Competences of Outdoor Leaders


What makes a good outdoor leader? Dive into this topic with us and see how many of these qualities you can find within yourself!  

Bihma Wolf and Emmi-Lotta Ojaranta  

Our leaders are potential role models, managing group dynamics, taking care of everyone and making sure everything is as safe possible at all times. This requires a vast repertoire of skills. We have been brainstorming on what makes a good outdoor leader, considering both our own leadership situations and what we found valuable from observing the leaders we’ve had in the past. Additionally, we were searching through some literature to find out what experts (Harvey, Mark 1999; Priest, Simon & Gass, Michael 2005) say about this topic.  

Here are the characteristics that we came up with:  

  • Competence (physical, mental and social)  
  • Self-awareness  
  • Judgement and decision-making  
  • Tolerance for adversity and uncertainty  
  • Good expedition behaviour  
  • Communication skills  
  • Patience  
  • Organizational skills  
  • Positive Mindset  
  • Caring  

Being an outdoor leader requires a wide range of technical and social skills. As with most things it requires passion for what you do. Being passionate about something equips you with an remarkable drive forward, and with that you will achieve the required skills along the way. Otherwise, if you don’t have this motivation, it will not be so beneficial for you and your groups in the long run.  

“Leaders don’t force people to follow, they invite them on a journey.” – Charles S. Lauer  

Leadership is about trust and competence 

A lot of the work which we as outdoor leaders are facing is about planning; setting goals, logistics, planning a programme, analysing the risks and finding ways to minimize them. Participants usually only see a small part of the programme which has been through a lot of pre-work. Planning helps us to deliver great programs, especially when pedagogical goals are included in it. It’s all about not losing focus. However, since the outdoor programmes we work with have to unpredictable variables – people and nauture – a lot of flexibility is required, and there’s often a need to change or adjust things. 

A group of students stand before a van with a trailer full of canoos attached to it

Good planning beforehand is the key to having a successful activity. This is us (AdEd19) with all preparations done, ready to leave for our kayaking expedition in the Tammisaari archipelago. (Photo: Bihma Wolf)

In our studies we have had the chance to learn many things about outdoor leadership, both in practice and in theory. Peer leadership is a great method we use to develop leadership skills and with all the practice we start to become more professional and develop our very own leadership styles. Just recently we had the chance to plan and execute an educational activity day for new Adventure Education students. It made us see how important constant practice is for achieving good leadership skills and how big of a role active followership plays, especially when having a peer leading situation. If we cannot manage to give the leader space to lead and trust in their competency it will be quite hard for the leader to do their job and get the most out of their role.  

One very important thing to pay attention to as an outdoor leader is ensuring that the group member’s individual needs are met, so they can function at a high level and work well with the group (Harvey, Mark 1999). Being aware of that helps to set the whole project up for success.  

Good physical and technical skills are very fundamental too. Our teachers always keep saying that as an outdoor leader you should have three times the physical and mental capacity of what you are using out in the field. That is to make sure you have enough reserves to still keep the group safe if something unexpected happens or if there is a need to evacuate someone of your group from somewhere in the wilderness. (Lehtonen, Kai 2019)  

Harvey, Mark 1999. The National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Guide. New York: FIRESIDE
Priest, Simon & Gass, Michael A. 2005. Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, 2. Edition. United States of America: Human Kinetics
Mäkelä, Eeva & Lahti, Sini 2020. Leadership in Adventure Education Webinars. 

Last modified: December 21, 2020