Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
In the outdoors, learning to lead with hands-on workshops helps educators and youth group leaders gain the skills they need for successful outings.
Barriers. They exist in our lives in many forms. In the outdoor world, barriers can limit exposure to new experiences, learning opportunities, and the chance to form a bond with our public lands. For youth group leaders and educators, barriers come in many forms, but Washington Trails Association’s Outdoor Leadership Training program strives to knock those barriers down, helping kids and their educators experience the outdoors in a safe and fun way.
Arranging a trip into the outdoors for a youth group of any kind poses unique challenges. There are costs, schedules, skills and responsibilities to consider before even setting foot on a trail or in a campground. The Outdoor Leadership Training program takes those challenges and mitigates them by giving educators and leaders a unique opportunity to learn in a hands-on environment what exactly it takes to get kids outside and ensure their trip goes smoothly. From planning logistics, meal preparation and general safety, to special considerations like preparing for changing weather conditions with a group of kids, the workshops cover every aspect of a trip from doorstep to trail and back again.
The Outdoor Leadership Training program offers various workshops. Each one is tailored to a specific experience that an educator or leader might be interested in introducing their kids to. Currently, the program offers workshops for day hiking, snowshoeing, camping and backpacking. Each workshop covers the unique things to consider during those activities, but the true strength of the workshops lies in the fact that it takes educators and leaders out into the environment they’ll be experiencing with their group, giving them a chance to see firsthand what it takes to lead from start to finish. Going through the trip in chronological order gives the leaders a model to copy for their own trip in the future (participants are even given an exact itinerary of the trip afterward to copy if they want).
No matter which workshop future leaders attend, they’re given the skills they’ll need to successfully and safely lead their own trips into the outdoors. To give an idea of what one of these workshops looks like from a participant perspective, we joined a group heading into the North Cascades for a weekend backpacking workshop.
Participants met at the North Cascades Visitors Center in Newhalem on a sunny, warm Thursday in July. Jean and Andrew, the WTA leaders who help facilitate the trips, made introductions and the group ate lunch and got to know each other. Everyone attending was coming from vastly different backgrounds, not only in their outdoor experience levels, but also their personal reasons for joining the trip. But despite their different backgrounds and experience levels, everyone was enthused to be there and eager to jump in.
After lunch, the group made a short trip to a nearby trail where they learned about the history of the land and the Native American tribes local to the area, including the Upper Skagit tribe. Andrew, the group leader, emphasized having an appreciation for the land you’re on. He pointed out that often times we see Native American history as only that; history. Instead, he said, “these tribes are still very much a part of the current story of this area, not just the history.”
With their legs stretched, the group headed to the group campsite they would spend the night before departing for the backpacking leg of their journey. This was an important stepping stone for the group, some of whom had never been backpacking before. That afternoon, the group went over some of the topics that would be addressed over the weekend, starting from the basics of setting up tents, what games to play in camp with their youth groups, and more. Everything was hands-on. Participants learned to set up tents themselves, how pack their backpacks efficiently, and how to portion out meals for the group to carry. Planning, Andrew said, was key for ensuring a smooth outing.
After the group went over navigation and maps, they convened in the camp kitchen to help prepare a meal for the group. Andrew and Jean went over the nuance of keeping a clean camp kitchen, using backcountry stoves, and how to select items for meals by checking nutrition information and calories. Afterward, everyone huddled around the fire and enjoyed s’mores and some fun Leave No Trace games. The games weren’t only for participants, but also an example of activities the leaders could do with their own groups in the future. This format of learning by doing was a constant theme throughout the weekend, punctuated by moments of thoughtful reflection on the activities taking place.
Bright and early the next morning, the crew rose and began preparing their gear for the weekend ahead. After leaving the group site they’d be backpacking for real, a prospect that was an exciting unknown for a few members of the group. As they packed their bags, Andrew and Jean showed how to fit a backpack, what snacks to carry, and how to divide meals so food was both nutritious and enjoyable for whoever they’d be leading in the future. They also took a walk down to the river to learn the nuances of water filtering and the various methods available to them.
With bags loaded full of delicious food, tents, water filters and more, the group set out from the trailhead. The format of the weekend’s learning was done with the idea of everything being hands-on and interactive. Group members took turns in pairs leading the rest of the crew, offering them the chance to sit in the driver’s seat (with guidance from Andrew and Jean) to see what it’s actually like to lead a group in the outdoors. “The opportunity to lead in this comfortable setting definitely increases your confidence. But as important is the time we take to debrief and reflect on their time in charge, to highlight strengths and find areas of growth to focus on in future leadership opportunities,” says Andrew.
As the weekend unfolded, Andrew and Jean threw a few real-world curveballs into the mix. They’d have a group member pretend to be dehydrated or get lost when going to the bathroom. These scenarios kept the group leaders on their toes, and emulated what it would be like if it happened on an outing with their youth group. In these moments, Andrew and Jean were always on hand to offer advice if needed, but they played a much more passive role to enable group leaders to work out the problems themselves and learn by doing. “Learning from doing helps drive the information home,” said Kim, one of the participants from the weekend.
After two nights backpacking and taking turns leading the group, participants were given time to analyze and examine how the weekend went with Andrew and Jean. During the hike back to the trailhead they talked about areas of improvement in group leadership, what they excelled in, and what unique skills they can bring to a youth trip. In these recaps, Andrew and Jean give the participants a guidebook to success, letting them know how they can get from the workshop to actually leading their own group in the backcountry.
As the group bid farewell at the trailhead, participants in the weekend came away with a full picture of what it takes to lead a trip in the outdoors from start to finish. Though the workshop was over, participants are encouraged to connect with not only Andrew and Jean for any advice and help in the future, but also other participants themselves. By participating in the workshop, leaders also get access to Washington Trails Association’s Gear Library, which offers boots, tents, clothing and other items for leaders to check out for their own trips. Having the items on-hand to check out allows leaders to get kids outside, even if they don’t have hiking equipment of their own.
In addition to the Gear Library, participants can also apply for mini grants which can help cover the cost of travel or other expenses which can help trips take an important first step in the planning phase. "Trip funding, especially for transportation, is a huge barrier that's keeping under-resourced schools and organizations off the trail. And while WTA's $250 and $500 grants don't necessarily cover everything for a big outing, they're quick and easy to secure, which can get the ball rolling on covering additional costs through other sources," said Andrew.
After the workshop, participants commented that it was a hugely beneficial learning environment for them, and that having the workshop take place in the outdoors, where they themselves would be leading, was invaluable. With new outdoor and leadership skills under their belts, they can make trips possible for students and youth groups that otherwise wouldn't have been able to get outside, breaking down barriers for the next generation of hikers.
Washington Trails Association leads a number of workshops throughout the year on hiking, backpacking, camping and snowshoeing. Get more information and sign up for a workshop.