The 2008 students displaying all of the gear they constructed during the course.
“I’ve not been miserable… at all.”
These were the words one of my students uttered on the evening of day four of a five-day backpacking trip in the Escalante National Recreation Area. These words, which seem so rare in regards to the experience of teenagers in our society, rang true for our entire trip. We laughed our way through five days in the heart of Utah, content that the intention the students had planned the trip with was manifesting itself as the experience we’d hoped for. The students had spent the past seven weeks preparing themselves for this trip, and now all their hard work was bearing fruit. They’d turned the freedom they’d been given before the trip into an awareness of themselves and their surroundings. This had led them to the insights that were necessary in creating a purposeful experience for themselves. They’d come a long way since class began…
Over the last seven years, I’ve probed the question of how to empower young people to relish the outdoors from many different angles and have come to the conclusion that including it within the high school curriculum is one really productive and effective step. While this may sound challenging in a time when so many school budgets are declining, I’ve found a school that values its outdoor program right alongside its academic curriculum.
Realms of Inquiry
Realms of Inquiry (ROI) is a private, non-profit school in Salt Lake City, Utah, established in 1972 to meet the needs of gifted, talented, and creative young students. ROI is affiliated with the expeditionary learning program (developed originally by Outward Bound), which emphasizes the importance of experience-based, hands-on learning. The school couples a progressive academic curriculum with an immersive outdoor/international curriculum. Students begin school with a ten-day backpacking trip to create community and set goals for the upcoming school year, all while experiencing the wild lands in and around our region. Additionally, every January students embark on month-long international trips to destinations all over the world, with each trip focusing on outdoor adventure, cultural immersion, language immersion, or service work. Finally, we take a five-day outdoor oriented trip in the spring just after the end of the semester, to reflect back on the year, self assess, and again immerse ourselves in beauty and wonder. There are many themes that manifest themselves in our outdoor curriculum including emotional intelligence, communication skills, accountability, introspection, leadership, self-care, and autonomy.
Max makes his way downstream and towards Lake Powell during the 2008 course.
I was lucky enough to be offered a job by this wonderful institution three years ago and have been teaching physics, chemistry, and mathematics (among many other duties) for them ever since. In addition to my academic responsibilities, I also have the responsibility/privilege of choosing an enrichment class to teach in the spring. Each year, I’ve chosen to design and teach a lightweight backpacking class. My goal in this class is to infuse my students with a love for the outdoors, while simultaneously empowering them to consider the role intentionality plays, not only in one’s experience of the outdoors, but also in life. I use lightweight backpacking as a vehicle to probe the life choices that my students have made/are making/will be making in the future. The class is also a chance for them to consider what they are really passionate about and the importance of pursuing that passion.
The course begins with a discussion of the role that mindset plays in any pursuit one chooses. We discuss the roles of intention and choice in regards to any pursuit, and then specifically with regard to backpacking. Once we have a foundation rooted in the importance of exploring not only new behaviors, but also new mindsets, we get started working on what we can do to start reducing pack weights and amplifying our maximum enjoyment potential (MEP).
Nate’s MEP Curve for a three-day shoulder season trip with a four-person party and twenty to twenty-five miles a day. Pack weight is as measured at trailhead.
“Maximum enjoyment potential” is the name I have given to the top of someone’s bell curve, plotting pack weight versus percentage of possible enjoyment. This means that up to a point, you can decrease your pack weight and increase your overall enjoyment of a trip (combining walking, activities on the trip, in camp experiences, and sleeping). After a certain point, when you continue to decrease your weight, you start to decrease the total amount of enjoyment you can get from a trip. This “certain point” is the MEP. Each student must define their individual MEP throughout the course and then tweak it as they learn more and gain more experience. Our goal is not to pinpoint our MEP, but rather to learn about the ways in which we move towards it. Each person’s MEP changes depending on the weather and climate of one’s destination, the skill level of the person in question, the goal of the trip, the distance walked, the activities the group’s hoping to pursue, along with the mental state of the person in question. Once the students understand this point, which we’ll be moving towards the whole quarter, the real substantive portion of the class begins.
The course proper has five main sections to it: gear making, weight reducing strategy, trip planning, skills training, and philosophical discussion. We do a number of activities in each one of these categories, but you’ll have to take the course to experience all of them (I’m hoping to offer an abbreviated workshop to the parents of our students soon!). Here are some examples of the activities we utilize:
- Emblem Creation: The students begin their sewing careers by designing a simple logo that they will sew into a piece of fabric and then affix to some other piece of gear that they make. This allows them to use some creativity, personalize the gear that they are making, and also to learn about the sewing machine and practice using it.
