These Schools Can Help You Break into the Outdoor Industry
Colleges across the U.S. are now offering degrees in subjects like gear innovation, guiding, and outdoor-business management. Here’s where to find them.
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Thinking about entering the booming outdoor-recreation industry? If you’re a student (or working on a career switch), there’s no better time to jump in. A growing number of colleges across the U.S. are now offering programs for future adventure-industry workers, with the aim of better equipping tomorrow’s gear makers, retailers, and business owners for success. The latest school to join the list: the University of Denver.
DU’s new Leadership in Outdoor Recreation Industry program offers two post-grad certificates—one in Outdoor Recreation Industry Business (ORIB) and another in Outdoor Recreation Industry Leadership (ORIL). The ORIB certificate focuses on core business skills like accounting, finance, and marketing, and is geared toward recent grads with no or limited business experience. The more advanced ORIL is designed for middle managers who already have some business savvy (in outdoor rec or elsewhere). Coursework for the ORIL involves more advanced subjects, like financial models, supply chain challenges, human resources, and growth management.
Both programs begin in the spring, and virtual attendance is an option for those who don’t live in the Mile High City.
“We’re creating specialized, easy-to-access programming that will prepare students for outdoor industry jobs that are available now, and future careers that will change the field,” said DU chancellor Jeremy Haefner.
The new program is funded in part through a $3 million grant from the VF Foundation, the charitable arm of Denver-based VF Corporation, parent company of The North Face and Smartwool.
“Denver is an important center for the outdoor industry, making DU the perfect home for such a program,” said Steve Rendle, CEO of VF Corporation and board chairman of The VF Foundation. “Through the Foundation’s targeted support of scholarships for underrepresented individuals, combined with DU’s expansive offering of business and industry-relevant coursework, we hope to spark the next generation of diverse leadership in the outdoor industry.”
With the outdoor economy generating a whopping $374 billion of annual consumer spending in the U.S., it’s no surprise that academic offerings like this one are popping up at colleges and universities nationwide. Below is a list of other notable programs catering to the business of getting people outside.
Want to start your own business in the outdoor industry? The University of Arkansas’ Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP) helps would-be entrepreneurs understand the nuances of starting a business through workshops, mentorships, classes, and trainings in the university’s new Greenhouse business incubator in Bentonville, a destination with a growing outdoor reputation. Content is crafted for the unique challenges of operating outdoor businesses and bringing gear concepts to life—and much of the consulting and networking services are free. Already have an outdoor company? GORP’s 12-week Cohort Program also helps owners expand their concepts through year-round workshops, networking, and funding.
Prescott College has two degree programs for those who want to making a living teaching—but who want to do it outside. The Adventure Education Program offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in outdoor ed with coursework in program administration and leadership, wilderness therapy, and more.
Dream of becoming a mountaineering guide or ski-area operator? The Adventure Education major at Fort Lewis College helps undergrads become wilderness therapists, guides, experiential educators, and public-lands employees. After completing 33 credit hours in math, history, and science, students finish out the 57-credit-hour degree with courses like Wilderness Expedition, Foundations of Adventure Education, Wilderness First Responder, and Teaching Methods for Adventure Education. Electives include climbing Fundamentals, Swiftwater Rescue, and Advanced Winter Backcountry Travel. For those students focused on the ski industry, the Ski Resort Operations Certificate teaches the ins and outs of on-mountain and corporate ski resort management.
Earn your MBA with an outdoor emphasis at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. The Outdoor Industry Master’s of Business Administration is a two-year program that includes an MBA core as well as specialized tracks for either the product or service side of the outdoor industry. The product concentration has specialized courses in sustainable gear development and material sourcing; supply chain and logistics; and sustainable finance. The service concentration has specialized courses in resort and hospitality management, natural resource regulation, and sales. (Plus, you can explore the Black Canyon of the Gunnison when you’re not studying.)
