Three Things I Learned from Living in the Woods for a Month

The summer following my junior year of high school, I decided to embark on my second course through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I would be doing a 28-day hiking course in Alaska with around twelve other kids. The first course I did was three weeks of hiking in Wyoming when I was fifteen. I literally couldn’t give anyone a solid explanation as to why I wanted to do it again–I knew from my first experience that though these trips were incredibly rewarding and exciting, they also proved to be pretty hard at times. They could be dangerous, scary, intimidating and sometimes just really uncomfortable. I couldn’t shower, I wore the same shirt the whole time, I was covered in blisters and bruises and on my first trip, I ended up injuring my leg, which made hiking way more difficult. Also, I don’t necessarily fit the bill for the type of person that would typically set out on these kinds of things. A lot of the people I’ve met here at school have trouble believing me when I tell them about these trips. I’m not super athletic or outdoorsy, I’m pretty shy and I still can’t read a map to save my life. However, I also knew that the lessons I learned from my first trip and the experiences I had were things that I craved to revisit. So, in the summer of 2016, I flew to Alaska to see what else I could learn about myself. 


  1. 1. Your voice matters

    I was never really confident in voicing my opinions. I hated having to be the one to make a decision, and would always look to someone else to make it for me. However, a big part of NOLS is leadership, and everyone on my course would be required to lead the group for a day. The leader decides the course and schedule, organizes the group and is the final decision-maker for the whole day. I absolutely dreaded these days. Most of the other kids seemed so confident and self-assured. They were always quick to say what they thought, whereas I preferred just helping out when I could and taking a backseat in the decision-making to make it easier for the rest of the group to come to a solution. I was terrified of leading us in the wrong direction – NOLS instructors will let you go off course and not tell you until the end of the day. During the first couple hours of my first day leading in Alaska, I turned around every few minutes to make sure the group agreed that we were going the right way. We knew what direction we had to go on the compass, but I was worried about what exact route to take. Mind you, now that I think back to this day, it literally didn’t matter what our exact route was. At some point, my instructor stopped and said that how exactly we would get to our destination for the day was unimportant, it just mattered that I made a decision and stuck to it. I still think about what he said, and it’s helped me tremendously in learning how to voice my opinion and make decisions for myself and for others. On that hiking day, I knew that I knew how to get to our destination, I was just worried about what other people thought of my decisions. In hindsight, no one knew the best way to get to our destination. We were all in a place we had never been before and trying to read our surroundings from a fifty-year-old map. The most important thing was getting to our destination at the end of the day, and that only happened once I forced myself to decide on a route and have confidence in my own leadership. 

  2. 2. Appreciate the little things

    The thing about hiking is that it can get really boring really fast. Sometimes there are amazing views or great conversations to distract you, but other times you’re just walking through the same landscape for hours. When I asked my instructor in Wyoming if she had any tricks, she just told me to admire everything around me, pointing at the leaves we stepped over on the trail and marveling at them. At first, this didn’t seem like a great answer. I would stare at the trail, looking at the dirt and rocks and leaves below me, bored out of my mind. Soon, however, I think I understood what she meant. I would notice a leaf below me and try to take in as much as I could from it, noticing every little detail – from how it was positioned on the ground to the way its veins ran through its skin. This not only helped to occupy my mind, but also forced me to appreciate and absorb the entirety of my environment. There’s really no easy trick to getting out of this boredom I experienced and this may not even be good advice, but sometimes it’s important to sit back and take in every little detail around you. It’s how I was able to appreciate and even find beauty in the most ordinary things. 

  3. 3. Be positive!

    Sometimes this is the last thing I want to hear. A NOLS instructor of mine once said that no course has ever gone as planned, and it would actually be impossible for nothing to go wrong on a month-long trip like this. Sometimes you have to wait three days for it to stop raining so that the river’s water levels can subside before you can safely cross it. Sometimes all your clothes get soaked. Sometimes you run out of food. Sometimes you accidentally stab yourself in the leg with a Swiss Army knife. Whatever the case may be, the only way to get through any of this is to look on the bright side. When we were stuck for three days waiting for the rain to stop, we would huddle together and sing while someone played the ukelele. When all my clothes got wet, I just tried to tell myself that they would eventually be dry. When my cook group ran out of food right before our re-ration, we had to get really creative with our meals that day, making really weird concoctions out of our leftover ingredients (it was gross so I won’t get into it). When I hurt my leg, I just told myself I would have a really good story once I got out of the woods. These might be really specific examples, but each of these moments taught me something about being able to look on the bright side in any given situation. Whenever I’m in a bad mood or find myself in a tough situation, I try to think back to some of these moments and remember how empowering it felt to try and make the best of a bad situation; and, a lot of them make for great stories now. 

My experiences on these courses were a mixture of good and bad, thrilling and terrifying. All in all, in the short time I’ve spent in the backcountry, I’ve learned a great deal about myself and made memories that I hope to carry with me forever. 


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