"Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at mountains and the stars up above. ... They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education."
– David Polis
Volume 75 | Issue 2
March 2007

The Great Outdoors: Campus and individual benefits of outdoor adventures programming

Mark Oldmixon

Even campuses without outdoor adventures orientation programs often offer pre-orientation opportunities through another program on campus such as the volunteer office or campus ministry. The outdoors is a great vehicle for these students to become comfortable with college because a wilderness environment puts everyone on a level playing field. Everyone has their personal fears and hardships.

These can be manageable in the wilderness because, while away hiking, students can reflect on the relative insignificance of seemingly overwhelming issues. Students return from an outdoor adventure trip with lower stress levels and reduced fears, and the disposition to become more productive and happier students and citizens (Hobbs & Ward, 2006).

These programs attract students from all demographics. Taking students who only know the outdoors from television and city parks into a true wilderness setting can be memorable and rewarding for all involved. These urban students are continually amazed by how big the world is, how quiet it is in the wilderness, how many stars can be seen from the trail, and everything else that happens on the trip.

Outdoor programs also yield opportunities for older student leaders to dispel rumors of the typical college student lifestyle and create new social norms. The leaders can break down the beliefs that all college students drink and do not study. After dispelling those myths they can encourage first-year students to participate in clubs, utilize tutors, and get involved outside their residence halls. Participants in a wilderness orientations report feeling less anxious and more comfortable at the school than those students who do not participate in an outdoor orientation (Wardwell, 1999).

Once the academic year has started, weekend outdoor adventures programming can begin, providing not just alternatives to parties and drinking, but also alternatives to other unhealthy options such as low activity levels and eating fast food. Wilderness-based programming can have a direct impact on the problem of overweight and obesity on college campuses. Huang, Harris, Lee, Nazir, Born, and Kaur (2003) found that 21.6 percent of college-age students surveyed qualified as overweight and 4.9 percent qualified as obese. Students who take the initiative to sign up for a hike or day of climbing return to campus with a few new friends and feeling like they accomplished something. Instead of “hanging out” on a Saturday and being sedentary, they treated their bodies with a little exercise. Outdoor programming can take dozens of students off the couch each weekend, and get their heart racing with a paddle or hike. On average, a 125-pound person will burn 340 calories after only an hour of hiking, and a 175-pound person will burn 476 calories (Merck, 2003). The health benefits only increase from there with healthy trail food, fresh air, and sunshine.

Besides creating a network of friends, outdoor adventure programming can help students find their potential and build a sense of self-worth. A good program will offer opportunities suitable to all ability levels to maximize the number of students who step out of their comfort zones and into their growth zone. A climb to the top of a mountain is often used as a figurative analogy; outdoor adventures programs have an opportunity to make it real. The experience of completing a difficult task can transfer into the student’s personal life and the classroom, giving them a greater sense of accomplishment.

One way to offer more diverse programming, more educational opportunities, and more permanent changes in student behavior is to offer skills progression courses. It is admirable to take students rock climbing once at an introductory level to get them excited about the sport. But a well-staffed program will offer something more for students looking to truly adopt the sport, such as a series of off-campus clinics on the weekends or at the school’s climbing wall or in the pool. Naturally, it takes more than a few afternoons to learn the art of climbing anchors and rescue techniques, but through their participation, they will learn the tools to pursue the sport with an eye for safety and responsibility.

Some first-year students are adrenaline junkies who want to hike higher, climb harder, and paddle faster. These thrill-seeking students can intimidate the less advanced students and often bring a higher level of risk to any program. A high-functioning program will have skills progression courses to suit their needs, such as rock climbing or whitewater paddling, but also a leadership style to calm their energy and encourage students to pace themselves. It is absolutely crucial for a program to have strong leadership and measures in place to prevent these students from pushing the limits too far.

