Why I Hated My First Wilderness Trip

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I am a photographer passionate about the outdoors, meaningful travel, creativity and intention in all things. I hope to use my platform online to show the beauty and complexity of the world we live in, and to encourage genuine connection to the world and all the magic within it.

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One summer, I went to the woods. It changed my life.

Like so many young, aspiring outdoors-people do, I went on a 30-day backpacking course with The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I had dreams of finding myself, of becoming an inspirational leader, of basking in the glorious sunshine, and of getting skinny and ricidulously hot from carrying a 50lb backpack for 30 days.

NOLS crushed all of my dreams. Ok, most of them.

The Wind River Range treated me to 8 days of nonstop rain and sleet, and greeted me with a frozen-shut tent on the summer solstice (when I really had to pee). And the mosquitos. So. Many. Mosquitoes. My pack looked like it was dipped in them. I wore head to toe rain gear, a head net, and gloves in retaliation. It sucked.

Shouldn’t I be having some deep thoughts doing yoga on a mountain right about now? Why am I not feeling inspired? Why do people LIKE this? Sure I knew it would be hard work, but shouldn’t I be basking lakeside looking outdoorsy while I write beautiful poetry?

As Leader of the Day I had a breakdown and cried as I led my group down a mountain in a very indirect manner (read: LOST). I counted down the days in my journal. I had dreams of going home. And to top it all off, I got a B-. A B-?! I couldn’t wait to get back to daily showers and Facebook.

When friends asked me how NOLS was, all I could say was “it was crazy”. It’s what I still say. It took me a while to properly reflect on NOLS.

It was the biggest learning experience of my life. It was hard. The Winds challenged me and I didn’t fight to enjoy the wilderness. People always made it seem to me that wilderness was a magical fairy-land where everything is sun-drenched, the air is crisp and the ambient temperature hovers around 75 degrees F. They forgot to mention the parts where sideways rain is pelting you in the face from every direction. But honestly I don’t blame them.

NOLS was my first wilderness experience, and it blew my freaking mind. It showed me that in life you can’t always just ride the wave, that leadership is challenging, that communication is vital, that solutions can be created for any problem and that the ability to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations is one of the most valuable skills you will learn, in the outdoors and everywhere.

I went into the woods that summer with no real basis of what to expect. Growing up, I didn’t have mountains in my backyard. I had never really been camping. I had never been in a situation where so many things were out of my control. I had never been in a place that was so astoundingly, amazingly and magically beautiful. Up until that point, my soul had never been captured so deeply or fully by anything.

To be wild is to be raw and harsh and gorgeous at the same time. I left the wilderness with a hugely bruised ego and an equally open mind. And I keep going back for more.


I cried immediately after this was taken.

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  1. David Rivera says:

    A lot of changes at once. But you made something wonderful out of it. Super!!!

  2. Ian says:

    I know this is old but I thought I’d share my similar experience. NOLS was also my first backpacking trip, I went on the 30-day Olympic Mountains course. I have never regretted anything more in my life. Besides the terrible weather for the first half of the trip, someone dropped the ball rationing our food out. We went a day or more without eating at times. I really (seriously) almost had to fight another student because he thought I stole his Snickers bar. We had one amazing instructor who really cared about the course and another one who couldn’t be arsed to do anything but put her sunglasses on and sleep during the day. We had a terrible, clique-filled group dynamic full of bullying and lashing out. I too counted down the days to society and when I was finally out, it didn’t feel like an achievement. It felt like I was being released from jail.
    I also have permanent pain in one of my legs from an accident on the trip, which doctors have told me will never go away. I would give anything to go back and not do this, not have my ego eroded away and not be in pain anymore.

    On top of it all I too got a B-. I remember laughing at the absurdity of the thing. I later went on to have one of the best backpacking trips of my life in college with some close friends.

    • Sriram says:

      hi Ian,

      i am writing an article on outdoor leadership training for Linkedin, looking for someone who can help me understand the customer journey. You have had a recent experience(Relatively) with Nols. Would you be interested to have a chat?


  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and I’m glad it ended up being positive for you. However, for me it’s been five years now since I went on my 30 day NOLS trip and I still haven’t recovered. I’ve gone to therapy, been on anti-depressants, and got diagnosed with PTSD when I was still fairly young after my trip. I just wanted to remind readers that what could potentially be a learning experience could turn fatal and should be treated as so.

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If you’re interested in travel, the outdoors, artistic expression, or want to learn more about photography, you’re in the right place. I’m an adventure trip leader turned photographer, passionate about learning & sharing the real stories from the places I visit (real or imagined).



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