the hills when I am able.

I just hope that everyone else will too. This is probably a good time for us all to develop optimism.

Also see:

26 Mar, 2020

Excellent article, thank you, very honest, Best wishes to you for the coming few weeks

26 Mar, 2020

Good article. I'm not sure I agree with the comments about the winter though. Jan was poor for conditions but there was as much work as ever this winter (though not for £120 a day!). It'll be interesting to see what the government proposal will be for self employed today - I hadnt heard of anyone getting out of the industry but I guess that might be a reality for some.

26 Mar, 2020

Nice one for writing the article!

I noticed a couple of oddities though.

Freelancers doing between 2-4 days work per week in the summer? Most I know are doing 6-7 sometimes pulling mega stints (that was never my thing!)

I no longer freelance, I’m self employed though, and have found customers desperate to rebook. I think there’ll still be a massive demand. It will be much harder for those without established business though.

Savings, this often gets banded around. I’m not a freelancer in the early stage of my career, but I’ve saved hard and have money to ensure my business isn’t going anywhere. The money in the outdoor industry can be pretty good I think. Take an ML training for example: 6 people x £340 = £2040. Take away another instructor for two days (actually only need them for one day, but I employ a person for two) £300, MT admin fees aren’t a lot, some fuel costs etc. You come out pretty well for 5 days work.

For most of us climbing and mountaineering types the fixed costs of running a business are pretty low. Insurance is cheap, membership of AMI is cheap, I’m old so my car insurance is cheap, my MT fees are a bargain, business kit cost is pretty minimal, my website costs are very low. I’m sure I’ve missed stuff but my business outgoings are really pretty low. Currently saving a lot on fuel at least!

I’m sorry if this sounds a bit down on the article, it isn’t meant to be, but I think it only reflects one side of our industry.

I should add, that the response from my customers, other instructors etc has been immensely supportive and heartening in these challenging times.

26 Mar, 2020

I think it reflects the freelance side of things - a world which neither you nor I really work in anymore.

We both run businesses and can weather the storm - but there are a lot more out there who are going to suffer this Spring.

26 Mar, 2020

It's an interesting one as the "outdoor industry" covers so many types of work. A large part of my summer work is with french tourists groups. With so few French speaking MLs, it means there is always more work offered than I want and this year I had ended up with some weeks back to back. It was looking too busy.

I can't see much of that work going ahead this year now, but I would imagine it will be busy as ever next year as people still want their holidays.

Schools are also likely to rebook their trips to outdoor centers which have had to be cancelled this year.

I think, as long as we can weather this year, the industry will pick up again.

As for this year, freelancers are by nature a resourceful and creative bunch! I have been doing some translation work and am due to start working in a care home shortly. I'm sure others will get supermarket work, delivery jobs etc.

I like to stay positive, so hopefully we will recover and come back as strong as ever 😊

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