How to Make a Living as an Adventurer

Tree planting: backbreaking, potential lucrative.

Not every world-class adventurer needs to make a living at it. Britain’s Mick Fowler has, famously, worked as a tax man for over 40 years but devoted every summer vacation to climbing. Nevertheless, living the adventure life full-time is a dream for a lot of us. But how do you do it?

There are six ways to earn a living at this crazy career. Often, it is cobbled together by mixing two or three income streams rather than via a single path. Which you choose depends on abilities, leanings and opportunities. Every full-time adventurer has his or her own formula.

Photo: Red Bull

1. Sponsored athlete

You’re good enough at what you do that a handful of big companies, such as Red Bull or The North Face, will both pay you a salary and subsidize your adventures. How much you earn depends on your corporate bankability. Someone like Alex Honnold makes well into six figures. Others are paid enough to help but not to fully support. Still, the most important thing in the freelance life is having a regular gig, which reliably earns half your living, or a third, or a quarter, something. It is hard to survive simply by knocking on doors for every dollar, every month.

Sponsored athlete is perhaps the sweetest gig but also the rarest.  There are also disadvantages. Sponsored athletes never get tenure. They can be kicked off the gravy train at any time, even after years with a company. Also, they can’t just quietly do their thing. Sometimes they do some high-profile stunt, just to keep their name in the news. Or they do an exotic but lesser adventure with a camera crew. One way or another, everyone has to sing for their supper.

Photo: Colin Angus/National Speakers Bureau

2. Motivational speaker

This is not the same as giving a presentation about your latest adventure to the local alpine club. Motivational speakers use adventure as an analogy for business. Typical themes are risk, communication, leadership, teamwork. Many a retired Olympic athletic taps into this same vein.

For adventurers who don’t scoff at the idea of giving a TedX-type talk, the money can be incredibly good. Where I live in the Canadian Rockies, some climbers have made a six-figure salary from 10 hours work a year. Occasionally, they’ve earned this living for 30 years, milking one high-profile afternoon. The recent National Geographic exposé of Colin O’Brady revealed that he sometimes gets $50,000 for a talk. Whether this will continue now that the bloom is off the rose remains to be seen.

Many of us give these sort of talks occasionally, but the most successful in that corporate world are never the best adventurers. They are the best marketers.

Adventurer/environmentalist David de Rothschild

3. Family money

Another great gig, if you can get it. You can be as pure as you like, because you don’t have to make your feats pay. In Britain, the tradition of the gentleman amateur has a long and honored history. Charles Darwin didn’t have to make a living. Neither did exploration figures like Wilfred Thesiger or Charles Doughty.

You don’t have to be the offspring of a billionaire. Sometimes all is takes is parents who can buy you a house. With the main expense in life taken care off, a prudent spender doesn’t need to earn a lot to get by.

There’s nothing wrong with having money, but concealing its advantages is a cheat. I’ve heard adventurers preaching loftily to an audience about how all you need to live this life is the courage to follow your dreams. Meanwhile, they’re sitting on a trust fund.

A kayak guide identifies intertidal life in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

4. Guide

For a typical guide, the money isn’t great, maybe $200 a day, but you work outdoors, hone your skills, and can go off on your own adventures. Young guides are often footloose, devil-may-care ski bum types; while older guides tend to live the most normal life among all these trades. They — and the family-money adventurers — are the ones most likely to have kids.

Sometimes older adventurers turn to guiding later in life, when they are no longer at their physical peak and when they foresee that the sponsored athlete gig, for example, has only a few more years left.

5. Flexible work

This is the broadest category, because there are countless ways to make a living. Some physicians use medicine as a door to adventure. It pays well, so you can work part-time, and you often get invited onto expeditions as the doctor. The key is picking the right sort of medicine. It wouldn’t do for a GP to be away all the time — their regular patients would miss them. Doing locums, on the other hand — filling in temporarily for other doctors — is ideal.

Many other adventurers — including writer-climber Jon Krakauer, in his early years — earn their money as carpenters. The more entrepreneurial ones flip houses: They buy a fixer-upper, put a few months’ work into it, then sell it at a markup. Here in Canada, others work as tree planters. It’s hard physical work, but an experienced tree planter can earn $10,000 a month, and the season runs one to five months. Pay is piece rate. Many climbers and skiers (Guy Lacelle, Guy Edwards, Greg Hill, etc.) have funded their sports through planting. How many months you need to work depends on your overhead and what else you earn the rest of the year.

6. Artist

This is really the worst way to do it, and I speak from experience, because that’s the path I’ve followed. You have to feel comfortable ignoring security not just in your adventures but in the rest of your life. You have to be a perennial optimist and believe that it will all work out well, somehow. Luck had better be on your side.

I began by wanting to be a writer, then more specifically, writing about adventure. I did some magazine writing, but things didn’t get on track until I became a full-time magazine editor. I managed to negotiate long leaves of absence, so for the next 10 years, I absented myself on arctic expeditions for two months a year.

The rest of the time, I edited, wrote and learned photography. Being an editor meant that I could ask snoopy technical questions of the professional photographers we worked with. Their generosity eventually brought me up to speed. I wasn’t a particularly talented shooter but I worked hard and had a clean eye.

Always, I’ve traveled economically, flying on points, sleeping on floors whenever possible, avoiding places like Antarctica, where it’s impossible to go on the cheap. I’ve never had to fundraise for an expedition: Why be a businessman for two years to pay for three months out on the land? I have many ideas for possible treks, and I keep them on the shelf till an opportunity comes up to do one affordably.

Eventually, I left full-time magazine editing and began freelancing as a writer and photographer. I’ve done that now for 20 years. Because I’m one of few who can both write and take pictures at a professional level, I’m a cheap date for employers needing word/photo packages. Just one set of expenses, not two. And I earn a double wage.

It helped that for 10 of those years, many of us made good money selling our images through stock libraries. That’s the luck part: This boom only lasted from 2000 to about 2010. Once, one of my shots sold for $35,000 to an oil company in France. That single image has earned a total of about $70,000 in its lifetime. It’s not a great photo, but it illustrates the concept of leadership and has lots of negative space for advertising copy.

Skiers on Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Those sort of sales just don’t happen to anyone any more. Blame digital: It’s become too cheap and easy to produce good imagery. These days, a sale through the dying remnants of those agencies might more typically earn 15 cents.

When that happens, you move on, find other sources of revenue, give more talks if you can, guide, pick up a hammer, whatever it takes. Always, you are not making a living, you are supporting a lifestyle.

About the Author

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko

Jerry Kobalenko is the editor of ExplorersWeb. Canada's premier arctic traveler, he is the author of The Horizontal Everest and Arctic Eden, and is currently working on a book about adventures in Labrador. In 2018, he was awarded the Polar Medal by the Governor General of Canada.

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2 Comments on "How to Make a Living as an Adventurer"

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[…] How to Make a Living as an Adventurer: One of the great questions that those who live and breathe adventure often face is how they can make a living doing the things they love. That isn’t easy, and it can often be an uphill battle, but believe it or not, there are ways to not only survive, but thrive, as an explorer or adventurer. To help sort them out, Explorers Web has put together this handy guide. […]

Sheeny
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Like the way you put it Jerry, I know it’s not easy from my own experience. Sometimes the good old work and pay isn’t a bad thing as you have mentioned… Guess all ways work….motivation to get there is half the adventure. Good write up.