You've likely experienced the positive benefits of outdoor adventure. Outdoor experiences build resilience and foster social-emotional skills, which are especially valuable for today's youth. However, outdoor education is often prioritized behind academic pursuits. Many who want to participate in nature-based activities face additional external and internal barriers, such as lack of geographic accessibility and economic resources or uncertainty about their abilities and skills to navigate the outdoors.
Through intentionally designed outdoor education courses for individuals and urban programming for schools and groups, Outward Bound Canada’s (OBC) mission since 1969 has been to equip youth with the necessary skills to navigate life’s challenges. With several different financial assistance streams, like the Youth Access Fund, OBC works to smash financial barriers and provide equal access to the outdoors for all. OBC provided financial assistance to 60 per cent of at least 1,000 youth participants in 2022.
With Canada’s towering mountain ranges, placid lakes and ancient rainforests, OBC takes advantage of our natural landscape to design physically and mentally challenging climbing, backpacking and canoeing courses of varying lengths on the West Coast, in Ontario and the Rockies. Whether youth are participating in a five-day climbing program or a 21-day sea kayaking and surfing expedition, those aged 11 through 19 will develop a host of active listening, communication and leadership skills that boost academic learning and personal development.
“It’s a dynamic environment and always changing, both in terms of weather and also the pace of the course and travel,” says Andrew Young, executive director of OBC. “[The outdoor setting is] also a novel space and people are not used to being there, so they’re put in a position that equalizes them.”
OBC’s one-, three- and five-day urban programming for schools across the country works to minimize the uncertainty of breaking away from the normal routine and build confidence in adapting to a new environment. “For some youth who don’t have exposure to outdoor programs or this aspect of nature-based education, it’s important to start small. And starting in an urban environment is most conducive,” says Heather Mills, OBC’s head of marketing and communications. Across the Greater Toronto Area, students can enjoy a host of experiences like guided hikes and tackling an 18-metre challenge tower at the Don Valley Brickworks Park. With a goal to steadily work students up to overnight trips and multi-day expeditions, OBC provides these urban programs for students to learn about outdoor best practices, trail etiquette and navigation while gaining resilience and community-building skills. OBC also offers urban programs in Vancouver. Financial assistance is available for schools and groups.
Don’t Worry About the Gear
“It doesn’t have to be expensive to get out into the wilderness, but performance gear will make you more comfortable,” says Mills. “A good raincoat that’s waterproof with all the sealed seams will make or break your trip.” It’s no secret that merino wool base layers and waterproof and breathable hiking boots can cost a lot. In an activity nicknamed the Duffle Shuffle, which takes place at the start of each course, every student’s packs are looked over by instructors and are provided with any essentials like sleeping bags, tents and rain pants from OBC’s gear library, in an effort to break down economic barriers to the outdoors.
Use the Outdoors to Look Inward
Both Young and Mills stress the concept of transference in OBC’s courses, referring to the gradual transfer of authority from instructors to youth over time, and the transfer of learned skills from the natural environment to the participant’s home life. Basic skills—like checking weather conditions, picking a suitable campsite and packing proper equipment—are taught at the beginning of all courses. Youth take on more responsibility and step into a leadership role as the course progresses—making decisions, reading maps and cleaning up camp.
“Transference also taps into the concept of logical consequence,” says Mills about moving the course from adult-led to student-led. OBC instructors provide guidance and direction to participants on things like when to best set up camp, but those who overlook those pointers will have to endure the challenge of setting up a tent in the dark.
Aside from learning the practical skills of a specific outdoor activity, participants also gain confidence in the outdoors, leadership and team-building skills.
A powerful component of any multi-day course, the Solo takes place at the end, when participants practice their newfound skills to set up camp and cook all on their own. “The youth come out on the other end very enthusiastic about it,” says Mills of this experience, which can sound daunting at first. “They find it so refreshing, invigorating and affirming that they now have the ability and knowledge to do this.”
To reflect on their personal development and to encapsulate the experience, participants also journal and write a letter to themselves during the Solo. Mailed back to them months later, the letters serve as a reminder of the skills they learned outdoors and that they’re capable of handling what life throws at them as they re-integrate into home life.
“A big part of our programming requires youth to be vulnerable and uncomfortable, and it’s all part of this learning that ladders up to these transformative experiences,” says Mills. Their intuitive instructors find the line between cultivating a space for these skills to grow while maintaining a risk-managed environment. “If you’re open-minded and bring the motivation to learn, you’ll have a truly exceptional time.”
Learn more or support OBC’s activities by clicking here.
Outward Bound Canada is committed to helping youth in Canada change the trajectory of their lives. In an unpredictable and changing world, OBC, a registered charity, offers social-emotional education through experiential adventures in the outdoors. Since 1969, OBC has inspired over 150,000 participants, with a particular emphasis on providing greater access to those facing socioeconomic barriers, to discover their potential. These experiences develop resilience, social competence, and environmental awareness to contribute to a better, more compassionate, and resilient society.