In addition to providing kids with crucial leadership skills, outdoor adventure programs, such as Overland and Outward Bound, also promote environmental awareness.
These two to four week wilderness immersion trips instill the value of wilderness preservation in teens by letting them fall in love with the natural beauty of the place they visit.
“We are encouraging students to recognize that this earth is all of our responsibilities and if they love these natural places they can practice taking care of them,” said Lawrence Schuessler, Associate Program Director for the Joshua Tree location of Outward Bound California.
The main summer wilderness experience companies, Overland, Outward Bound, and Nols, exist in places all over the world. They can include anything from backpacking adventures in Norway to kayaking through the Canadian Boundary Waters.
While the main focus of these companies is leadership education, not environmentalism, the natural beauty of the locations often affect the participant’s conservationist behaviors.
Outward Bound California trip leader Shane Wachlin believes that although conservation education is important, nothing beats the experience of just going out into the wilderness.
“If facts and numbers changed people’s actions we would not be dealing with global climate change, dead zones in the ocean, and mass extinction. We protect what we love,” said Wachlin.
Both Overland and Outward Bound teach participants the importance of wilderness preservation with the Leave No Trace principles.
According to Schuessler, these include planning ahead, properly disposing waste, minimizing impact, and respecting wildlife and other visitors.
Some participants, like sophomore Mary Baillos, continue to practice the preservation rules they learned on course.
“On all of my trips, we talked about the Leave No Trace Policy. Even when I am not in the backcountry, I still follow the leave no trace policy,” said Baillos, who completed two trips with Overland and one with Road Less Travelled.
Gallagher has gone on six Overland Summers trips, including one to Alaska and another to Switzerland. The experience has caused her to make eco-friendly changes at home as well. Since returning, she makes an effort to recycle more, walk whenever possible, and produce less plastic waste.
The push for sustainability extends beyond the education of participants for most adventure-travel companies.
Overland Summers logistics coordinator Brett Christensen emphasized that at their base office in Williamstown, Massachusetts, the company is committed to sustainable practices.
“We industrially compost nearly all of our food waste and dishware. We donate and recycle our old gear, including bicycles and kitchenware,” said Christensen.
Wachlin believes that it is important for people to reconnect with nature in order to enlighten themselves on the need for conservation. “We have become disconnected from the land,” he said.
Renowned author of Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv, calls this disconnection “nature deficit disorder.” Wachlin thinks that because of disconnection “disorder,” people are missing a part of their lives. To make up for this, “We consume more and seek pleasure instead of meaning,” said Wachlin.
Outdoor experiences, he added, save both the environment and the person.
Lilita Wood, High Sierra Program Manager for Outward Bound California said, “Students of Outward Bound have reported a change in their belief in themselves and an increase in taking action to better the world, for some, that change is in helping the environment.”
Those who have completed outdoor immersion trips have noted changes in their personalities after returning.
Baillos, who spent two weeks in the pouring rain while on a trip to Norway, said that although every day was hard, it made her stronger.
“As I have gone on more and more trips, my resilience has grown,” she said.
In addition to building grit, the trips cause some participants to become more environmentally friendly.
Since completing her course, Junior Elizabeth Gediman said, “I take shorter showers, my family is looking into buying an electric car, and I sign Greenpeace petitions.”
Gediman believes that the next step on her road to environmental preservation is to join groups working to change laws regarding conservation.
Wachlin said that although outdoor trips can make teens more environmentally aware, “They must be buttressed by schools advocating for change and most importantly the students to keep the fire lit.”
For many participants, the conservation fire remains burning once they returned due to their positive experiences and the beauty of their environments.
Gallagher said, “My experience on outdoor programs has made me more aware of the impact I make on the world, and make me both appreciate the world we have and want to protect it at all costs.”