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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: The Foundation of Field Guiding

The Open Sky Team

Field guiding at Open Sky is a dynamic, challenging, and rewarding job. In a day—sometimes even in an hour—field guides wear many hats. They teach, observe, uphold, and supervise measures that promote warmth, hydration, nutrition, health, and avoidance of injury. Field guides are also mentors, coaches, reflective listeners, conflict mediators, boundary holders, and leaders.

They facilitate ceremonies and rites of passage. They provide basic first aid and wilderness first response. They teach students how to prepare food and cook healthy and delicious meals. They encourage attunement to emotions and role model how to express them. They guide students in discovering their strengths and working through limitations. They walk students through healthy conflict resolution and facilitate process groups for the team. They lead yoga and meditation sessions and navigate hikes through the wilderness. All of this, and more, happens in just a single day.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Because of how complex and dynamic guiding can be, a framework is needed to help determine what role to fill at any given time. The framework that we use at Open Sky is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which organizes the basic human needs in order of necessity. Psychologist Abraham Maslow designed this framework in 1943. Maslow believed that all humans are driven to fulfilling innate human needs, in order of priority, culminating in self-actualization. It is usually illustrated by a pyramid with the most basic and fundamental needs on the bottom.

The levels of the pyramid are as follows:

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety and security
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Self-esteem
  5. Cognitive
  6. Aesthetic
  7. Self-actualization

The theory is that we cannot progress to a higher level unless the needs below are met. For instance, we are not concerned about our self-esteem if we do not have the means to be warm and fed.


Basic Needs 

How then does this framework apply to field guiding? At Open Sky, Maslow’s hierarchy is one of our foundations because it reminds us that in order to meet higher needs, we must first start with the basics: physiological and safety and security needs.

Physiological Needs

Guides prioritize basic physical needs above all else. They are always assessing and managing the physical needs of students, teaching and supervising everything from basic hygiene to setting up shelters. Guides see that everyone is warm and dry before holding a ceremony. Hydration and nutrition take priority before facilitating a therapeutic group. They teach students how to layer clothing effectively prior to perfecting a communication skill. They supervise hand washing before focusing on a yoga session.

In other words, both the guides and the students prioritize, teach, and learn how to physically take care of themselves before moving on to other skills. This alone is therapeutic for students in that it encourages self-care and self-reliance. It builds a healthy foundation that is paramount to success in all areas of life, during and after wilderness therapy.

Health and Hygiene in the Field

All aspects of life in the field have been reviewed for necessary hygiene and health adjustments. Guides and students use a three-bucket dishwashing system with bleach, sanitize their assigned team vehicle for any transportation, wash all fruit prior to eating, and hold community meditation as individual teams instead of gathering as one large group. In addition to good hygiene, general immune-boosting practices remain crucial: staying hydrated, getting sufficient quality sleep, proper nutrition, and mindful breathing exercises.

After basic physical needs are met, guides work closely with students to help them learn to build shelters, make fire, and build routines that will support their growth in the program.

Part of the foundational human need for safety and security is helping students begin to feel secure, both physically and emotionally. Feeling physically secure comes with learning all of the skills mentioned above and building trust with the guides. Emotional safety is created by cultural norms or “rules” that the guides uphold in the group. These include a ban on “war stories” (glorifying drug use or other risky behaviors) and prohibiting negative talk about other people. Emotional safety is achieved by creating a culture of acceptance and non-judgment through therapeutic groups, communication skills such as “I feel” statements, and holding boundaries with students who violate those rules. These are just the basics of creating a culture of emotional safety in a group setting.


Psychological Needs

Love and belonging, self-esteem, cognitive, aesthetic

Love and belonging is a natural progression from emotional safety. A group that is emotionally safe naturally creates an environment where students feel a sense of belonging. When this emotional safety is combined with accomplishing challenging hikes together, cooking together, and simply living together, students really feel a sense of community and belonging that is hard to achieve in a traditional school or peer environment.

Self-esteem follows love and belonging. When a student can make their own shelter, cook dinner over a fire, and also feel accepted and loved by peers, self-esteem will naturally arise. Guides and therapists also create interventions and therapeutic assignments that work toward fostering self-esteem.

Self-Fulfillment Needs


At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization. This is a lifelong pursuit that we generally do not explicitly talk about during wilderness therapy. If our students are given the tools necessary to meet their needs for physical and emotional safety, love and belonging, and self-esteem, then the realization of their full potential is within reach further down the road.

Field guides use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a model to mitigate risk in the field and to help students along in their therapeutic process. The pyramid provides a framework for empowering students to find success in a wilderness environment that they might not experience in other settings. Meeting these needs is always a fluid process. In other words, guides will work up and down the levels depending on the current need of the student or group. The beauty of the wilderness is that it provides plenty of opportunities to focus on basic physical needs at any point in the progression of the pyramid.


We are hiring!

Are you interested in becoming a field guide? We are currently accepting applications for our next field guide orientation: April 11–22, 2022. Visit the Field Guide page of our website to learn more about this role and how to apply. Applications for the April orientation are due on March 25, 2022!

March 16th, 2022

The Open Sky Team