Jobs include everything from avalanche search-and-rescue to zipline operators, along with municipal park employees, ski instructors and wildlife photographers.

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For Seattle resident Caitlin O’Brien, playing outside isn’t just fun — it’s her job. O’Brien grew up in a small Massachusetts town, but today, she is the youth education manager with The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoors recreation, conservation and education nonprofit.

After college, O’Brien worked at a Connecticut residential camp before moving to the Pacific Northwest at age 23 to work with AmeriCorps at a YMCA camp, then taking a job with The Mountaineers.

One of her recent duties? Taking kids to Winthrop for a weekend of skiing. “It’s great, watching kids experience outdoors for the first time, not attached to a device,” she says.

O’Brien’s is one of nearly 200,000 Washington jobs supported by the roughly $21 billion spent on outdoor-recreation trips and equipment, according to a recent report prepared for the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office by Earth Economics, the first comprehensive analysis of Washington’s recreation economy. Those numbers are higher than Washington’s aerospace (94,200) industry and comparable to the tech industry (191,000).

Jobs include everything from avalanche search-and-rescue to zipline operators, along with municipal park employees, ski instructors and wildlife photographers.

Not all of the jobs supported by the outdoor-recreation industry in the report involve outdoor pursuits. For example, recreationalists need places to stay and eat as well as play. So the report includes about 36,000 retail and service-sector jobs within the figure of 200,000 jobs, as well as outdoor-recreation product sales as varied as apparel, boat parts, oil and other equipment.

Training for an outside gig

Several colleges in the state offer degree programs that help prep for outdoor leadership, including the Recreation Program at Western Washington University, Recreation and Tourism at Central Washington University and the Outdoor Recreation degree at Eastern Washington University. These programs offer core courses, including budgeting and search-and-rescue.

By the time students are finished with a degree at WWU, “They’ve run the gamut from the desk to the backcountry,” says professor Keith Russell, coordinator of WWU’s recreation-degree program. “They understand the continuum of service in the field.”

As a result, you’ll find many WWU graduates working in a variety of outdoor jobs in King County: in travel tourism, municipal parks and recreation, for nonprofit organizations such as the Student Conservation Association, and for education- and youth-oriented organizations such as the Wilderness Awareness School, which operates in and around Seattle parks.

A higher-ed degree isn’t required to work in the outdoors, but for certain roles, an investment of time and money in specialized instruction is a must. For example, National Outdoor Leadership School’s 65-day Pacific Northwest Spring Quarter covers glacier mountaineering, sea kayaking and wilderness first-aid certification, for a tuition of $7,950.

Assembling an outdoor career

Many in the outdoor field patch together a nomadic existence, living in Seattle for a few weeks, then maybe heading to Argentina as a guide.

“You’re often working seasonal jobs with different organizations or businesses,” O’Brien says.

“It’s hard to have a full-time job in this field. If you [do], you’re probably working behind a desk, or you’re 50-50 in the field and at your desk. I was never very good at seasonal work, and I like creature comforts,” she says.

Her current position allows that 50-50 split between field and desk.

Outdoor careers aren’t only an option for the young.

“At Outward Bound, I worked with a former attorney in his 40s leading these 25-day experiences, helping kids turn their lives around. He wanted to give back and do something different,” Russell says.

To explore outdoor careers, take the same approach as a guide might — slow, deliberate and curious. “Start volunteering, taking hikes, working with the Sierra Club,” Russell says. “Get time just doing it, start seeing ways to be part of an organization, and slowly make the shift.”