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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 can 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.

Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links within this blog post may send you to a retailer website. If you chose to purchase any product on that site at that time, this author receives a small commission. These commissions provide compensation for the author’s time and effort necessary to provide the content at the Bushwhacking Fool.

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20 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!

  • Stumbled on this today as I plan on going for my Guide badge. I bought the “Fieldbook” fromBSA. Any other recommendations on books/materials?

  • Hey Shawn,

    The “Fieldbook” is all I had when I studied for the guide’s license. It contains more than enough information for the exam, at least the hiking and camping portions. Make sure you know everything about topo maps, compasses and the symptoms of hypothermia.

    Good luck on the exam!!

  • Hey Dan, First of all Congrats to you. My friend and I took the exam a few weeks ago and also successfully passed. We went to Hamilton NY which was the only location that they had in March. It was during the NYSOGA get together. Didn’t really take count but I think there was something like 40-50 of us taking the exam. Just curious about how long it took after you sent in your $ that you received your Badge?


  • Dave and Dan,
    Studying for my test with the BSA book and the DEC outline. The outline states we need to know about tip objective, timetables and caffeine deprivation. THE BSA doesn’t have these (that I noticed.) Any suggestions? I take my test in about two weeks.

  • Shawn,

    I wouldn’t overthink it too much. From my recollection, the BSA book, some map reading skills and a whole lot of common sense should see you through the exam fine.

    Good luck!

  • One question I thought was funny was about not treating a blister till you get back to camp. A few questions were common sense, a few made me think.

  • Overall, did you find the exam hard or pretty easy? When will you start guiding?

  • Overall it was pretty easy. I made a couple mistakes (USGS map) variable contour interval. (I am used to using a 1:50,000 military map.) And one about the red lights in a water channel going upstream.

    I have been doing kayak guiding in the Hudson Valley for a couple years now for a business.
    After I get my license I want to offer hiking and camping on DEC land. I hope to start in the fall offering “Leaf Peeper” tours for the changing foliage down here by West Point.

  • Are you a member of the NYSOG organization?

  • Not yet, but I plan on joining as soon as I set up a website for my guiding services. Although, I should say “IF” not when…

  • I found the test to be pretty insulting. The DEC has a study guide for the “basic requirements” with about 300 subjects on it, which essentially got dwindled down into about 7 or 8 categories. That wasn’t the part that I considered b*llsh*t. What I considered bogus, was all of the “should” or “virtually all” and “what’s the best”…so much of the content was so painfully subjective and open for debate, that it was actually hard to make sense of it…because the person writing the questions was probably a dolt. Interestingly enough, I believe I did amazing on the specific tests and not so well on the basic requirements…possibly even failed it LOL! I still can’t believe how idiotic some of the phrasing was!!

  • I am curious if anyone knows how many questions need to be answered on the basic portion of the exam to pass? I figured you need at least an 80%, which is 44 out of 54… I’m probably right around there! LOL!

  • My guide service is legitimate now…


    Hope to have a great Grand Opening in two weeks.

  • Congratulations, Shawn!

    I’m curious, what did you do about liability insurance? That’s the current issue I’m working on for my own guide business.

  • An FYI for future test takers:

    DEC Rep Colleen Kayser said that the basic portion of the exam requires a 70% to pass. Not sure if that includes the specialty exams or not. Just thought some folks would like to know, since the DEC is frustratingly spotty and inconsistent with the info on their website.

  • For my insurance I used..http://oigcorp.com/
    Not too bad. I am insured for hiking, camping, kayaking to include theftl/damage of my equipment

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