- Connections of Lightweight Backpacking to Urban Life: We discuss all the connections we can think of between our home lives and our trail lives, and what insight we can apply from one to the other. For example, I tell the students that the intention they apply to their gear choices for a certain trip forces them to be accountable. This accountability forges a connection between them and their environment as well as fostering respect for the lands that provide that connection. In our home lives, we no longer have to be accountable for the opportunity costs of what we use because virtually everything is available for most of us. The students will have to respond to this thought with thoughts of their own.
- Shelter Drills: I ask the students to set up their shelters in a short time period of time, have them get in, then subject the shelters to a “wind and rain” storm. Always very fun…
- The Weight Game: Hold up two pieces of gear and have them guess which one is heavier. This game helps them to understand the tradeoffs one can make in connection with creating a system that fits their needs.
- How would I handle it?: We play this game both after gear lists have been determined and while on the trail. I describe a scenario (injury, getting lost, losing someone’s pack, bear eating our food, etc.) and the students discuss how they would handle that scenario based on the gear that they brought on the trip.
The 2009 crew is ready to get on the road!
The beginning of the course revolves around learning how to sew as well learning the strategies which lighten a student’s pack. The latter part of the course finds the students growing more and more self sufficient with gear making and more insightful within our philosophy discussions. The kids come into the course having a decent base of knowledge from the fall trip, which allows us to focus on more advanced topics than simply “how to pack your pack” or “no cotton.” It’s amazing that, on a yearly basis, I learn something new as well as hear viewpoints which I’ve never considered before. It’s one of the things that makes teaching this course very special to me.
ROI Lightweight Backpacking Course, 2009
I had unprecedented enthusiasm for the course in 2009. There were some students who were so psyched, they’d stay after school two or three days a week to keep sewing when class was over. These were the students who had incredible final projects and whose gear will continue to be useful for years to come. All the students had a great time on the graduation trip. The projects which students pursued ranged from stuff sacks, alcohol stoves, sleeping bags, and trekking poles for the year one students to wind shirts, insulated jackets, and bivy sacks for the more advanced students.
Towards the end of the semester, the students began scrambling to finish their final projects and work towards tweaking their packs in an attempt to achieve their own MEP. But the focus is not on pleasing me, the course instructor. The focus is on making informed choices about the experience that they wish to have. They recognize that the trip can be whatever they want to make it, and the gear choices that they make are a big part of that.
A view of the sandstone ocean we traversed on our overland route along the Boulder Mail Trail.
The advanced students planned several routes for the beginning students to choose from. To experience all the different styles of travel, they planned each day to look different from the one before it. One day is an all day hike, waking up early and getting into camp around dusk, with ten to twelve miles under our belts (a long way for a group of six to ten high school students). Another day, we have the entire morning to do whatever we want, be it sleep in or get up early to watch the sunrise before a long run. (while all the students say that they’re gonna sleep late, rarely, if ever, does that actually happen on these trips). Another day, we leave camp around sunrise and get into camp around noon, taking the rest of the day to explore, have a discussion, play a game, or just to reflect on our surroundings. On our last day, we planned to hike in silence so that we could consider all that we’d gained on the trip.
On the morning we left for the graduation trip, everyone came together to tally their final pack weight and then their skin out weight. Our school keeps a detailed record of pack weights over the years, which allows us to keep a record of what each student’s pack weight progression has looked like over time. This year, the heaviest day one pack weight of the trip was twenty-seven pounds. Not too bad for first time lightweight backpackers! Then,with all of our planning and packing done, we jumped in the vans to head for the trailhead.
Overview of the Graduation Trip, 2009
Our destination in 2009 was Escalante National Monument, and Andrew Skurka was my co-leader for the trip. We planned to complete a loop starting just out of the town of Escalante, taking the Boulder Mail Trail to Death Hollow, hike Death Hollow out to the main Escalante wash, then back to our starting point. We had three full days and two half-days to finish the thirty-three-mile round trip. This turned out to be plenty of time, giving us the opportunity to do some exploring and visit the Natural Arch.
Up or down? On the first day of the trip, the group is deciding which way to go.
