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What I Learned from a Month in the Wilderness

July 12, 2020, I boarded a plane to Denver, Colorado to meet in person the 19 other students that I would be living with until August 7 and working closely with for the next four years. We were headed to the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming for 26 days of the most unique leadership training I could imagine: the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. In other words, backpacking. For those 26 days, we learned the technical skills that it takes to backpack and survive in the wilderness, along with the leadership and teambuilding skills that it takes to live with perfect strangers in a strange environment.

Aside from all of that, I have my own takeaways. Everyone who goes through NOLS has their own experience and gains their own understanding, so my takeaways are probably different from the next person’s. Nevertheless, here are some of the lessons I learned after living in the wilderness for a month.


You can do without technology.

Most people who leave all of their technology behind and go off the grid for a month will most likely worry about what they are missing. Before this experience, I had never gone that long without using technology from calling and texting to constant new content to listening to music, and I had no idea how I would cope with the lack of it. The reality of it was that coping was hardly necessary. Not only did I hardly miss technology, but also, I appreciated the break. Never getting a break from technology takes a serious toll on mental health, and when you are not constantly bombarded with new content all of the time, you can really sit back and focus on yourself. It is important to know that, if the situation ever were to arise, technology is not vital to your survival.

Of equal importance, this month made me appreciate technology, especially two specific things: showers and phone calls. I take for granted being clean any time I would like. I take for granted getting to hear my parents and loved ones and talk with them any time I would like, even when I live hundreds of miles away. The harshness of the wilderness is a reminder to be grateful of what the modern world can allow for so easily. If you can, call your parents or anyone else you cherish. Take a shower. It may not be necessary, but that does not mean you should take advantage of it.


You do not remember the days you did not challenge yourself.

I remember getting my breath knocked out of me from swimming out in a freezing cold lake. I remember crying out of fear of heights at the summit of a mountain. I remember cooking for the first time on a dinky little travel stove. I remember having to count on other people for my well being. What I do not remember as well are the days when everything was business as usual. Granted, we did not have too many days like that, but the point is that I needed to take chances and believe in myself to do what I thought that I could not. I was scared, but I needed to challenge myself often to grow. If all else failed, at least I had a story to tell.


Trust is a necessity.

Yes, it is scary letting others play such a large part in your safety, health, and wellbeing, but only allowing yourself to take care of your needs is even more dangerous. Even in daily life, isolating yourself and refusing help from others will most likely only worsen your problems. I needed new perspectives and people with differing experiences to get through the terrifying moments, the days when homesickness hit hard, and the tasks that I let get the better of me. By counting on my friends, I felt supported when I needed to step up and felt taken care of when I needed to step back. The support network I had was there for a reason, even if it was sometimes difficult to recognize.


You can always make time for yourself, and you should.

There is always something to be done. I usually think “I could be helping out here” or “I could be socializing over there” and so on, but rarely do I remember to prioritize the time that I need to reflect and do self-care. Even in the wilderness, it is important to step away from busy and social situations. Life is only as overwhelming as you make it, and there is always time in a day to be grateful for the good things that happen and vocalize them. There is always time to check in with your emotions, reflect on your shortcomings and achievements, and do the things that make you feel good about yourself. It will never take as long or be as difficult as you think it will. You are a priority, and regardless of if you are in your home, at your dorm, or backpacking in the mountains, you have to act like it.


The wilderness is daunting and unforgiving, but so is the modernized world we live in today. I face different challenges than I did in the mountains, but I am the same person no matter where I go. I take these memories and these lessons with me, not necessarily because I will be hiking over a mountain or performing wilderness first aid any time soon, but because there is something to learn from raw and obvious challenges. When I stepped back into civilization for the first time after those 26 days, I felt pride in myself and my abilities because I had undeniably made my way to the finish line. In the modern world, there are hardly any clear finish lines for the challenges we face, those that are much harder to perceive why they hurt or scare us; yet every person deserves to feel pride in themselves for overcoming their difficulties, even and especially if there is struggle and failure along the way.

And that is my final lesson: be proud of yourself for learning hard lessons.         



Mary Messina (she/her) is a UNCC freshman studying Political Science and International Studies in the Levine Scholars Program. Interests include world affairs, civil law, human rights, and (when necessary) surviving in the wilderness.
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