Staff Reflections: Summer Backpacking Excursions

Staff Contributor, Scott Partan

The success and impacts of our backpacking trips has been absolutely amazing this summer season. During the winter our face time with our youth is limited to a day or two a month for a maximum of 8 hours, whereas during our summer programs we have 2-5 days straight (24 hours a day!) with our students. Away from the distractions of normal life, we are able to focus on the SOS Outreach Core Value curriculum all while creating a closer community around the outdoors over the course of the trip.

We have been able to make a huge impact on a number of different levels with a wide age range of youth. On the younger side, we piloted an introduction to backpacking overnight trip this season and have been successful in introducing our youth to the wilderness and the benefits of being in the backcountry. Although the trip is short, students are introduced to the skills needed to operate in the backcountry in addition to applying the core values to the trials and tribulations associated with backpacking. However, the most exciting part of these trips is planting the seed in our younger students to set the stage for longer excursions into the wilderness as they progress through our program. For example, one of our younger first time Eagle County students who if you asked if he enjoyed the trip in front of peers he would definitely say no and was the most vocal on the discomforts associated with the trip. However, at one point in the trip he approached our head guide, Christine, and told her, “I really like backpacking because after you hike to a spot you get to stay there.” Later that day, she overheard him asking his sister in Spanish if they should buy backpacks when they got home so that they could go backpacking on their own.

With our older students that have developed a set of basic skills needed for responsible backcountry use, the guides set the stage by giving students the remaining tools needed to essentially lead their own trip. Our Master’s Expedition is a longer trip where our Masters students spend 4 night and 5 days in the backcountry and also where the real leadership learning occurs. Once the guides pass on information such as the route and basic schedule for the day, they hand it over to the leaders of the day (two students) who then lead the group to their next campsite and the entirety of the day. Part of this process is making small errors and learning from them. This really present opportunities to dial in their leadership and learn new skills in preparation to better fill the Jr. Sherpa role during our winter programs. However, the learning on these longer trips is not limited to just leadership skills. As part of our current Master’s Expedition in the Holy Cross Wilderness, students will be trekking over a high mountain pass. The guides have crafted a teaching metaphor where the pass serves as a hurdle to leave their former selves behind in order to examine themselves and their connection to their communities and how they embody the core values on a day to day basis. After a day spent at a remote camp spot in the wilderness with ample solo time to reflect on these ideas, the group will then climb an additional pass on their journey back to our community, ready to apply the lessons learned as they continue in their roles as junior leaders at SOS and in our community.

With the strong foundation we are building in our students this summer, we are in a great position to continue to expand our summer programs and introduce our youth to the amazing wilderness in our backyard and the benefits associated with time in the woods.