After finishing the five-hour drive down to Escalante from Salt Lake City, we got our permit from the park office and began our three-hour hike to our first night’s camp. We had a beautiful slick rock journey ahead of us and wanted to have dinner cooking by the time the sun was setting.
After some group discussion on which direction was the correct one, we made our way to the loosely cairned Boulder Mail Trail and ascended the sandstone slabs up to the rim of the Escalante valley. We were greeted by comfortable temperatures and almost no wind. The hike was steep, but the students were full of energy based not only on being pent up in a car all day, but also because their packs were so much lighter compared with the other trips that they’d taken before. They were running, jumping, talking, and playing jokes on one another. When we arrived at camp, there wasn’t a single student who made a remark about being glad the hike was finally over (for those of you not used to working with high school students, this is extraordinary)!
With the Escalante valley in the background, we make our way towards our first night’s camp.
After setting up camp, we went about cooking our group meals. We ate together as the sun set and the stars came out, discussing the beauty and importance of our amazing surroundings. After eating and cleaning up, we retired to our sleeping bags for a sound night’s sleep and one last smile of the day, as we gazed into what famed climber Peter Croft likes to refer to as the “irreducible, oceanic unknown.”
As the sun rose the next morning, so too did the students, in another ‘out of the ordinary’ act for this age group. After packing up our camp and doing a camp sweep to be sure we’d left the site as we found it, we began hiking at 7:30! The light was beautiful, and the few clouds that had snuggled up to us the night before had moved on to a new point of view, leaving the morning sky a rich blue. We traversed earthen red and yellow sandstone in patterns swirling and swaying, delighted by our surroundings and interested in the geological knowledge that Andrew offered us as we walked.
The forest and the plains aren’t the only places to find beautiful wildflowers.
The morning faded into midday without a word and before we knew it, we’d covered the day’s nine miles and had descended into Death Hollow to find a perfect campsite above the creek (out of flash flood territory) with a 200-foot overhanging rock roof to make shelter erection unnecessary. We spent the afternoon exploring the upriver canyon aspects of Death Hollow as our route took us down canyon the next day, and as evening fell, we gathered together for a meal. For the second night in a row, there was naught but smiles being flashed around the circle as we happily indulged in a culinary smorgasbord. I’d never seen such consistent joy in an age group known for internal conflict, strife, and drama. Again, with the sun tucked in for the night, we gazed out to space reflecting on our place in the universe, smitten with the mode of transportation and the mindset that we’d used to get ourselves to this spectacular destination.
Our first view of the Death Valley Hollow drainage.
As we began our descent into Death Hollow, massive spires, which a mile before had been invisible, present themselves to us.
Barret had to get used to having wet feet. This was typical of our walking conditions for days three and four of the trip.
We awoke early the next day, but dabbled on our shelf till mid-morning to allow the sun a chance to hit the chilly waters and be certain that flash flooding would not be an issue on this day. When it came time to step into the creek, several students sought to stay dry, but the poison ivy and the constant stream crossings quickly put an end to their plan. By this point in the day, the water felt refreshing rather than numbing, and I watched as the smiles crept out of the students once more as the canyon walls grew taller and the creek more idyllic.
Noah leads the group down Death Hollow in search of more waterfalls.
It was often easier to walk down the stream bed than to try and find our way along the banks, as the ground was brushy and renowned for the potency of its poison ivy.
Most of the creek was no more than knee deep, but there were a few sections which were a little bit deeper, as Taylor discovered.
Noah and Barret realize there is a big difference between the 88 F (31 C) air and the 48 F (9 C) water.
The day was filled with waterfall swimming, canyon gazing, laughing, and joking. We had to swim through some sections and climb through brush during others. We saw a few other groups, but for most of the day, we had the canyon to ourselves. The sun didn’t hide its head until late into the evening, when we’d already set up camp. Over dinner, the group made the decision to hike an extra seven miles round trip to visit an arch the following day. Andrew and I worked through a shelter tutorial, and we discussed the applicable insight from the trip in regards to our home lives. It was exciting to see how engaged the students were in the discussion and how meaningful the trip was to them. We then laid down on our bags (the 78 F temperature not permitting us to get inside of them) and fell into a contented slumber, facilitated by a day full of the pursuit of happiness.
A great lunch spot! The girls cool off in a desert oasis while the rest of the group grabs lunch.
