What to Expect on an Outward Bound Expedition: The Learning Outcomes

Signing up for an Outward Bound expedition is not easy. We know that no matter if you are a parent of a student or the one going on the expedition yourself, the process and days leading up to the experience can be filled with questions. From who will be with me to what should I pack or even where do we go? We hope to answer some of those questions in our four-part series: What to Expect on an Outward Bound Expedition.

Fourth on the list of what to expect is the outcomes you’ll walk away with. Keep reading for an Instructor’s look into the learning outcomes and growth areas you’ll discover on your expedition.

When you decide to go on an Outward Bound expedition, you’re beginning a learning process that starts before your expedition and ends far after. Some outcomes may be perceptible to you immediately, while others may take years to become evident. These outcomes range from physical growth to social and emotional growth. 

Learning Begins When You Sign Up

Many Outward Bound students begin to learn and change in the process of preparing to go on their course. After applying for an expedition, you’ll be paired with a Course Advisor to help guide you to be ready to go on a uniquely challenging adventure. You can see the course application process as the first of many opportunities to set goals and intentions for growth. You’ll have the opportunity to share what led you to seek out this challenge and to reflect on the pillars of support that exist in your life to help you accomplish it. 

In the course preparation process, you’ll also receive guidance to create your own exercise program. This often involves a combination of endurance and strength training. You may apply yourself in new ways to exercise habits that you enjoy already, or it might be an opportunity to try new ones! Often, course advisors recommend going on a walk or a hike in your new hiking boots in a local area, and this aspect of preparation can also take you to places you may not have visited before. 

You’ll receive detailed information about the gear to bring on your expedition. Many pieces of gear can be borrowed from Outward Bound, or from programs that might be supporting you in attending Outward Bound. The information you receive will also include suggestions on how to find gear second-hand. This is the beginning of a longer process of learning how to become comfortable in the outdoors while being a sustainable consumer and outdoorist. Outward Bound material that you receive beforehand will include lessons on topics like layering, thermal regulation, and packing your bag. The process of preparing to leave behind plenty of items, and question what you need at a minimum, can also be transformative in itself! 

Finding Confidence in Skills and Community

After weeks or months of preparing for an Outward Bound course, students have often already learned quite a bit about themselves, their bodies and the process of preparing for a wilderness expedition. When you finally begin your course, the first phase of the expedition is known as the Training Phase, and you will be in the position of learning all of the basic skills to become comfortable in the wilderness environment where you’re traveling. You’ll become accomplished setting up a shelter, taking turns on a rotation to cook a meal with the guidance of your Instructors, and ‘learning the ropes’ to begin mastering your means of daily travel, whether that’s on a sailboat, canoe, dogsled, on foot or something else!

skill outcomes

The outcome of the training phase is that you can walk away with a solid sense of how to meet basic needs in the wilderness context. You’ll also begin to get to know the crew you’re collaborating with, and all of the skills you’re practicing will be accomplished through team collaboration and with support from Instructors. Students often find this first phase both exciting and humbling. It gives an immediate sense of accomplishment of new skills and also demands the ability to ask questions and learn quickly from failure. 

Stepping into Leadership

During the course, it is the Instructor’s goal to teach all of the skills necessary for students to successfully complete expedition skills independently. While Training Phase was all about the technical skills to become comfortable with wilderness travel, these become a means towards lasting outcomes that can be applied to a wide variety of environments. Through working together to learn skills and travel efficiently while keeping the crew safe and healthy, crew members develop their capacity for relationship-building and teamwork, seeing how successful travel is built upon a culture of belonging. 

Through periodic one-on-ones with your Instructor and group reflection throughout the course, as well as time for solitude and introspection, your self-awareness and sense of social responsibility will deepen.

As the crew comes to travel with greater independence, there will be more opportunities to face natural consequences and to learn from experience. Students often find that learning in this environment generates the need for courage, perseverance, and assertiveness in ways that they may not have exercised before. By the end of the course, students often arrive back having been physically engaged in totally new ways, practicing a sense of self-regulation, and feeling new physical confidence. 

Learning Beyond Expedition

Much of the learning from an Outward Bound course often happens after the crew has said goodbye and returned home. Caitlin Brown, an Instructor with Outward Bound in California reflected, “If I have done my job as an Instructor, my students will leave with the ability to transfer what they learned about themselves and their ability to overcome challenges to use in their daily lives. The real Outward Bound course only begins once the wilderness expedition ends.” The term ‘Outward Bound’ refers to this transference: a ship leaving the safety of the harbor to set out to sea. Course End will include a variety of settings for you to reflect on the experience of the course, highlight milestones made and integrate those learnings with your life at home. 

community outcomes

Often, crews form a close bond, and expedition travel becomes the new normal. Settling into a rhythm of camping and traveling, daily tasks are simpler and with fewer distractions. After an impactful experience of wilderness adventure, returning to the demands of daily life may feel like a greater challenge. For this reason, Instructors often think of what comes after the wilderness expedition as ‘the real Outward Bound course,’ with the expedition itself as a preparation and training phase. 

Crew members integrate their Outward Bound experiences in all kinds of ways. Some find it helpful to stay connected with the group members who were part of their course, or with their Instructors. Others take the opportunity to make a presentation about their course to their family or community. You may be inspired to continue developing the skills that were part of your course or to dedicate yourself to new learnings and skill sets. One of the most powerful ways of transferring learning comes in the long-lasting ability to make meaning and growth out of experiences of discomfort or apparent failure. 

About the Author

Nora Spicer has instructed backpacking and canoeing courses at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School since 2014. She has an MA in Environmental History from Harvard University and teaches Place-based US History (honoraspicer.com).

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