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Taking the New York State Guides License Exam

Sand Lake esker

Sand Lake esker

For many years, off and on (unfortunately more times on than not), software engineering has been my primary occupation, my employers including a small start-up company, a couple Fortune 500 companies and a federal government agency. While enduring these years, I continued to plan and plot some way to escape the drudgery of staring at a computer day after day, slaving away for another’s benefit. Sure, I got a paycheck, and a generous one at times, but I felt less than fulfilled, yearning for an occupation more in line with my interests.

Finally, last year I decided to obtain my Guides License from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), with the goal of setting up my own guide business, emphasizing off-trail experiences. A trickle of inquires came in from the Bushwhacking Fool blog since the beginning, indicating there might actually be a market for such services.

The investment of time and treasure seemed minimal. Only several training classes are required, along with a formal exam covering numerous topics applicable to guiding.

Last year, I busied myself with fulfilling the formal training requirements. I took Wilderness First Aid, CPR and Water Safety classes, all guide license requirements. I obtained a physician’s statement stating I was physically able to provide such guide services.

The final step was taking the license exam, which I planned to take late last year. Unfortunately, scheduling the exam was repeatedly put off, until I finally sent in my exam application in mid-April. Better late than never though, right?

I took the morning off from work on April 25, and found myself heading down to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Sub-Office in Cortland, NY for the scheduled Guides License Exam.

Only six different people showed up for the exam, including myself. There was not a single female among them. Apparently, guiding is still a mostly male dominated activity in New York State, as is most outdoor activities. They appeared mostly middle-aged, much like me. While two chatted, the remainder (including myself), quietly waited for the proctor to arrive and the test to begin.

It did not take long before a firearm-equipped DEC agent arrived and led us down to a conference room for the exam. I assumed the firearm was to deter any cheating on the test.

Each individual obtained an exam tailored specifically for them; sealed in a large manila envelope with our names on it. From the instructions given for filling out the exam header, it appeared there were different versions of the test, in addition to different sections depending on what type of guides license was being sought.

Although not surprised by the nature of the exam (since we were instructed to bring two No. 2 pencils) grade school flashbacks momentarily flooded my mind leaving me slightly disoriented. Instead of the little ovals, there were several small rectangles with open ends lettered from A to E, indicating the possible answers to the question.

All of the testes included a basic requirement section, containing 54 questions. In addition, I applied for the camping and hiking categories, each of which contained 20 different questions. Several questions appeared on the exam multiple times, in different categories. If you happened to blank on those questions, you were screwed.

The questions came in many formats, including true/false, multiple choice (usually with four different possible answers) and matching. Hypothermia, proper gear, frostbite, rules and regulations pertaining to use of state land and map and compass use were just some of the topics heavily emphasized. There were no means overly difficult questions, but a few required some thought, and on several, I made an educated guess between two likely answers.

Some of the questions (without the answers) as well as I came remember were:

In what ways are synthetically insulated sleeping bags better than down-insulated bags? (Multiple choice)
Are compasses precision instruments? (True/False)
What features are colored green on topographic maps? (Multiple choice)
Ravines on a topographic map are represented in a V-shape, the closed portion of the V points upslope. (True/False)

On May 1, I received the exam results in the mail. With much trepidation, I waited until securely sequestered within my apartment before opening it and determining my fate, since I did not want to traumatize anyone seeing a grown man cry if the worst happened. Realizing the silliness of my anxiety, I finally ripped through the envelope to find I passed all three of the sections.

Now all that remains is remitting $75 to the DEC for the cost of issuing the license before becoming an official licensed guide in New York State, which I did a couple days after receiving the results. Now it comes down to a waiting game for my id and badge. Yes, they actually require wearing a badge while guiding.

Then there are a few minor details to attend to, like setting up some type of company structure, obtaining insurance, attracting clients, preparing paperwork and so on. So, if you have been thinking of leaving the trail behind for the more rewarding experience within the remote and trailless Adirondack backcountry, but cannot imagining doing so on your own, think about hiring me as your guide.

Fee structure and more information coming soon.


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4 comments on “Taking the New York State Guides License Exam

  • Congrats!

  • Congrats, good luck!

  • Hi Dan, followed you here from the Adirondack Almanack. I’ve been enjoying your writing very much! Thank you!
    I’m surprised (not really) that we haven’t crossed paths sooner, as it appears we waffle-stomp a lot of the same territory.
    Had I read sooner of your intent to take the Guide’s License exam I’d have shared some suggested reading: back when I took the exam, better than half of the land navigation questions had been taken directly from Bjorn Kjellstrom’s “Be Expert with Map & Compass.”
    Hopefully someone else searching for test prep guidance will find this comment and find it helpful…Kjellstrom is excellent reference reading, regardless.
    Again, thanks for your work here and with the Almanack. And I hope to cross paths someday!

  • Thanks for the complements, Brandon. I am glad you enjoy my writing. Luckily your advice was unnecessary, as I already own a copy of Bjorn Kjellstrom’s classic and I did consult it while studying for the Guide’s License exam. It was an excellent reference. Thanks again for readings, and keep commenting!

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