When I was in Cambodia, I met a guy named Jobe. Jobe was 19 years old at the time, taking a break before heading off to University. He’d been gone for a year. But in that year of living abroad, he hadn’t wasted a second.
As Jobe told me his stories over a beer in the hostel bar, I noticed that more and more of them began with, “when I worked as…” That ellipsis was replaced, depending on the context, with “scuba instructor,” “brazilian jiu jitsu teacher,” “tour guide,” and more. It was like listening to Da Vinci regale me with his side hobbies.
By the time you return home, you’ll be the Renaissance Man (or woman) you’ve always known you could be.
A gap year gives you time away from your formal education, but it doesn’t have to mean a moratorium on learning something new. The world can be a classroom, even if you substitute your desk for some faraway jungles, your teachers for the grizzled people you encounter along the way.
There are plenty of new skills to pick up when you have the free time (and money) to dedicate to mastering them. Look into certifications. They are many and varied, and each one opens a whole new world of possibilities, both in your social life, your interests, and your capabilities. Getting certified loads you with a new set of skills along the way. By the time you return home, you’ll be the Renaissance Man (or woman) you’ve always known you could be. Here’s where you can start.
Scuba Diving Certification
- Cost: $200-800
- Where to Get: Thailand, Australia, Central America
Getting certified for scuba diving is one of the most obvious activities while abroad in just about any country next to an ocean. Most of the choice gap year locations feature world-class diving sites.
While the license itself can be costly (depending on where you get it), it never expires, and subsequent trips are far more affordable relative to how amazing of a time you’ll be having. So once you’re certified, you’re ready to explore a part of the world most people will only ever see on the Discovery Channel.
Licensing is handled through several avenues, but the largest is an organization known as PADI – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. And while the certification bequeathed at the end of the course is the same for everybody, the course itself varies depending on which one of those Diving Instructors happens to be your lucky teacher.
Choose wisely. If you immediately opt for the cheapest course available, you may find the course rushed (taking only a day or two), and though you’ll be certified by the end, you may not be entirely confident in your diving abilities. Likewise, some of the more expensive options will give you a comprehensive test (taking up to four or five days to complete), while throwing in more than you actually need.
Once you’ve got your foot in the certification door, it’s very hard to not want more.
If you want one of those cheaper options, then naturally, seek out the cheaper countries. Places like Thailand, the Philippines, Belize, and Costa Rica feature the right mix of extraordinary diving sights and cheap diving boats. However, this does tend to create a “licensing mill” effect where instructors try to push people through the course as fast as possible just to meet demand.
For a more expensive but higher quality option, try Australia. Though everything in Australia is more expensive, it can be justified through access to the Great Barrier Reef. You’ll get the same world class diving of Southeast Asia and Central America, with a more substantial course that leaves you feeling satisfied.
Once you’ve got your basic certifications, you’re good to dive. However, there are plenty of others you can look into as well. Night diving. Rescue diving. Wreck diving. Everything up to Dive Master. Once you’ve got your foot in the certification door, it’s very hard to not want more.
- Cost: ~$2600
- Where to Get: Australia, America, developed countries
Take a breath. Relax. Pull your heart back into your chest. Skydiving, let alone skydiving alone, is an intimidating prospect to all but the most insane. And that’s without taking into consideration just how expensive it is to get that license. So you may not think it’s a big deal to earn a cert.
However, anybody that’s done it can tell you that falling for a full minute is one of the most rewarding and life-affirming experiences you can have. And when you can do it without having somebody strapped to you, when you can take your life into your own hands, it becomes even better. It teaches you self-reliance and on-the-fly problem solving. It also makes you look damn cool.
You’ll need to research depending on where you’re going, especially to see if the license will be respected once you leave the country.
Unlike scuba diving, there’s no real central licensing authority for skydiving. You’ll need to research depending on where you’re going, especially to see if the license will be respected once you leave the country. And obviously, it’s skydiving. You’re gonna want to learn to do it somewhere with a great safety record.
There are two main tracks to earn your license – AFF (Accelerated Free Fall) and Static Line. They both end up costing similar prices, but the former only involves nine jumps, and you skydive solo on the very first jump after a rigorous ground course. The latter involves sixteen jumps, and solo skydiving doesn’t happen until the 6th. So whichever one you’re more comfortable with – Static Line is considered the traditional way.
