The Outdoor Foundation is on a mission: to inspire more college kids to recreate outside.
For the past three years thousands of college students across the country have gotten outside through a friendly competition called the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge. During this annual fall event, universities compete to see who can log the greatest number of outdoor recreation activities, such as biking, hiking, camping, climbing, etc., as well as participants. The winning school gets bragging rights and is crowned the National Outdoor Champion.
As the Adventure Ed Coordinator at Wilkes University, I’ve seen firsthand how a focus on fresh air and fun can benefit not only individual students but an entire campus. Wilkes, a private university in Pennsylvania with undergrad enrollment just shy of 2,500, is probably not what you have in mind when you hear the term “outdoor mecca.” Despite being an urban campus, we have a small but passionate community of outdoor enthusiasts eager to embark on any adventure.
Thanks to the Outdoor Foundation, Wilkes was first able to participate in the Campus Challenge in 2015. We were unsure of how we’d match up against campuses in more traditionally outdoorsy environments. The Wilkes community, though, wasn’t fazed. Students and staff went all in. They biked, swam, ran, climbed, glamped and yoga-ed until they dropped. That first year, we came in 4th place out of 60 schools, with nearly 900 participants and 3,600 outdoor activities logged. Last year, we snagged 4th place again (out of 90 schools), with 7,500 outdoor activities.
The great thing about outdoor activities is that they’re always better with a friend. We created Buddy Week, when students committed to engaging in an outdoor activity with a friend. This small group of students began to invite the larger community to join them in these adventures. What we learned is that many people had no idea that so many amazing outdoor recreation options were available to them. Wilkes, for example, has four beautiful state parks within 45 minutes of campus. Our students were able to share that with their friends, which brought hope, exposure and excitement to the campus.
The impact this has had on Wilkes is immense. On sunny days, I see more hammocks set up on campus than ever before. More and more students are sporting various brands of outdoor clothing and gear, and many choose to spend their days off getting into some sort of outdoor adventure. These seemingly small things point to a renewed interest in living a life connected to nature. This past spring break, we even took a group of students to the Grand Canyon, driving through 15 states and three national parks just to get there and back. En route through New Mexico, a family friend of mine from Albuquerque who joined our Campus Challenge team let us stay in her cabin in Pecos National Historical Park. She got to spend time with our students, and it was neat to see how a shared love of being outside can connect people, even from opposite sides of the country. Our outdoor community is still small, but thanks to Campus Challenge, it’s always growing.
The most important lesson our students have learned from the Campus Challenge is that there’s not one definition of “adventure.” You don’t have to live near Yosemite to experience the thrill and freedom of climbing. You don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to reconnect with nature and discover the joy of being in a quiet forest. Don’t have the time or resources to spend a week in the backcountry? That’s fine! Make s’mores over a charcoal fire in your backyard with some friends. Living an outdoorsy lifestyle and exploring what the world has to offer is a choice you can make wherever you are.
Every environment is ripe with adventure—you just have to be willing to find it.
If you’re interested in getting involved in the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge, please visit this link. All universities in the United States are welcome to participate. Registration for the 2017 Challenge is open until May 14.
The 2017 Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge is supported by generous funding from the REI Foundation.