Hiring an accredited hiking guide in South Africa - what you need to know
Updated: Aug 26
Hiking guides are tour operators with a hiking problem. We are of course joking. Qualified hiking guides are really important in ensuring the safety of hikers, particularly novice hikers or those new to an area.
A qualified hiking guide not only ensures that you have a great outdoor trail experience but can also be the person who can assist in a potentially life or death situation when an accident occurs. No jokes this time! Here is all you need to know about hiking qualifications for your next guided hike.
Hiking guides in the bigger picture of tourist guides in South Africa
There are currently three categories of guides in South Africa: Cultural, Nature and Adventure guides:
Culture guides run tours focused on cultural heritage and are generally specialised in themes revolving around history and culture such as museums, art history, indigenous knowledge, etc.;
Nature Guides are specialised in flora and fauna of the natural environment, often in a specific region or focusing on a specific aspect of nature (e.g., bird guides) and;
Adventure guides conduct outdoor recreation activities that usually involve an element of risk. This is the category that a mountain walking guide (hiking guide) falls into.
Qualified hiking guides can operate anywhere in the country, as they have been appropriately trained in handling different conditions, terrains and climates. However, guides may have certain competencies limited to length and type of hikes, including:
Overnight On-Trail Hiking;
Overnight Off-Trail Hiking and;
National Mountain Walking Guide
All hiking guides need to obtain their qualification from an accredited institute that is registered with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) by, and bear with us, this is a mouthful, the Culture, Arts, Tourism, Hospitality and Sport Sector Education and Training Authority (CATHSSETA). This encompasses a range of adventure unit standards to be recognised as an adventure tour guide. After obtaining their qualifications from the accredited institute, hiking guides must obtain a first aid certificate and register with the Provincial Registrar in their province. Once a guide is fully registered, they will hold a valid tourist identification card and hold a tourist badge. Hiking guides are assessed on their ability to conduct a hiking tour that is both informative and safety conscious. But what does this mean? Hiking guides must be able to design an itinerary for an entire trip, provide any required safety equipment, know where the closest facilities are, plan the hiking route, put appropriate safety plans in place, and lead the tour from start to finish.
Getting the best hiking experience by ensuring your guide is both qualified and accredited
Follow these practical steps to ensure the next guide you hire is qualified and accredited, and will give you the trail experience you're looking for:
Enquire about their qualifications badge and card There are plenty of chancers out there offering guided hikes. The first thing you should check when hiring a guide is whether they are appropriately qualified (particularly if you are paying for a guided hike). Qualified guides should have a badge and a card (as shown above).
Ask questions and set expectations from the outset The more you know about what experience you are looking for, the better. Communicating what you want to experience with the guide will allow them to plan appropriately. Be absolutely honest with your guide, communicate any fears, and your athletic ability and query what gear you will require. If the guide knows all of these, they are in a better position to advise you and make the required plans in advance. Ask as many questions of the guide that makes you feel comfortable and confident in them.
Get the experience you are looking for Many hiking guides will have different experiences from their previous tours. Some might be able to take you climbing, a hike up their favorite local route or have insider knowledge such as on the best hikes to do at sunset or where you’ll find a must-see waterfall.
Hiking safety relies on you
Hiking guides are trained to give you the best possible outdoor experience while doing it safely. They are part of a greater network, together with the likes of mountain rescue services - such as Wilderness Search and Rescue and Mountain Club of South Africa EMS - and hiking map apps like Forge, that aim to keep you safe while out on mountain trails. By hiring accredited and qualified guides, you are playing your part in making sure the South African hiking community stays safe when exploring our beautiful mountains and trails.