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A Guide’s Life: Question and Answer


 By Rachel Ahtila and Dan Pickar

Questions for the adventurous soul who may want to become a guide.


How did you get into guiding?

DAN: Growing up, the outdoor lifestyle, hunting and fishing was a way of life, I wanted to do it as much as possible. In fact, that is all I did in my free time. As I grew and developed as a hunter, I kept raising the bar for myself and my passion for hunting, especially bowhunting. Pursuing these values and heritage at a young age propelled my passion for hunting and fishing and ultimately becoming a guide.

Dan and Client
Dan Pickar and a happy client.

I graduated college with a Political Science degree from the University of Montana and with it four summers of seasonal Forest Service work in the backcountry. I was at a crossroads unsure of what my future looked like. By default, I entered my fifth summer of seasonal Forest Service work after college. That summer I had a random conversation with an outfitter over Facebook from Dome Mountain Ranch. I killed my first elk there, a cow, when I was 13. I was more or less checking in to see how the ranch was doing a decade after the wolf reintroduction. Becoming a guide crossed my mind but I never really thought I was good enough to be a guide. It’s just what I did in my free time.  A month later the outfitter called me up and asked me if I wanted to guide elk and deer hunters that fall. So that was it, I’ve never been known to turn down an offer for a new adventure.

RACHEL: Truth be told I started out as a horse-crazy kid that just wanted to be outdoors making forts with the boys. My first pair of binoculars were a set from Crayola and long before Mountain House was on the scene, Honey Nut Cheerios were my go-to. My parents raised my brother and I with free rein to all of the opportunities that the great outdoors provided.We supplemented our childhood memories with a ton of camping, fishing and adventuring. As fate would have it the summer I turned 11, I had an opportunity to travel to my Godparents hunting outfit in northern British Columbia. It was a mecca for a horse enthusiast that loved the outdoors, some 100 miles south of the Yukon border. I began helping to trail horses to the mountains when I was 12 years old and before I went off to university, I was wrangling on Stone’s sheep hunts in the famous Eastman’s Valley of the Cassiar Mountains.

It was a defining moment when I got off the plane all those years ago and I haven’t looked back. Every summer for the past 17 years I have been northern bound, wrangling, guiding and trail cooking. There is a pastoral romanticism about being able to remove yourself from the world we live in today and give people a raw experience that is both humbling and rewarding. Guiding came as a natural choice when I was able to combine my love for horses, the great outdoors and my passion for wildlife and conservation. I have since guided in British Columbia, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and New Zealand.


What does it take to be a good guide?

DAN: There are two types of guides. Ones that are there to entertain a client and ones that are passionate about hunting and conservation. From my experience most paying clients would rather have a guide that has a burning desire to be successful than to be schmoozed for a tip. If you are a great hunter but have a dull personality, your client probably isn’t going to get the best experience possible. A good guide is knowledgeable about the quarry, persistent, sociable and most importantly, passionate at helping and seeing others be successful.

RACHEL: Complimentary to what Dan touched on, a good guide is someone who not only can demonstrate knowledge of the land and its game but also be personal and engaging. Some of the best guides I look up to are those that know the history of the areas they hunt and have a deeper attachment to their profession beyond a paycheck. Being able to read people, make them feel comfortable and help them be successful on their hunt is why we are here. A good guide is someone who takes time to make his or her client’s dream trip a reality.


What does a day as a guide look like?

DAN: A day as a big game guide out West varies greatly depending on the hunt and the camp you’re in. In a horse camp, getting up at 3:30 a.m. to saddle horses is the norm for a departure before daylight. Most of the hunting occurs during the first and last couple hours of light. The rest is down time or travel time. This varies greatly depending on the hunt. I usually try to catch some shut-eye sometime in the afternoon so I don’t get too run down. Guiding season is a 3-4 month marathon, not a sprint, becoming run down or burned out is not an option so plan accordingly.

RACHEL: During the spring months, bear camp usually has you out hunting a bit later than other seasons but your mornings are usually spent skinning and doing maintenance with long hours stalking into the night. In the summer months when I am guiding in the Northwest Territories, we have 24-hour daylight for the first month and depending on how keen you are, we are up and moving by 4:30 a.m. getting lunches made, breakfast cooked and horses wrangled. Once on the trail you can pull a 24-hour day if you end up camping out on a band of rams, or taking a caribou or moose late in the day. We pack out all edible portions in the territories, so a great deal of time is spent picking over your harvest. You have to be physically fit enough to carry more than your fair share of the load and have a good handle on animal husbandry if you are using horses and mules. Modern travel has made it feasible to guide internationally nowadays and there was a time not too long ago that I was guiding over nine months of the year. The constant travel and long days have a way of teaching you how to work smarter, not necessarily until you are burned out. Taking naps in the heat of the day and when you can was a bit of wisdom I learned early in my career.


What would your biggest piece of advice be for anyone who wants to start guiding?

