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 Tech­niques almost always change over the years and it’s not uncom­mon to spot some­one prac­tic­ing out of date techniques.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.