On day four, we were up at a reasonable time and hiking soon after, spurred on to reach the arch before the heat of midday sapped us of our energy. Some students cooked while others simply packed up and began their morning-to-night snacking. Walking downstream to the arch was leisurely. We basked in the desert oasis and talked of how interesting it was to be immersed in such a wet part of this arid landscape. Afternoon saw us to the arch with a lunch break. Afterwards, we made our way back to our trail junction and then to the night’s campsite. We had low expectations for what we would find, as our water had mostly dried up and there were many signs of obvious grazing in the area we arrived at when it was time to camp. Then we came across an enormous cave, sixty feet tall and several hundred feet across the base. We frolicked in the luxuriously soft sand and had our final meal together, discussing what we were going to do with our summers and what we’d gained from our time together.
We met this little guy on our last night. It was the first time many of the students had seen a scorpion.
The final morning dawned warm again. We slowly packed up our camp, not wanting the trip to be over, but still being excited to get home (some of the students were graduating the next day!). We walked out in silence, reflecting on all we’d learned and experienced. We’d spent roughly five days on a thirty-three-mile route through an inhospitable desert, using nothing but the twenty-five pounds of gear on our backs and the knowledge we had gained throughout the previous eight weeks.
I’ve found that the single most important attribute that all school curricula must embrace is empowerment. When you empower a student to begin making decisions for themselves and provide them with the freedom to be accountable for their own actions, they have no choice but to become aware of the connection between their actions and the consequences those actions precipitate. This awareness of themselves and their surroundings is what leads them to important insights in regards to their life. These are the tidbits of information that can make your life both fun and rewarding. Finally, these insights are the ideas that lead them to become adept at being purposeful and intentional when it comes to creating meaningful experiences in the future.
Smiles greeted the end of the trip, though each one of the students lamented having to go back to urban life.
This idea, empowering teenagers to consider what they want in the future and then to be purposeful in the steps that they take to reach those desires, is the theme that weaves all the other sub-themes of my course together. If we as a school can show someone what he or she is capable of and lead them through the process of how to get it, we’ve given them a gift that will continue to aid them in the pursuit of their passions for the remainder of their lives. Our jobs as teachers revolve around empowerment, not control. Our goal is to prepare our students to have successful lives, but before they can do that, it is integral for them to define what success means to them. Everyone’s definition and pathway will be different, but the process will have some similarities. My hope is to provide students the opportunity to engage in this process and connect with other students on a similar path. My hope is to empower students to push their reality to intersect with their potential. As a result, maybe you’ll start to see some younger folks out in the mountains rubbing elbows with you. I’ll bet they’ll be there of their own volition with lightweight packs and smiles on their faces.
Nate’s Gear List
|CATEGORY||ITEM||BRAND / MODEL||WORN||PACK|
|FOOTWEAR||Trail Runners||GoLite Sun Dragon||32.0|
|Shorty Gaiter||Integral Designs||3.5|
|TREKKING CLOTHES||Sleeping Socks||Wigwam||3.0|
|Long Sleeve Zip T||Patagonia||4.6|
|Long John Bottom||Patagonia||5.4|
|Wind Pants||Patagonia Dragonfly||3.0|
|TREKKING GEAR||Umbrella||GoLite Chrome Dome||7.0|
|PACKING GEAR||Backpack||Black Diamond Sphynx||28.0|
|Trash Compactor Bag||2.0|
|2 Stuff Sacks||Homemade||4.0|
|2 Zip Bags||Aloksack||2.0|
|Insulating Pad||Gossamer Gear Nightlight||3.3|
|Titanium Pot, Lid||BPL Firelite 1350||3.2|
|Water Bottles||Aquafina bottles||2.0|
|Water Treatment||Aqua Mira||3.0|
|Pen and Notepad||4.0|
|Travel Toothbrush w/ Case||Generic||1.0|
|Dropper Bottle w/ Dr. B’s||BPL Dropper Bottle||1.0|
|First Aid Kit||School Issued||16.0|
|Small Knife||Swiss Army Classic||1.0|
|Repair Kit||School Issued||3.0|
|Sunscreen in Mini Jar||BPL Balm Jar||2.0|
|Satellite Phone and Homemade Case||30.0|
|Total Weight (Worn/Carried)||248.6||15.5|
|Total Base Pack Weight||168.2||10.5|
|Total Weight Consumables||208.0||13.0|
|From Skin Out Weight||456.6||28.5|
I’d like to dedicate this article to my late grandmother. Each time I got the opportunity to see her over the past couple of years, she asked me when I was going to write a book about all my adventures. While I haven’t written a book yet, this is a start.