Wilderness Swim Safety: The Lifeguarding Course Every Outdoor and Wilderness Leader Should Take

Should you take a lifeguarding course before heading out on that long-awaited hiking trip with friends?

How about if you’re a summer camp counselor leading campers up into the hills?

What if you’re a hiking trip leader taking a group of teens on a backpacking trip in a national park?

Yes: You should be prepared to manage water safety (in general), and swim safety (in particular) on any outdoor or wilderness excursion.

No: You will not be prepared to manage water safety and swim safety on a hiking trip in the outdoors or in a wilderness setting by taking a standard life guarding course that would prepare you to be a lifeguard at a pool.

Now, picture yourself on a hike in a national park, like Acadia in Maine on Overland’s Maine Adventure, or Rocky Mountain in Colorado on Overland’s Rocky Mountain Explorer, or Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming on Overland’s Teton Challenge. Or, imagine you’re on an Overland trip in Spain on Overland’s Pyrenees Expedition or in Switzerland on Overland’s Alpine Challenge. The water you encounter in these beautiful areas will likely not be clear or still, it’ll probably be cold, and seeing the bottom will be possible as long as the water is shallow—and even then, it that might be just about impossible for a wide variety of reasons (e.g., turbidity, plant life, etc.).

These are all risks to be managed—not eliminated (that is impossible), but managed.

What to do?

Here at Overland, we prepare our summer hiking trip leaders to manage water and swimming risks by engaging the services of Landmark Learning of Cullowhee, North Carolina, one of the country’s premier outdoor education providers.

Landmark’s program is an industry-leading course designed to meet the needs of outdoor and wilderness trip leaders—like Overland’s summer staff of over two hundred trip leaders—with a focus on prevention that is specific to outdoor and wilderness settings.

Landmark’s executive director, Justin Padgett, commented: “Water safety personnel must be trained in the conditions similar to which they will work. Prevention through site assessment, swimmer screening, and emergency action plan development is critical. The expectations of lifeguards at a swimming pool and expectations of lifeguard training for these swimming pools is inconsistent in the outdoor and wilderness recreation industry. Wilderness Swim Safety is a stronger, more accurate fit for the risks these trip leaders manage.”   

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When Landmark trains Overland’s summer trip leaders on water and swim safety they focus on three key areas: 

  1. Site assessment 
  2. Swimmer assessment
  3. Improvising lifeguarding equipment

These components differentiate the Landmark course from traditional lifeguarding courses. Landmark’s course combines online education and testing prior to hands-on skills training at a pond or lake. Students start in the classroom for course orientation and then travel to a pond or lake for a basic swim skills screening (100-yard swim, and a three-minute water tread without hands) and then continue on to water skills practice, skills assessments, and at course end, a series of practical exams.

Lilly Bianchi, a member of Overland’s year-round team, and the coordinator of our partnership with Landmark Learning, said: “Certifying our leaders in Landmark’s Wilderness Swim Safety is the foundation of our risk management surrounding water. The course emphasizes not only rescue skills but planning and prevention, which fits nicely into our broader approach for risk management at Overland. Landmark has built the ideal course for outdoor trip leaders. The skills and practices they teach are focused on the risks that are found in outdoors and wilderness settings. They are far and away more applicable to the situations our Overland hiking trips leaders encounter. It’s hard to imagine sending our leaders into outdoor and wilderness settings without the risk management training they receive during Landmark’s Wilderness Swim Safety course.”

And, if there’s water—as there will likely be—then be prepared to manage the risks that water and swimming present. Here at Overland, we do that by having all of our summer hiking trip leaders take Landmark’s Wilderness Swim Safety course.

If you’re committed to managing risks in the outdoors, you should too.


    Tom Costley

    When Tom Costley founded Overland in 1984, he sought to create experiences for young people that were fun, where new friendships could grow, where natural beauty was embraced, where there were real and varied challenges, and where Overland’s students would achieve something of importance to them. Overland’s focus on small groups, carefully crafted trips, and superlative leadership has made it a leader in the summer camp world. Overland’s commitment to excellence in everything it does has led to its success: over the past four decades, Overland has served 40,000 students and 5,000 trip leaders. Tom writes about the outdoors and travel from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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