Outback Adventure Guides Paid $1.60 to $10 Hour

It takes three to eight hours to prepare an Outback trip into the wilderness. This means filling out paperwork, preparing meals, gathering supplies, and setting up transportation. For more comprehensive trips, like the Wilderness Orientation in the summer, it can take two to three days of work to prepare properly. Guides run treks ranging from single day hiking trips to full week kayaking experiences over spring break, and can work daily shifts between five and 24 hours long.

For all of this, they are paid $40 to $50 per day by Outback Adventures, the equivalent of $1.60 to $10 per hour, for work days between five and 24 hours. Until being promoted to an Assistant Guide, which can take up to nine months, Outback Guides are not paid at all.

Vaishnavi Paudel, an Assistant Guide at Outback Adventures, said that if the position didn’t pay, she wouldn’t participate.

“I don’t think it’s worth it. I can’t work there enough to make enough money to sustain myself,” said Vaishnavi Paudel, who is also the Opinion Editor at The Triton. “I think it’s pretty ridiculous considering the amount of work put in. The hours of labor put into each trip… the physical labor.”

Many Outback guides describe the role as a leadership opportunity and say that even without the pay, they would participate. However, the current pay is inconsistent with the standard pay roles for all student workers.

Positions that “perform clerical, manual, advising and/or public contact duties which require the use of specialized skills” are paid between $12.58 to $23.00 per hour and jobs that “perform a variety of clerical and/or manual related duties which are usually semi-skilled in nature and do not require extensive skill, training, or experience” pay a minimum of $11.50 to $15.34 per hour.

Despite arguing that the job provides experience, connections, and discounted equipment, the university deems it necessary for guides to complete several required extensive trainings, out of pocket, which can cost upwards of $1000. Outback student guides are expected to maintain the safety of everyone on a trek, including during week long and overnight trips. This begs the question: If Outback guides are not employees, then who is responsible for incidents on the treks? Is the university, who facilities the treks, liable?

“It’s not a typical job,” said UC San Diego Communications Representative Christine Clark on November 13, “Not in the typical sense.” Clark described it is as more of a “leadership opportunity” or “volunteer” position.

The “New Guide Training,” which is required before you are guaranteed a position on staff, costs $115, but does not guarantee you a position on the staff. If selected for the position, students must commit nine months to the position and obtain another certification, a $250 required “Leadership Certificate,” before receiving any pay. Clark said that this process covers instruction, transportation, and meals, along with lodging and free equipment rentals. However, guides often drive the transportation, set up the lodging, and prepare the meals, besides being mandated to ensure the safety of everyone on the trip. Lead Guides are also required to attend a $725 medical safety course, which the University subsidizes to an out-of-pocket cost of $400. 

“Like, I’m going to keep doing the job regardless, but [I’m] a student who is running lower on time and is getting more stressed about money and paying bills,” said one guide, who didn’t want to be identified out of concern for their job at Outback, acknowledging that they still haven’t earned enough to recoup the cost of the trainings. “But it’s hard to convince myself this is still a good idea.”

In early November, The Triton reached out to those who may have more context on the position and what it entails. Jon Schmidt, Director of Risk Management, redirected The Triton to Mary Lewis, Student Employment Manager. After initial conversation on November 8, Lewis redirected The Triton to University Communications. Jennifer Damico Murphy, Director of Human Resources Compliance Reporting and Analytics for the University of California, redirected The Triton to Caprece Speaks-Toler, Director of Compensation at UCSD. After initial correspondence, based on University policy, further requests were again referred to University Communications. Why the university believes this position is any different in terms of pay in still unclear.

“The University is going [to] look at the contracts for these programs soon,” Clark wrote in a follow-up email, “to evaluate if these benefits can be better explained to participants.”

Gabe Schneider is the News Editor at The Triton.

Correction: 12/5, 3pm: This article previously stated that all guides had to receive medical training, when only Lead Guides are required to attend the $725 medical safety course, which the University subsidizes to an out-of-pocket cost of $400. 

  • Delaney Davey

    As an Outback Guide who understands the value of this “job” beyond the pay, this is an extremely upsetting article that doesn’t take into consideration all the wonderful benefits it provides. Many of the monetary contributions are not required, and no one is there in order to be paid well. There is a love for the outdoors and the community on which no one can put a price tag.