Opportunities for first-year students to get off campus are too few, and an outdoor program can provide an opportunity to fulfill that need. This is not just a bunch of students going out to play, but an educational and growth opportunity. Putting two students who have never met before together in a canoe encourages good communication and teamwork by necessity. On a slow-flowing river students cannot be jumpy and take hard, aggressive strokes. To move the boat efficiently, the students need to sit still, relax, and take gentle strokes simultaneously. It is truly amazing to see students start the day by paddling in circles, but after a few technique pointers and discussions about open communication, they can execute a back ferry while having a conversation about the bird that just flew overhead.

Additionally, any time you take eight random students on a backpacking trip up the local peak, there is going to be a student who struggles. It can take a corporation many months to move through Tuckman and Jensen’s (1977) small group development cycle, but a group of college students on the trail can move through the cycle before lunch and stay in the performing stage all weekend.

Leadership development

An outdoor adventures program can offer an opportunity to put students in leadership roles. To lead an outdoor adventure, students need to be organized, professional, and trained to deal with stressful situations. By giving a student the reins, you show a tremendous amount of trust and respect to that student, but it does take many hours of training and mentorship before a student is worthy of leading a trip without supervision.

By inviting first-year students to join your program on the leadership level, you have the ability to nurture and train them for several years. By starting in their first year with the program, they can get a lot of the nuts and bolts out of the way, such as making sure they know the school’s equipment so thoroughly that they can set-up a tent and cook dinner in a freezing rain, all while keeping participants warm. Students should also be trained in Leave No Trace skills and ethics, as environmental stewardship should be a large part of a program’s mission. College programs can be some of the worst offenders to the environment or they can be a true role model to the future enthusiasts they are training.

Another fundamental training that should take place early on in a student’s wilderness leadership career is medical training. Student wilderness leaders should be trained at least to the level of Wilderness First-Aid (WFA). If the students are leading more involved trips in more dangerous environments, students should obtain a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification through such organizations as Stonehearth Outdoor Leadership Opportunities or Wilderness Medical Associates. WFR is considered by many outdoor programs and guide services to be the industry standard (Zwaagstra, 2001), although Bell (2006) found that most outdoor orientation leaders were trained only to the WFA level. If an outdoor program is taking students into the backcountry on overnight experiences, all leaders should be WFR certified. WFA is a good step for new leaders, but WFR takes medical training to the level that your students will need in terms of long-term care and the biology of injuries.

This basic leadership course is not something to take lightly, but is the time to set standards and expectations of professionalism. Students in their first year of college are excellent candidates because they are still looking for guidance as they try to figure out what college is all about. The leadership class can focus on outdoor skills training, but another focus will be life training as well. All students must manage their personal time when they are working weekends, but planning a trip itinerary takes time management to a new level. Students will quickly find that a group hiking with large backpacks is much slower than three friends out for a short overnight hike. Student leaders’ ability to manage a group’s time in the backcountry can make the difference between a warm night in a sleeping bag and cold night cooking and setting up tents in the dark.

A beginning leadership class is the perfect fit students to learn team-building activities and the stages of small group development (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). As the leaders themselves go through this group development, they will learn firsthand what it will feel like for their students. The leaders will develop their teaching and public speaking skills. Shy, timid, and confidence-lacking students do not make good field instructors, but through good instruction and mentorship, situational leaders can be nurtured. Team-building activities used in the leadership class as development tools can be used again by the new leaders on their trips as icebreakers.

By providing students with the basic leadership training and WFR, campuses will have developed a great foundation to start honing a student’s leadership style and skill set. Now that the program leaders have learned the basics, developed their own personal style and become professionally trained, it cannot hurt to brag about it. Outdoor adventure leaders should not be an elitist group, but should welcome other students into their office and social circles. These leaders can also be a program’s best commercials and advocates. When they are involved in other facets of campus, such as student government, admissions ambassadors, and academic clubs, they have ready-made opportunity to speak up about the program and promote its mission.

Risk management

Outdoor adventures programming has inherent risks. Luckily, rock climbing was not invented yesterday, canoes are not in the test phase, and maps still tell us where north is. All of the outdoor sports sponsored by an outdoor adventure program have risks that can be managed appropriately with proper training and implementation. To be prepared, guides should always have appropriate training, know more than the students, and know more than the situation requires.