The courses are paid per jump, and the price goes down with each jump. So while you’re paying several hundred dollars at the beginning, you can pay as little as $25 for a jump once you’re licensed and have your own equipment. There’s no time limit for the course, either. You could finish it in as little as a few days, or if you’re squeamish, a lot longer. Of course, once you’ve got that adrenaline high, there’s no way you won’t want to jump again.
Get Trained as a Masseur
- Cost: $180-500
- Where to Get: Thailand, anywhere
Okay people. There is absolutely no reason you should need convincing to get certified as a masseuse. You may think you’re pretty good at giving massages now -- and hey, maybe you are pretty good -- but when getting certified means being able to literally unblock lines of energy in the body (if you believe in that kind of thing; there’s definitely something going on there), being pretty good don’t cut it.
Put aside the personal benefits it’ll have when you can scrub any soreness straight out of your body. Think of the look on your better half’s face when you surprise them on Valentine’s Day with your newly empowered magic fingers. There will be talk of rings being put on them in a heartbeat.
If you want to get certified, first you’re gonna want to choose which style you want to study. This will probably be dictated by location – while Swedish, or Classic, massage style is popular the world over, Thai massage is the only real option in many parts of the world.
For a real massage certification, you’re gonna need to find a reputable school, like the kind they have in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Thai massage also features a much more spiritual undertone, with principles of energy and spirit guiding the movements and aspects of yoga and nutrition being involved. This, of course, means that the study can be a bit more comprehensive, but there’s a difference between leaving your beneficiary feeling relaxed and feeling enlightened.
And like scuba classes, what you get is what you pay for. Of course you can find backpacker-styled day classes where you drop a few dozen bucks to learn some techniques. But that’s not what we’re after here. For a real massage certification, you’re gonna need to find a reputable school, like the kind they have in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Somewhere that really respects both the history and reasoning behind the practice.
In this kind of school environment, certifications will be broken up into different levels exploring different depths of massage therapy, from casual up to a professional level. The first three levels can take up to 90 hours to complete and cost $500 (around 30 hours/$180 each), after which most people will be fine to call themselves certified.
The next two levels would allow you to be a professional masseuse, but take an extra 60 hours and $500. For those on a gap year (and gap year budget), this may be overkill. But damn if it wouldn’t feel great to be your friend.
Yoga Instructor Certification
- Cost: $2500-3000
- Where to Get: Los Angeles (duh), Byron Bay, Costa Rica, Thailand, India.
It used to be that people who practiced yoga were the nutty spiritualists who ate only kale. People from Los Angeles, basically. And maybe that’s still the case, but it’s definitely not so nutty anymore. It's a multi-billion dollar industry.
Yoga is becoming hugely popular both for its ability to help people get fit and for the good vibes coming out of the scene. But it’s like massages -- you may be pretty good at it, but once you take some courses, you’ll find out exactly what your body is actually capable of.
Yoga instruction is about more than being good at yoga. The process of getting certified can be fairly grueling, but luckily there are schools all over the place dedicated to not only the practice, but also the study and advancement of techniques (look at the rise of acro-yoga, for example).
If you’re on a gap year and you’ve got eight weeks available for getting in shape and feeling healthy, why not?
Most yogis undergo a certification course to either expand and get better at their practice, or to become a teacher. Courses usually involve 200 hours of education spread over eight weeks, though there are also five week courses and even intensive one week sessions (though, obviously, don’t expect the same level of mastery after a week). This education will cover the various forms and poses, the science behind yoga in general, as well as health aspects such as injury prevention and treatment.
It’s a big commitment. And if you’re gunning for that instructor certification, you’ll probably want to have a background in it in the first place (as opposed to the various athletic certs which can be acquired on a whim). But if you’re on a gap year and you’ve got eight weeks available for getting in shape and feeling healthy, why not?
First Aid / Wilderness Certification
- Cost: Free-$500
- Where to Get: Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, United States.
This one may be the least exciting certification you can get. There’s a very good chance you’ll never even use it. But in the off-chance that it does become necessary, you’ll thank everything in the universe there is to thank that you had the opportunity to learn.
Applying a tourniquet to the shark attack victim you see while surfing in Australia. Giving CPR to a child that fell into your hotel pool in Spain. Keeping a motorcycle accident victim out of shock on the road outside your home. Knowing how to act in an emergency situation can and will save lives.
