Outdoor initiatives coordinator Justin Smith, left, leads a group along Fulbright Spring Greenway during the Springfield-Greene County Park Board's intro to backpacking trip in April. (Photo: Springfield-Greene County Park Board)


After the May 2022 death of a Springfield hiker — led by an unlicensed guide through the Buffalo National Forest — the Daily Citizen explored options for trained and certified guides in the region.

If you’re looking for a way to explore the outdoors with someone who’s trained and certified to take you there, you don’t have to look far.

Springfield has some good options, including 37 North Expeditions, Springfield-Greene County Parks Outdoor Initiatives and guided hikes through the Conservation Nature Center.

All three offer outdoor guides who have some level of recognized training and certification, and insurance policies to back them up.

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37 North Expeditions

Danny Collins, founder of 37 North Expeditions, said all of his guides must pass a Wilderness First Responder course and Wilderness First Aid course offered through NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).  Because some 37 North outings involve canoe or kayak trips, those guides also have Swiftwater Rescue Training.

37 North charges a fee to participate in its trips and is classified as a guide service. The company obtains the necessary permits to operate in national parks.

Collins said limiting group size is a key way to help ensure safety on guided hikes, float trips or bicycle outings.

“We have a maximum limit of 13 people to one guide,” Collins said.  “If we go over that we have a second person.  In our groups, you will not leave our sight.”

Collins said trip listings explain what clients can expect, and he has them check boxes on a form to make sure they know and understand what’s involved.  They also must sign a liability waiver.

“Safety is the most important aspect of what we do,” said Collins, who has been operating 37 North (Springfield’s latitude)  since 2018. “We want to make the outdoors more accessible and create unique experiences for people who might otherwise not know where to start. We make it fun and simple so you’ll want to do it more often.”

Springfield Conservation Nature Center

The Nature Center offers guided hikes and even river snorkeling trips for teens with leaders who have CPR and Wilderness First Aid training and interpretive guide training, according to conservation department spokesman Francis Skalicky.

“Most of our outings are fairly close and only a half-day with a limit of 10 to 12 people,” Skalicky said.  “A staff person always pre hikes the area, and ours are rated low to moderate in difficulty. Our aim is to get people to these areas so they can enjoy them and later go on their own.”

The Nature Center doesn’t require participants to sign a liability waiver.  Skalicky said most of the outings are to conservation areas or places like Busiek State Forest and Wildlife Area.  It doesn’t take groups to more challenging areas like the Eye of the Needle in Arkansas, where a Springfield hiker recently fell and died.

“These are good starter hikes they can go on, and then go up from there as they learn more,” he said.

Springfield-Greene County Parks

Justin Smith, coordinator of the Park Board’s Outdoor Initiatives, said he and another full-time employee are certified in Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder through NOLS. They also have American Red Cross lifeguard training.  Smith is certified in Swiftwater Rescue through the American Canoe Association.

They lead small groups on hikes and floats in the Ozarks and also do some overnight backpacking trips. Outdoor Initiatives also offers an overnight paddling trip on the Current River later in the summer. 

“We always have a front person and a sweep who brings up the rear,” Smith said.  “Most park service groups  are up to 10 people, but we’ll sometimes have a third person to help, especially if there are kids on the trip.”

The Park Board does require participants to sign a liability waiver, and all Outdoor Initiative trips are covered by the Park Board’s umbrella insurance policy.

Smith said people who sign up for an overnight backpacking trip attend an hour-long gear clinic where they learn what they’ll need and how to use their gear. Participants on float trips also get some skills practice on the water before they head out with their guides.

Smith said the Park Board obtains Commercial Use Authorization permits so it can do float trips and hikes on the Jacks Fork and Current River. 

Hiking the Ozarks

Hercules Glades Wilderness Area  is one of the great hiking spots in the Ozarks — if you know how to get there.  (Photo by Wes Johnson)

Though not in Springfield, Dan Nash is a well-known leader in the Ozarks hiking world.  He operates Satori Adventures and Expeditions, which takes clients on trips around the world and to the top of peaks like Mt. Everest.  But Nash also is an advocate for safe hiking in the Ozarks.  

In the fall he holds an annual Outdoor Rendezvous in Arkansas, where his trained and certified guides take groups to some of the most challenging locations, including Eye of the Needle.

Nash said his hike leaders are certified through the American Hiking Guides Association.  They must pass a wilderness survival class, wilderness first aid, gear and equipment and land navigation, then go through a two-day hiking guide class.  

Some go on to take a four-day backpacking guide class that certifies them to lead multi-day backpacking trips.

Nash offers a variety of outdoor skills classes and certifications through his company Hiking the Ozarks.

After the Springfield hiker tragedy, Nash said he’s had 20 phone calls and 15 emails from people wanting to get some training.

“Several want to get hiking guide certifications,” Nash said.  “Especially in these social group hikes, it’s important that somebody has some basic training. It’s great to have some experience and training to know what to do and what not to do. “

Nash said it costs $500 to $600 to get hiking guide training and certifications, with six days of classes.  

“It’s less about liability, and more about can you save a son, a daughter, a friend who has a medical emergency or prevent a death,” he added.  ” Wouldn’t it be worth it to get some training?”

Wes Johnson

Wes Johnson has been a journalist for more than 40 years and has lived in Springfield since 2004. He’s an avid sailor, hiker and nature lover. Have a good outdoors story idea? Johnson can be reached at 417-631-2168 or by email at wesdjohnson66@gmail.com. More by Wes Johnson