Using the GI Bill to Become a Wilderness Instructor

Updated: December 24, 2022
In this Article

    In the military, service members deal with two common themes: teaching and the outdoors. Accordingly, many veterans decide to translate their military experiences into civilian jobs teaching hiking, orienteering, and other outdoor-related topics. As such, we’ll use this article to explain using the GI Bill to become a wilderness instructor.

    Using The GI Bill To Become A Wilderness Instructor Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:

    • GI Bill Overview
    • The Military to Wilderness Instructor Transition
    • The NOLS Mission and GI Bill Availability
    • Becoming a Wilderness Field Instructor
    • Becoming a Wilderness Medicine Instructor
    • Final Thoughts

    GI Bill Overview

    Prior to covering the wilderness instructor path, we need to review the GI Bill, in general. What we now know as the GI Bill began with the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which aimed to provide troops returning from World War II the housing and education support necessary to transition back into the civilian world.

    Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs administers the latest variation of this education benefit, known as the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This current program offers qualified veterans the following comprehensive benefits:

    • Tuition and fees
    • Monthly housing allowance
    • Annual book stipend (up to $1,000/year)

    And, in addition to providing veterans the ability to pay for traditional schooling, the Post-9/11 GI Bill can also be used to pay for the training necessary to become a wilderness instructor, which we’ll discuss in the following sections.

    The Military to Wilderness Instructor Transition

    What is a wilderness instructor?

    As the name suggests, wilderness instructors plan and teach lessons within the context of outdoor recreation. In other words, these instructors use nature as their “classroom” to teach a variety of topics. For example, here are some courses wilderness instructors may find themselves teaching:

    • Wilderness survival skills
    • Leadership
    • Teamwork and teambuilding
    • Problem solving
    • Environmental studies
    • Risk management
    • Wilderness medicine
    • Orienteering
    • Mountaineering
    • Rafting

    Ultimately, the lessons and topics wilderness instructors teach depend on A) their skills and background, B) their employer. That is, the organization where you serve as an instructor will likely assess your skills and background and match you with the most appropriate courses to teach.

    Why would a veteran want to become a wilderness instructor?

    For many veterans, the transition from uniform to wilderness instructor simply makes sense. Military members, regardless of service, deal with two realities: 1) working outdoors, and 2) teaching. Even the lowest ranking troops are expected to provide some level of instruction to fellow troops, as this builds confidence and competence in a unit. And, more senior troops often become formal military instructors, receiving in-depth training and experience in an instructional role.

    Accordingly, many troops leave the military with comfort working outdoors and significant experience as instructors. Transferring out of the military, veterans may want to leverage these skills and experience into civilian jobs as wilderness instructors. Rather than work in an office, factory, or other indoor position, why not spend your time teaching outdoors?

    And, another major incentive for outdoor education involves veteran therapy. In the Post-9/11 era, a variety of outdoor therapy programs have begun to help veterans dealing with PTSD and other service-related issues. Serving as a wilderness instructor in one of these programs provides an absolute win-win for veterans: 1) spend your days working in nature, and 2) help fellow veterans in the process.

    The NOLS Mission and GI Bill Availability

    The National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, represents the gold standard for outdoor education in the United States. For aspiring wilderness instructors, this organization provides courses for instructors and, for some graduates of these courses, job opportunities as wilderness instructors.

    Based out of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS describes itself as: “a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader. We believe that anyone can be a leader; it’s our role to provide the environment and training to help you discover your full potential. We do that in classrooms close to home and in remote wilderness areas around the world.”

    In this capacity, NOLS embraces the following mission and values: “to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. Our community—staff, students, trustees, and alumni—shares a commitment to wilderness, education, leadership, safety, community, and excellence.”

    Bottom line, if you want to become a wilderness instructor, NOLS is the place to start (NOTE: this article’s author attended a NOLS course tailored to Marine Corps instructors, and he can vouch for the absolutely top-notch curriculum, instructors, and organization of NOLS programs).

    GI Bill Availability

    NOLS offers two instructor courses: 1) the NOLS Instructor Course, and 2) the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course. We’ll discuss the details of both courses in the following sections, but the important takeaway for veterans is that you can use your GI Bill benefits to pay for either of these courses.

    If you have not already applied with the VA to confirm your GI Bill status, you must begin with that step. Broadly speaking, using the GI Bill to pay for a NOLS course follows the same process as using these benefits to pay for undergraduate studies. Veterans first need to apply directly with the Department of Veterans Affairs to confirm their eligibility. The VA will then confirm your GI Bill eligibility via a Certificate of Eligibility (COE). This COE will outline your specific GI Bill benefits (i.e. percentage eligibility, number of months of benefits remaining, etc.).

    With eligibility confirmed, you’ll apply directly with NOLS for one of the below courses. During the application process, you will tell the NOLS administrator working on your application that you plan on using your VA benefits to pay for the course, and he or she will walk you through the necessary steps to apply those benefits.

    Becoming a Wilderness Field Instructor

    NOLS wilderness field instructors teach a variety of topics, to include: leadership, expedition behavior, environmental studies, first aid, outdoor living skills, navigation, Leave No Trace principles, and the technical skills related to the course type. During these lessons, instructors are expected to create and maintain an inclusive learning environment, build excellent rapport with students and co-workers, support student learning and growth, invest in their professional development as educators, and manage risk appropriately.

    And, in achieving the above, you may find yourself doing any of the following activities on a given day: working with a student one-on-one to help them increase their self-awareness; planning curriculum with co-instructors; supervising student leaders as they scout a rapid; debriefing a challenging hiking day; presenting a skit about Leave No Trace; cooking dinner in a snowstorm; managing an injury or illness; playing games; or enjoying a hot drink under the stars.

    If interested in becoming a wilderness field instructor, you’ll begin by taking the NOLS Instructor Course. This course embraces expedition-based training focused on preparing you to teach NOLS’ expedition core curriculum: leadership, risk management, outdoor skills, and environmental studies. And, while the course curriculum is tailored towards teaching at NOLS, it will provide graduates the education and experience necessary to apply for jobs as wilderness instructors at a variety of organizations focused on outdoor education.

    Becoming a Wilderness Medicine Instructor

    Alternatively, some veterans may want to focus on outdoor medicine. If you fall into this category, NOLS has a course for you: The Wilderness Medicine Instructor Training Course, a 7- or 10-day intensive training in Lander, Wyoming.

    Graduates of this course can become wilderness medicine instructors in a variety of NOLS courses. In particular, these instructors teach the recognition, treatment, and prevention of wilderness emergencies across all NOLS Wilderness Medicine courses including: 2-day Wilderness First Aid, 10-day Wilderness First Responder, Wilderness Upgrade for Medical Professionals, 30-day Wilderness EMT, and more.

    And, as with the general Instructor Course, this NOLS course provides graduates the skills and experience to teach in a variety of organizations – not just NOLS.

    Final Thoughts

    After leaving the military, many veterans have no interest in working behind a desk in the civilian world. If you want to continue A) spending your days outside, and B) instructing students, becoming a wilderness instructor may make sense. And, your GI Bill benefits will pay for you to receive the necessary training to accomplish this goal.

    About The AuthorMaurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.

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