Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

Nena Knows Jeeps - It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it

Posted in Features on June 17, 2016
Share this

For many, it’s a dream to be paid to do something they love, and I’m often asked about how to get into the 4WD business. There are many different ways one may make a living in the off-road world—anything from being a famous and highly paid magazine writer to aftermarket parts manufacturing, installing, and distributing to trail guide and 4WD instructor. Regardless of what road you take, it is not an easy one (pun intended) to make an actual decent living, but you can have amazing amounts of fun.

I can’t speak to all possible professions, but I can speak to some trail roles. Some of the things that are a little fuzzy are the definitions of trail job titles. Let me define some various roles on the trails as I use them, and the respective skills I think it takes to meet that title, whether paid or not.

A good spotter gives clear hand and verbal signals, and has a predetermined understanding with the driver of his or her accepted level of risk and anticipated line choice.

A person who is a spotter can direct a driver given a previously agreed-upon line. Some spotters are following directions as given to them by the driver. Some spotters are choosing the line and essentially driving the vehicle by remote control with the driver simply acting as the hands and feet inside the vehicle. Spotters can be a seasonal or occasional paid-position for big group events like Jeep Jamborees and Camp Jeep. In the competition world, spotters are often known as “co-drivers.”

A good guide sets clear expectations for the group as to terrain, safety, timeframe, and trail etiquette, as well as providing spotting and assistance on the trail.

A great guide can help the members of the group with any difficulties, from stuck or broken vehicles to medical or environmental emergencies.

A guide is someone who takes a leadership role for the whole outing. They provide a safety briefing and set the ground rules for communication, pace, and details of the day. The better guides help the group members prepare for the terrain and environment ahead of time, as well as providing assistance on the trail. The best guides also provide background on the natural history of the area and informational tidbits to enrich the experience of the group. Guides usually have great organizational and people skills. Talented trail guides spin riveting yarns about the local lore and keep you in stitches with their anecdotes. However, a guide doesn’t necessarily possess the skills to help a new driver understand open differential action or calculate recovery resistance. As for a professional position, guiding is the broadest and most commonly available type of paid position, and skills can cross over into other recreational activities, like rafting and hiking.

An instructor is not just a trail leader. An instructor passes on new skills for driving and vehicle dynamics, recovery, safety, and trail ethics. Participants are not just told what to do, but rather they are taught decision-making skills to better their own 4WD-trail skill sets.

An instructor is someone whose purpose it is to help others build skills for driving, spotting, preparation, recovery, and responsible trail use. An instructor provides a structured system for instilling these skills, rather than just directing and herding participants down the trail. This requires not just the people skills of a guide but also a whole range of teaching skills and training techniques. Though most of the instructors I know are also great trail guides, there are many whose dry personality makes them a great instructor but not necessarily the most entertaining guide with whom to spend a fun and scenic trail day. Qualified instructors are sought out by military, industrial, and corporate groups who need to train their people to get into the backcountry safely, efficiently and effectively, as well as recreational 4WD owners who just want to do things better.

Most of our professional instructors started as recreationalists, and later started leading trails for friends or clubs. Next, they became more serious about the mechanical and emergency response side and/or became involved with commercial operators, like Barlow Adventures. After years of assisting with tours and training, they test their skills among peers at the International 4WD Trainers Association (, which not only certifies but also teaches, and continue to expand their knowledge and stay current with, if not leading, changes in the industry, land use, education, and customer service areas. It often takes working multiple positions to make ends meet.

Everyone starts as a beginner. The key to all of this is to learn something every day, constantly practice, and never stop expanding your knowledge base. You never know where those skills will take you.

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results