Want to make a living outfitting?
If you love the great outdoors, don’t mind hard work, and have no problem getting up at 4 a.m. to work an 18-hour day, you may have what it takes to start an outfitting business.
But love for the wild and a lifetime of hunting or fishing experience isn't the only thing you need to get going.
A Practical Guide to Starting an Outfitting Business
Here's what you’ll need to consider if you want to take your love of hunting or fishing and turn it into a career as an outfitter.
Put Together a Plan
Every new business should start with a written plan.
A business plan is essential no matter what type of business you want to start, including outfitting, hunting, guiding, fishing, or other outdoor-specific business.
A business plan helps guide you through each stage of starting and managing your business. Even more importantly, it’s an important tool to use when you need to obtain funding or financing for your business.
SBA.gov has all the resources you need to write your business plan.
The best news? It doesn’t have to be complicated. Even a lean plan can be efficient when starting your outfitter business.
Consider Outfitters School
If you're turning a love for hunting or fishing into a business, consider enrolling in an outfitting school to start.
Outfitting schools can teach you skills such as the fundamentals of working with animals (packing and shoeing horses and mules, for example), setting up camps, clearing trails, and other aspects of outfitting you might not have experienced yet.
Gaining experience is just one benefit of attending a guide/ outfitting school, but there are other practical benefits, too: in the State of Montana, Outfitter License candidates can waive 30 of the 100 required days of experience if the candidate attends an approved guide school.
Committing to an outfitter school — many schools have a 4-week curriculum — comes with another benefit:
Ensuring this business is really for you.
Outfitters school will help you get hands-on experience and allow you to see the ins and outs of running your own outfitter business. If you spend every minute of outfitter school hating it and wishing you were back at your desk job, congratulations. You just saved yourself a whole lot of time and money.
But if outfitter school felt like 4-weeks of paradise, then you know you're on the right track.
Bonus: do some recon while you’re there. You may want to form your own outfitter school someday as you build, scale, and grow your outfitting business.
Stake Out Your Territory
If you're planning on taking people out hunting, you'll need a location. Secure hunting rights by purchasing, leasing, or getting permits for hunting land.
In Montana, more than 66.7 million of the State’s 94.1 million acres of land is privately owned. And nearly 10% of that private land is leased by outfitters.
Don't know where to start?
A hunting land lease agency can help match you to a willing landowner. Just do a quick online search, and you'll find plenty.
There are fewer opportunities for outfitting and guiding on National Forest Lands, where it's normally necessary for prospective outfitters to buy an existing hunting or fishing business.
Contact the National Forest or Ranger District Office in the area where you want to conduct your operations. Forest Service permits are non-transferable, so even purchasing an existing business doesn’t guarantee the permit will transfer to you. Your local Forest Ranger office can help you navigate the process.
Where will your guests stay?
Will you need to buy, build, or lease a lodge, cleaning and butchering house, or other buildings?
Secure Licenses, Permits, and Insurance
Permits and paperwork may not be as exciting as outfitter schools and leasing land rights.
But securing the right licenses, permits, and insurance coverage is critical to starting a successful outfitter business.
Licenses and Permits
Different states have different requirements, but generally, you will need a permit, license, or both to conduct your business.
- In Colorado, outfitters must be licensed through the state’s Department of Regulatory Affairs.
- In Montana, guides and outfitters are qualified by the Montana Board of Outfitters; outfitters’ licenses are only granted if you meet experience, qualification, and testing requirements.
- In Idaho, outfitters must be licensed through the Idaho Outfitters and Guides License Board.
- In Wyoming, outfitters must be registered through the state’s Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides.
National Forest Lands require a permit for any person providing commercial outfitting services in addition to any state-specific licensing or permitting requirements.
Most state license boards, as well as National Forest lands, require insurance to obtain the necessary licenses and permits needed to operate a commercial outfitting business.
The Forest Service requires a minimum of general liability insurance coverage, for example, with limits beginning at $300,000 combined risk.
Montana, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming all require general liability insurance coverage to obtain state-issued licenses and permits.
General liability insurance may be the minimum insurance required to operate an outfitting business, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only coverage you’ll want to budget for.
When you calculate your operating expenses, consider the coverage you’ll need for commercial autos, specialty equipment, or animals you’ll use regularly.
Specialty guide and outfitting insurance programs are available to give you the specific coverage you’ll need at a more affordable rate than piecing together multiple policies to meet your needs.
Understand Your Expenses
Know your operating expenses. Outfitting may sound like a low-expense business, but the reality is there’s a lot to pay for when you’re the boss.
Your expenses may include:
- Paying cooks and guides.
- Food for customers.
- Workers’ comp coverage for employees.
- Animal expenses: caring and feeding stock, vet expenses, shoes for horses.
- Hunting equipment.
- Saddles and tack.
- ATVs or other vehicles; gas, oil, vehicle maintenance
Stay Updated on Local, State, and Federal Pandemic Guidelines
In 2019, the global tourism industry was valued at $1.5 billion. However, just a few short months later, over 100 million tourism jobs were at risk as the global COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel and tourism all over the world.
For many guides and outfitters, the shutdown of the tourism industry was a devastating blow to their businesses.
Now that tourism has opened back up and people are freely flying and traveling again, it could be easy to think that the pandemic is over and there is nothing more to worry about.
Having a plan in place for pandemics and other emergencies can help your business weather the storm in the event another pandemic occurs.
It’s also a good idea to keep up to date on local, state, and federal pandemic guidelines. Just because your state has opened back up at this point in time doesn’t mean that officials won’t close it back down again in response to an uptick in cases.
America Outdoors has a great selection of COVID-19 resources available, so bookmark this page and refer back to it regularly.
Guide a hunter to a good trophy, and he'll tell his friends. But you can't expect word-of-mouth referrals to be your only source of customers - especially when you're just starting out.
- Attend hunting and outdoor trade shows in the off-season to network with potential clients.
- Be internet savvy - build a website and learn or invest in digital marketing strategies, such as email marketing, social media marketing, SEO, and content marketing.
- List your business in local directories.
- Trade services with marketing pros or partner with similar, non-competing business owners to extend your marketing reach.
Starting an outfitting business takes more than a love for hunting or fishing. It requires careful planning, expense calculations, financing and funding, insurance, licenses, permits, and possibly even a trip back to "school."
But if you don't mind putting in the hours of hard work to get your outfitting business started, the payoff can be a career doing the thing you love the most in the great outdoors.
This blog post was updated in 2022 to reflect more up-to-date information to help you start your outfitter business.