Luckily, first aid certifications are easy to get. Many hospitals, gyms, clinics, fire stations, and lifeguard stations will offer classes for free. Spreading the knowledge benefits everybody. You’ll be able to find details online, and many even advertise the classes through guerilla marketing on the street.
If you’re successful at these, you may just become the person people wait for when there’s an emergency.
Here, you’ll learn such key skills as CPR, bleeding management, shock prevention, how to recognize a drowning victim (it doesn’t look like you think it does), and other important skills to utilize while waiting for the professionals. These classes can be as short as an hour depending on what they include, but trust – you should soak up as much information as you can.
Longer, paid courses are also available, though these often become much more specialized and take weeks to complete. These can include EMT training, volunteer fireman training, wilderness first aid, and beach lifeguard training. Some gap year programs, like Rustic Pathway's Thailand program can offer you this as part of your overall trip. If you’re successful at these, you may just become the person people wait for when there’s an emergency.
Surf Instructor Certification
- Cost: $300-500
- Where to Get: Australia, Costa Rica, wherever the waves call you brah
Everybody wants to be a surfer. Surfers are dreamy. Shark bite scars are awesome. But actually teaching others to surf isn’t as easy as telling them to “do less” over and over until they’re just laying on the board. Yes, some less regulated places will allow anybody of a certain proficiency to teach, and if you’re only looking to learn to surf, it’s as easy as renting a board and paddling out. If you’d like to work as a surf instructor though, there are more rigorous requirements.
Like skydiving, each country will have their own accreditation organization (Surfing Australia, NSSIA, etc.) with their own requirements. Some may require membership before you take your first course, which will up the price, and any worth their salt will require previous accreditation in beach first aid (hint: don’t pee on those jellyfish stings).
If you’d like to work as a surf instructor though, there are more rigorous requirements.
Luckily first aid has its own section in this very guide, no? You’ll also need checks for working with children and ocean rescue, and all that’s before the obvious qualifier of actually knowing how to surf.
If you meet all the prerequisites for the job, then you can finally take the course, which involves a few days in the classroom and 20 or more hours of supervised water work. Hardly the “be decent at surfing and be hired,” that many people might expect. But hey, after all that time working at the beach, just think of how amazing your tan will be. Being tan is the most important prerequisite of all.
Rock Climbing Instruction
- Cost: $450-3000
- Where to Get: Yosemite, Joshua Tree, The Grampians, anywhere the climbing’s good!
There are people who have no trouble throwing themselves out of an airplane, but put them at the top of a high staircase and it’s holding the rail all the way down. There’s something visceral about being up in the air when the only thing keeping you from falling is yourself. And a thrice-redundant harness, but that’s besides the point.
Rock climbing is another action sport that a lot of people love to get into on their gap year. It’s generally more isolated than skydiving, but provides the same adrenaline kick without needing a certification to do.
Imagine: camping on the face of Half Dome in Yosemite, knowing that you chose the route and pitched the tent hundreds of feet off the ground. There’s nothing like it.
But you can still get certified to be an instructor. This cert will let you go to more isolated locations while leading other climbers. Obviously this takes a little more preparation: injury prevention, harness installation, etc.
The guidelines for these are determined by the country’s rock climbing guide organization, similar to PADI for scuba diving (in Australia, for example, it’s the ACIA). Climbing is broken up into different levels - first the Single Pitch Guide course, then the Multi-Pitch Guide course, then the Climbing Instructor course. Each one can be up to $500 and take three days, and when you throw in the assessments for each level (which can also run up the same bill), you’re looking at a hefty ticket.
But it’s worth it. Imagine: camping on the face of Half Dome in Yosemite, knowing that you chose the route and pitched the tent hundreds of feet off the ground. There’s nothing like it.
Get Out There and Get Certified
Robert Heinlein once wrote:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
He’s right. There are literally hundreds of certifications you can get while on a gap year. Surfing instructor, rock climbing, yoga instruction, more.
They can be done for fun or they can be done as a way to improve yourself. They can be easy. They can be grueling. But each one is worth it. They will not only help you grow a skill base – they will show you a new path in life.
Over the course of a year, you can dabble or you can dive right in. As a backpacker, you may not have time to delve this deep, but if you decide to give it a shot, you may just find a calling in life.Photo Credits: Kayla Sheely, Charles Atkeison, Maddison Cooper, Casa Velas Hotel, Zach Dischner, Butz 2013, Wonderlane, and Cristian Bortes.