Certifications are valuable currency in the world of outdoor recreation. In some cases they’re even required for employment or pay increases. But it can be easy to put too much stock in certifications and certifying agencies—especially as organizations develop their own courses.
It’s one thing to pass an exam and receive a coveted piece of paper declaring your skill level; it’s another to actual possess and develop your ability. Just because you passed a test one day doesn’t mean your skill will always be at that level. This is why it’s important to consider why you’re taking a specialized course and what you plan on using your certification to accomplish.
Here’s a rundown of some popular certifications and courses and the reasons you might opt for one over the other.
Skiing & Snowboarding
PSIA or AASI: Getting a Level 1 certification with the Professional Ski Instructors of America or with the American Association of Snowboard Instructors is a great option if you’re working (or interested in working) at a resort. In this case, the cert is what you’re after; instructors certified with either organization generally make more money than non-certified instructors and have an easier time getting hired by elite resorts. The test is very specific to the organization and its teaching concepts, which means the scope of the tested skills is limited.
AMGA Ski Guide Course: This course is the first step in the AMGA’s sequence for becoming a Ski Mountaineering Guide. There’s no exam and there’s no certificate, but it’s a great way to further your develop backcountry skiing and rescue abilities. As with many AMGA courses, this isn’t a beginner-level course.
AMGA: If you want or need to certified in climbing, the AMGA is the best option because their name is well-recognized, they offer great instruction, and their courses fit into a progression that can lead to other guiding opportunities. You may need a certification (like the Single Pitch Instructor) for guide work, but some employers will accept demonstrated experience in place of the cert. If you don’t need the certification for employment, consider taking the course without the exam and working on mastering the technical skills.
Rigging for Rescue: If you’re interested in learning the science behind rescue and practicing techniques for improvising in the field, consider taking the Self-Rescue and Small Team Response Seminar. This is a great way to not only hone your technical skills, but to also develop an understanding for why things are done certain ways and where you have some flexibility with gear use. It’s a step away from the dogmatic teaching style preferred by other organizations in the industry.
WFR: There is no question that this certification is worth getting, especially if you work in the outdoor industry. Additionally, the skills you learn on the course will prepare you for handling medical emergencies in the wilderness, which makes this both a course worth taking for both the certification and the skills you’ll develop.
W‑EMT: The price difference between the WFR and W‑EMT is substantial, as is the time commitment: 10 days versus a month, plus continuing education and a tough test at the end of the course. One reason people take the W‑EMT course is to get involved with ski patrol. While many resorts require patrollers to be registered EMTs, some will accept a WFR in place of a traditional EMT. Unless you’re using your EMT certification to work on a medical crew, like running on an ambulance, chances are good that you’ll forget a lot of the skills. In the end, it might be better to go for the WFR, see how often you use your medical skills, and then upgrade if the W‑EMT looks like a better fit. If you’re interested in teaching wilderness medicine, this certification is required for most higher level courses.
Sea Kayaking & Canoeing
ACA: If you want to develop your paddling skills, courses through the American Canoe Association are a great option. Whether you’re a new paddler or have a few seasons under your belt, the ACA offers a course type that will help you advance your ability: whether it’s an intro to the sport, or the Level 5 course on Advanced Surf Zones. While these certifications (documentation of skill) are not required by many employers, putting them on your resume won’t hurt and the chance to practice paddling in tougher conditions will make you a stronger instructor/guide and will increase your options for personal trips.