The importance of experience in outdoor skills training

This blog post is prompted by a few events of the last few weeks. The first was a discussion on a social media page about first aid courses, and the relative merits of choosing a provider who delivers a syllabus set by an awarding body, and one who delivers a syllabus based on experience of the subject and how it should be delivered. The second was sitting in on one of the 16hr Mountain and Outdoor First Aid courses delivered by Wayne from Blackhill Training, and the third was a chance meeting with another ‘bushcraft’ provider. My interpretation of these three distinct events all follow the same theme – how important is experience of the subject in delivering outdoor skills training?

It would be only fair to talk about myself first. My own experience is in a few limited fields – firstly as a freelancer leading groups of mainly adults in the mountains of the UK and in select places elsewhere around the world. Latterly this has mainly turned to leading bespoke trips, or more often, training groups and individuals in the skills they need to do these trips themselves. Alongside this was the best part of a decade spent as an operational team member in a North Wales mountain rescue team, and assisting with training and operational matters regionally and nationally. The short version of that is that I have spent ten years playing in the mountains and getting paid for it, and spending time in the mountains helping people and NOT getting paid for it. I take the development of my own personal skills seriously, and I am usually working on two or three projects at the same time which will hopefully have the outcome of improving my skillsets in one area or another.

bushcraft course walesOver the years we have developed a range of courses that reflect the skills we can confidently deliver based on the personal skills and experience of our team of instructors. We often run bespoke training courses where we bring in outside contractors to deliver a certain module, or even the whole course where it is appropriate. There are other courses or events we could run, but I won’t advertise a course until I feel confident that we have a syllabus and instructors who can not only match what the subject requires, but can confidently answer any questions that students may have – because they have ‘been there and done that’. There are two areas where we find that other providers choose to go through a different route, and these are First Aid training and ‘Bushcraft/Wilderness Skills’.

First Aid training is subject to different regulations (albeit slightly relaxed a year or so ago with regards to First Aid At Work provision) and most industries/areas of common interest work to similar standards. The standard required for most outdoor-relevant NGB (NAtional Governing Body) award schemes such as the Mountain Training awards is for “16hrs of outdoor-relevant first aid instruction”. There are literally hundreds of providers around the U.K., and every three years anybody who wants to continue to hold the NGB award and work under it need to ensure they stay ‘valid’ and renew their first aid training. Our Mountain and Outdoor first aid course delivered by Blackhill Training is one of the courses suitable for this, and we run at least one every year.

4146949542_dd1402c7b1_o-300x225I’ve attended various courses over the years as a student, observer and ‘casualty’, and know plenty of other excellent providers. I also know several who have been running first aid courses for several years – yet have never used their skills ‘for real’. I will just let that sink in – there is an established training and qualification route to becoming a first aid training provider without ever going near a real patient/casualty. There IS a requirement to ensure that the training you deliver is relevant, up to date and appropriate for your students. But there’s no requirement to know what it feels like to perform a primary survey on a real person – to pull open their mouth gently and check for any obstructions to the airway, or to place your hand on their sternum whilst listening at their mouth for the tell-tale signs of the faintest of breaths.

The same is true for teaching ‘bushcraft’ (an area of the outdoor ‘industry’ that did not really exist in the UK 30 years ago). There are a few courses for becoming a ‘bushcraft instructor’ which are gradualy becoming more recognised, but no one course has become the recognised standard. There are no legal requirements for working under a certain qualification scheme, and it is often more of a case of finding an insurer who will recognise your individual training level. There is no requirement for having experience of practicing the skills you teach.

So what is the point of this aimless rambling? Well, the point is nothing other than my own personal view – that in order to effectively, safely and instinctively deliver good outdoor skills training you need direct experience of using those skills yourself, in a variety of situations and over an extended period of time.

Mountain and Outdoor First September 2014As I said above, Original Outdoors aims to deliver training that is not only within the skills and experience of our instructors, but to do so in a way that our clients and students can relate to. As the 14 students who attended our Mountain and Outdoor first aid course with Blackhill Training will no doubt testify, Wayne draws extensively on his past in the British Army and in Mountain Rescue, as well as work as a private medic, to illustrate certain points and techniques. I do the same when I teach, making reference to stories (amusing, cautionary or otherwise) or anecdotes that are (hopefully!) interesting and relevant to what I am going through with students. We both have to be careful that these don’t become sessions of ‘War Stories’ (“this one time, at band camp…”) of casualties with unusual injuries and having to come up with interesting solutions to problems that arose during a trip. Over the years you develop a kind of filter for these tall  tales – discussions on major hemorrhage or fecal impaction are not suitable for the dinner table apparently.

Teaching without direct experience of what performing tasks with those skills feels like is at best dishonest and at worst dangerous. If your experience in that skill is watching an instructor do it, then continually practicing until you are able to repeat it time after time you are not ready to teach it – only display one version of it. It is my opinion that unless you have used a skill ‘for real’ – be it a lifesaving medical technique or just lighting a fire in the rain because you need the heat from it to pass the night in any kind of comfort – then you need to consider carefully whether you will be able to adequately share that skill with others. There are some things which it is difficult to get first hand experience of. Survival techniques are a good example – if you keep needing to employ desperate survival skills then you need to re-examine your planning!

So what does the outdoor student do to find instructors who have the experience to back up what they teach? Here are a few tips based on my observations:

  • Look at their history – most instructors who sell themselves under their own name will have an ‘About Us/Me’ section of their website or course literature. Their background should reflect the skills they are teaching – this doesn’t mean that you need an ex-member of UK Special Forces Group to teach you navigation and expedition skills, but an experienced mountain leader with several overseas trips to interesting places of the world would be a good choice.
  • Look at the course and how it is run – if you want to have a ‘taster’ day or session in a given skill then there are dozens of courses and providers out there. If you want to learn a skill or set of skills that could save your life one day (or prevent a calamity that would endanger it) then you should choose a course which publishes a course syllabus, and is run in an appropriate environment. There are surprisingly large number of ‘bushcraft’ providers who operate from a scrubby patch of hedgerow or in the middle of a caravan park or tourist attraction.
  • Look at what others said – If a course is established and there is past history of clients it is likely that there are reviews and testimonials online, either on the website of the course provider or their social media feeds, or on blogs and third-party sites. These should give you an insight to the way the course is delivered, and who delivers it.

At the end of the day it is your money and time that is initially on the line. If you choose poorly you could end up with an instructor who is only a few pages ahead of you in the proverbial ‘textbook’ and a course that doesn’t achieve what you need it to. If you choose wisely you will find yourself learning a set of valuable skills, but also being pushed in the right direction to continue your learning.

A phrase that really does annoy me is the old cliche – “Those who can, do and those who cannot, teach”. In my experience those who can, do, and those who can do things very well end up teaching. Unfortunately there are plenty who teach who have neither ‘done’ or will ever ‘do’.

Clear? No? Ah well, maybe I need more practice…


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  1. Clear? Yes! All eminently sound and well written advice, Rich. I need to refresh some of my qualifications. First Aid would be the first one that I would definitely come to you and Blackhill Training for. Just got to get my school to fund me!

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