DAN: If you have the drive to help people be successful and are passionate about hunting and conservation, you probably have what it takes to be a guide.  All the other skills kind of fall into place and the rest of the little nuances can be learned quickly. If you are true to yourself, by default this will translate into your ability to be a successful guide. There are no shortcuts, becoming a successful guide is defined by honesty and hard work.

RACHEL: Don’t over promise and under deliver. I was put through the ringer as a young guide, not only because I was in my late teens and early twenties but also a bit because of my gender. I was told that as a woman there were going to be challenges because clients wouldn’t want to hunt with me. I tried to not take it personally and owe a lot of my confidence to the clients that gave me the chance to take them out. One lesson I learned is if a client doesn’t want to hunt with you because of whatever reason, let it be just that. Chances are you don’t want to hunt with them anyway. Start with species you are familiar with and go from there. We are always learning in the field and when you go on to guide for different species, tag along with colleagues to gain knowledge. The worst thing you can do is go out and bluff your way into a situation that not only makes your clients feel uncomfortable but puts you in an awkward position.


Questions for the adventurous souls who would hire a guide:


How much do I tip?

DAN: I hate if a hunter asks me this question because I don’t work for a tip. I work as a guide because it’s what I love to do. But if I must, I think most outfitters will say a tip from 10-20% of the hunt cost is the status quo, depending on the hunter’s experience.

RACHEL: Echoing that a tip is an added bonus and not our main focus couldn’t be more truthful. A tip should be a reflection on how hard you think your guide and support staff worked for you and how memorable your hunt was. I know many clients do a check or bank draft approach but if you are going to tip, cash is always acceptable too.

As the client what gear don’t I need?

DAN: Get your hands on a gear list from the outfitter. This will give you an idea of what you don’t need.  For a guided hunt in the lower 48 the hunter’s daypack should be relatively light. Especially if you’re hiking. This also depends on what kind of shape you’re in. The first thing that I tell my deer and elk hunters is they don’t need a spotting scope or rangefinder. I always have mine and it will shave four or five pounds off your pack. Some things you definitely don’t need are game bags and knives. Your guide should have that handled as well. Every hunt is different so it’s important to discuss gear needs before you head out each week.

Rachel Ahtila and Client
Rachel Ahtila and one of her clients on a sheep hunt.

RACHEL: The biggest mistake is to bring gear you have not tested. There is nothing worse than going through a client’s gear bag as you hit the trail and having them take the tags off their new boots, try on their new rain gear to find it is too small, or pack extra pounds of trinkets that are above and beyond feasible. Do your research, find out from past clients what you might actually need depending on what you are after. Don’t pack for a moose hunt if you are early season sheep hunting. Outfitters have lists available or would be willing to answer any questions on what you will realistically need for your hunt.

What makes the perfect client?

DAN: I’ve hunted with clients from all over the spectrum but there are a few things that do make an ideal client. A perfect client has an accurate sense of preparedness and readiness for the hunt you’re on and is safe with their weapon. They also know their gear, know how to shoot and most importantly avoid unsafe situations – like pointing their gun at the guide!

RACHEL: Holistically, a hunter that comes prepared is the best client. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the latest and greatest gear, or the fanciest new weapon but that they are using gear they are confident and proficient with. I have had gym junkie types that burnt out before another client that was twice their age and perhaps not as stereotypically fit. It all comes down to being realistic about your physical abilities. If you know your hunt is going to be physically demanding, start training a few months out, research and ask questions about what you should bring and what you can expect.

Do’s and Don’ts   

  • Don’t point your weapon at your guide.
  • Don’t pass up something on the first day that you would shoot the last.
  • Make sure you have a first aid kit, or that your guide does.
  • Bring enough food and water for the day.
  • Don’t bring gear that you haven’t tried on, been fit for, or not broken in.
  • Do make sure you communicate with your guide on your physical limitations. It’s for your safety and theirs!
  • Pack appropriately for the season and expected weather for your hunt location.

About Rachel Ahtila

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Rachel Ahtila is a hunting guide from British Columbia, Canada. Her career has taken her from the far reaches of the Northwest Territories, through the Yukon, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and down to New Zealand. She is a director on the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance, an ambassador for industry leading outdoor companies, international columnist and pursuing a future career as an outfitter.

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  1. Randolph Holford

    Excellent thoughts especially on safety, physical preparation and shooting. Far too many hunters are unfamiliar with what their weapon will do and have not practiced enough to use it for maximum efficiency.

  2. I guided in Idaho and Wyoming for 29 years. One thing a professional guide must get out of the way is the desire to kill an animal yourself. Rookie guides want to kill. You’re seeing bucks and bulls bigger than anything you’ve ever killed yourself and you want one too. You should reach a point where your only motive is to get that animal for your client. It helps to have already killed a giant buck or bull, but most guides are young and haven’t had a chance to take a trophy animal themselves. Other than that, just be yourself. If you’re naturally friendly, that’s better for a guide, but if you’re taciturn, then that’s ok too. We guides come from every walk of life and there is absolutely nothing special about us. I assure you, most of us could never afford a guided hunt ourselves. You had better get used to blood, gore, butchering and hauling too. This stuff isn’t catch-and-release.

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