Certifications: Pros, Cons, Facts

In the world of outdoor sports, few debates incite as much passion as certification. Should certification and training be required before plunging into an activity that has some risks? Some sports, like SCUBA diving, require certification to participate, let alone instruct or guide. On the other hand, when an outfitter was asked what level of expertise they wanted before rafts were rented for an unguided 225-mile raft trip down the Grand Canyon, they answered: a credit card. So let’s explore the arguments on both sides.

The Basics
Obviously, even the most ardent pro-certification arguments don’t advocate certification for basic activities like hiking, camping, and cycling to work. And most agree that a higher standard of experience and knowledge should apply to instructors and leaders than simple participants. Beyond that, the pros and cons become more complex.


Shared Risk
We require training and certification for driving, operating heavy machinery, or installing wiring. That’s because these activities pose risk not just to the participants, but to others around them. To the pro-certification side of the argument, the same applies to outdoor sports. An unprepared mountaineer who requires a rescue will put others at risk, usually at public expense. What makes outdoor activities that involve risk different from these activities?

Body of Knowledge
Everyone who travels in snake country hears the myth about sucking the venom out of a wound. Then they eventually hear that it’s just a myth and the technique, doesn’t work, and makes things worse. This is the learning process in action: knowing what’s real knowledge and what’s misinformation. Training and certification provide a base level of understanding, a common denominator of competence, and stops the spread of incorrect information.

Continued Improvement
Teachers, doctors, and other professions are routinely required to complete continuing education to keep up with changes in their field. Why should outdoor sports be any different, at least for leaders and instructors? Techniques almost always change over the years and it’s not uncommon to spot someone practicing out of date techniques.

Outdoor folks are tribal. We form strong communities around campfires, in river eddies, on beaches, and at trailheads. Training and certification are one way a community establishes what’s expected of its members. To advocates, this builds a stronger community. It gives us common experience and increased confidence and trust in each other while we’re pursuing sports that require serious trust in our belayers, route-planners, rescuers, and navigators.

Those on the anti-certification side tell a different story. To them, certification formalizes an activity that’s fundamentally about freedom. It turns something that should be about the joy of discovery into stressful memorization.

Exclusivity and Barriers
To the “con” crowd, the need to have completed a training course smacks of exclusivity. It creates “in-crowd/out-crowd” mentality that excludes most people and creates an unwelcoming environment to people without years of experience. The flip side of the tight tribal community is that it keeps a lot of people on the outside.

Bureaucratic and Expensive
The con camp also argues that certification creates entrenched bureaucracies. The entities that manage the certification and charge for the courses develop a vested interest in maintaining a certification system that always seems to get more complex. We go to the peaks for the fresh air, not for the paperwork. Instructors and guides—often young people working low-paying jobs for the love of the outdoors—find the cost of certification high compared to their wages.

Another complaint is that certification is driven by the fear of institutions being sued. Liability and safety are related, but aren’t the same thing. To the “no” crowd, look behind many certification campaigns and eventually you’ll find a lawyer. This may be important to outfitters, clubs, and instructors, but not to participants or groups of friends.

Some in the anti-certification crowd assert that required training about the “right way” is a blunt instrument that with a didactic quality that doesn’t fit the spirit of most outdoor sports. They claim that because experts run certification, the instructional climate skews toward an assumption that aspires to a level of performance, not just safe fun. Too much seriousness and the fun is sucked out of something we do for the love of it.