A common debate among outdoor professionals is the value of personal experience compared to certifications. If a student walks into the outdoor program office saying he has been climbing for 10 years and wants to take students on a trip, that is exciting, but not enough. There is a huge difference between personal climbing and institutional climbing, between two climbing buddies and 12 students. It is great that he has 10 years of climbing experience, but has he been safe for 10 years or just lucky? Certifications provide a standard of knowledge and ability.

With or without certifications, there are certain unavoidable risks involved in these activities. Rocks will continue to fall from above, ice will always be slippery, rain will always make you colder, and animals will always roam free (one hopes). By requiring these certification standards of the program leaders, the outdoor program can show its training is at or above the national standard.

The paperwork involved in an outdoor program has become a mountain in itself. Many programs are now keeping risk waivers and medical forms on file for seven or more years. Other documents that should be appropriately filed with administrators are the policies and procedures regarding each activity, as well as emergency protocols. These documents need to outline in detail how a program mitigates risk, including everything from guide-to-student ratios to how you clean a pot in the evening. How an adventure leader responds in an emergency situation is crucial to protecting the institution in court and preventing further harm.

Value added

In a higher education setting, often collaborations between student affairs and the academic side of the university are lacking. Outdoor programming can offer an opportunity for both to come together in support of student learning. Perhaps a geology professor is knowledgeable about nearby rock formations. Maybe a botanist could identify local plants, and a history or chemistry professor could speak about different remedies produced from them over time. If the program is willing and able, and the college would support such collaboration, why not plan an entire academic course based in the field? The outdoor program leader can be the expert in taking students into the field, feeding them, transporting them, and packing them. And taking all this stress off the professor allows him or her to focus on providing dynamic course material with real experiences.

Similarly, there are endless possibilities for community partnerships. Local community leaders could lend expertise to a brown-bag lunch clinic or discussion. Or, possibly a community member who is an excellent tracker would make an exceptional addition to an ordinary day hike. Local businesses could also offer expertise (e.g., the local bike shop can teach how to quickly fix a flat tire). A local GeoCacher might be willing to explain the details of GeoCaching, a high-tech scavenger event using a handheld global positioning device, as a great way to engage a tech-savvy student audience. These clinics can preface a weekend excursion.

As a program is developing a schedule for the semester, it may want to look at the variety of programming being offered. How different are the hikes? Be conscious of both elitist and boring extremes; make sure to include introductory level programming as well as advanced technical skills courses and new areas of operation. If your program has the same trips each year, you will have very few returning customers.

Worth the trip

In times of tight funding for campus programs, often outdoor adventures can be fighting for a place in the budget. Bell (2006) found the average outdoor adventures orientation was five days long and cost the student $280. Because the cost per student is higher than other campus programs, outdoor program advocates must anticipate a discussion of cost effectiveness. When someone compares the program to a really expensive recess, the program director must be prepared with numbers showing participation growth and with data from evaluations assessing learning outcomes and satisfaction.

High-functioning outdoor programs can offer benefits to individuals they likely would not find elsewhere. That shy kid from orientation now has the attention of eight participants as he explains how to tie into the climbing rope or break out of an eddy on the river. The student who came to campus with three video game systems and 50 pounds of extra weight is now on top of a summit, feeling better about himself, and has sold his game systems to buy a backpack and climbing shoes. That less than exciting marine biology class is now paddling from beach to beach, studying the effects of tides. Students are engaged, learning, and acting with responsibility for others and the environment.


Bell, B. J. (2006). Report on the U.S. College and University Outdoor Orientation Program
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Huang, T., Harris, K., Lee, R., Nazir, N., Born, W., & Kaur, H. (2003, September/October). Assessing overweight, obesity, diet, and physical activity in college students. Journal of American College Health, 52(2), 83–86.
Merck. (2003, February). Choosing the right exercise. Retrieved February 9, 2007, from http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec01/ch006/ch006e.html.
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