In Fort Collins, Colorado State University offers a pair of graduate certificates specifically tailored to the outdoor industry—one in adventure tourism, the other in ski area management. The six-course, 12-credit programs require a bachelor’s degree to apply, but they’re open to established professionals and recent grads alike. At less than $1,000 each, the certificates are an affordable way to dip your toe into the industry and come out with marketable knowledge and skills in less than a year.
Not to be outdone, the University of Colorado Boulder’s Outdoor Recreation Economy Master’s Program includes an MS in Outdoor Recreation Economy, with supplemental graduate-level certificates in topics like natural-resource policy and economic development. The program is completely online, so you can take it from anywhere, although Boulder offers awesome access to the outdoors.
For those who want to lead outdoor-adventure programs, like those offered through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound, Greenfield Community College’s Adventure Education Program might provide the perfect training. The program focuses on the development of critical, philosophical, and technical skills in adventure education. Backcountry travel, rock climbing, paddle sports, and Nordic skiing are all areas of focus, and the program’s certification competencies comply with national standards in the adventure industry.
Go pro in the snow sports industry at Gogebic Community College’s Ski Area Management Program, where classwork and practical experience at the school’s own Mt. Zion ski area prepare students for technical and administrative positions. Local training is followed by internships at ski resorts across the country. Courses include Ski Area Layout, Fundamentals of Ski Instruction, and Ski Area Operation/Cost Analysis.
If you’re interested in working in public land management—whether at the municipal, state, or federal level—the Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management Program at Northern Michigan University in Marquette is worth a look. The baccalaureate degree program teaches students professional skills in a variety of outdoor-recreation specialties. The program also makes sure students meet the entry-level requirements of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).
Want to become a professional snow goat? Montana State University’s Snow Science Program in the school’s acclaimed Department of Earth Sciences teaches all things snow safety for undergrads seeking careers in the ski industry, search and rescue, guiding, and other fields. The intensive coursework involves several disciplines, including physics, engineering, hydrology, and statistics, calculus, chemistry, and geomorphology. For graduate students, the Snow and Avalanche Lab combines study and research to help learners better understand and predict snow events.
The Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education at Brevard College is a bachelor of arts degree concentrating on marketable skills in professional guiding, rock-climbing instruction, and other adventure careers. From keeping customers happy to balancing company budgets, courses prepare students for both the business and adventure aspects of making a living in the outdoor industry.
The Experiential and Outdoor Education Master’s Program at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, is designed for students who want to work as teachers at expeditionary learning schools, charter schools, community colleges, camps, and beyond. The two-year program involves both online classwork during the week and in-person weekend classes, making it easier for working students to earn their degree.
In Corvallis, Oregon State University’s Center for the Outdoor Recreation Economy has a range of certificate and degree programs focused on all aspects of the industry, from learning how to operate a ski lift to designing environmentally responsible products. For those curious about entering the outdoor space, the Foundations of the Outdoor Recreation Economy is a $400 single course, open to anyone, that gives an overview of the economic, environmental, and societal impacts of outdoor business. Check out the school’s free outdoor industry module for an overview of what to expect.
For those already working in outdoor rec, the Sports Product Management Master’s Program at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business teaches students how to bring gear to market, from concept to promotion. Onsite and online programs are available to accommodate full-time and working students.
For many, the ultimate outdoor career dream is bringing product ideas to life and getting paid for it. The Outdoor Product Design & Development Program at Utah State University in Logan is a bachelor of science degree that prepares students for entering the world of gear design and manufacturing. Students can choose to specialize in design, development, or product-line management after two years of foundational courses.
Want to work with the public in the outdoors? Bellingham’s Western Washington University offers a Recreation Management and Leadership Program—a bachelor of arts degree applicable to careers in sustainable tourism and community recreation. Guiding, camp counseling, wilderness therapy, and park management are just a few of the paths students pursue after graduating.
West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Beckley undergraduate Adventure Recreation Management Program prepares students for careers in outdoor enterprises. Guide and instructor certifications in at least one discipline such as rock climbing or paddlesports are included, and coursework centers on the fundamentals of operating a business. Internships and a final project ensure students get plenty of real-world experience under their belts before they graduate.