  • KH

    I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise of this article. It’s misleading and entirely misrepresents what Outback does and how it trains its guides. While questioning the validity of an employment position based on a comparison of responsibilities and pay scales is fine, I would note that the nominal compensation that guides take for their work is not the primary motivator for the position. Being a guide at Outback Adventures is a position that entails a whole host of leadership and personal development opportunities, and a valuable outlet for those who are passionate about sharing outdoor recreation with those who may not otherwise have a chance to experience it. For many, kayaking, rock climbing, and backpacking are prohibitively expensive— not to mention the requisite knowledge of technical skills and gear that go along with having a good experience. Outback Adventures, which runs trips at cost for students and others in the UCSD community, makes those types of experiences accessible. This is in no small part to thanks to the pay scales of it’s guides. Besides the fact that non-hourly pay rates are standard for the outdoor industry, if the university were required to pay guides an hourly wage, OA would not exist, entirely negating the exploratory purpose of the organization.

    Additionally, this article greatly exaggerates the cost of training required to be a guide. Contrary to the implication in this article, “New Guide Training” is a program offered to those students who have expressed desire and commitment to being a part of Outback’s guide program. Those funds specifically cover the cost of training, which includes an overnight trip— fuel, food, and equipment are all included; “New Guide Training” is not a frivolous prerequisite charge for an interview. That 9-month training program teaches valuable technical and soft skills, and is often a wonderful opportunity for students to learn new ways of experiencing the outdoor recreation they already love.

    Furthermore, any additional training (i.e. the Leadership Certificate) is completely optional, and the decision to pursue further personal development is a completely personal one. The medical safety course that this article purports to be a requirement of employment is a Wilderness First Responder certification: this medical and risk management course is an opportunity for students who are invested in the outdoor industry (many of whom continue to be outdoor educators after their time at UCSD) to gain a certification that is a standard of employment in that field outside of the university setting. Only those students who have decided to pursue the “Lead Guide” level of training are even required to take this (heavily subsidized) medical course, and a WFR is nationally recognized as a medical certification on the same scale as First Aid, First Responder, and EMT certifications.

    In terms of risk management, UCSD’s Outback Adventures is no different from many other university-based outdoor recreation programs around the nation— some of which are volunteer-run, where the guides have no financial compensation at all. Risk-management is a well-established component of all of the guide trainings, and liability (with all of its prerequisite insurance standards) is run through the university itself.

    True— a position as a guide is not a “typical job”. It’s not presented as one either. Those students who do decide that they want Outback Adventures to be a part of their community during their time at UC San Diego have a wonderful opportunity to share their love of outdoor recreation with their fellow students. Even for those positions which are unpaid (Assistant Guide), every trip is an opportunity to get out in the wildness and backpack, kayak, rock climb, camp, and hike with every provision (transportation, lodging, meals, equipment) supported by OA. This article entirely misrepresents the core of why Outback exists. Ours is a community of students who love to get outside, and who cherish the opportunity to share that with their peers at UCSD. For those who choose to continue to work in the outdoor industry beyond graduation, OA is an invaluable proving ground for personal and professional development, and a safe space to learn those skills. Even beyond that, every single one of the participants that the outdoor recreation program reaches have the opportunity to experience all kinds of adventures without the prohibitive barriers of cost and experience. Any nominal compensation, hourly, per diem, or otherwise, is just a bonus for the guides that make Outback their home.

  • David B

    As a former guide and employee of Outback Adventures I feel this article is more of an attack/opinion piece based on someones personal agenda rather than reporting on the actual facts and environment. For example, I guarantee you will find the majority of current and former guides have nothing but great things to say and take no issue with the pay; which is industry standard by the way. This article also fails to mention other Outback entities such as the shop which does pay standard hourly rates. If the intent of this article was to raise awareness about a perceived pay gap then the author should have done more research and received a broader range of inputs. I mean if those people don’t like the pay then they shouldn’t work there. No one is forcing them to work there. Instead the author has chosen to fall into the trap of a lot of “authors” these days and take a fact based, open platform and use it for their own personal agenda. I hope all of those who have worked for and experienced the wonderful services of Outback continue to enjoy and promote its amazing mission.