Packs on Backs

Bridging the gap between middle school outdoor education programs and high school

- Sofia Fleming

Background Information

When Sofia was in fifth grade, her parents stuffed 3 kids, 2 parents, and 1 dog into an RV where they would spend the next 2 months driving from Michigan to Washington. This was the time of curiosity, of jumping from rock to rock on the oceans edge, a time of exhaustion as they dragged their feet back to their homey chunk of metal after hiking into the canyons.  Most of all it was a time of connection, to nature and each other. These feelings and experiences are what Sofia set out to share.

Living on an island, the apparent barriers to outdoor adventure and backpacking can dissuade teens from exploring.  Sofia created a program to build the confidence and knowledge of teens, in order to increase involvement in the outdoors. The goal of “Packs on Backs” is to bridge the gap between middle school outdoor education programs and high school students, helping to provide the information needed for teens to explore their surroundings.

Implementation of Project

Sofia planned four sessions covering different aspects of outdoor education. The immediate response of community members helped kick start this project.  Through a virtual survey at the start of the school year, 12 people signed up for the project with 8 continuing on to complete the program. With COVID-19, Packs On Backs did switch almost entirely to a virtual model, with the exception of a one-day in-person activity.  The initial 3 sessions–Food & Water on the trail, First Aid, and Gear & Route Planning– were held online, the last 2 led by volunteer community members.

One participant stated:

“I liked practicing trip planning because it’s a skill that applies to so many more parts of life than just hiking.”

The final session initially was intended to be a campout, however due to a local surge of COVID cases, was replaced with a one-day scavenger hunt and fire building competition.  Because of the unpredictability of the pandemic and the response to it, it was difficult to maintain consistency in terms of the number of participants and the logistics of each setting. Overall, Sofia is thankful to have received so much community enthusiasm that supported her project.


Results of Project

Packs On Backs has been a success so far.  Sofia and her group have met for a total of four sessions over the course of four weeks.  Sofia spent a total of 20 hours on implementing this project, eight of which were leading the four sessions. The two session leaders besides Sofia have both shown interest in continuing to support students as they seek outdoor adventure skills and experience.  At the final meeting Sofia was encouraged by members of the group discussing their own plans to camp and backpack over the next few months. One student said:

“I had so much fun, I am excited to spend more time outdoors and on adventures with friends and family.”

One unexpected result of this project was the connections the participants made with adult community members. Since two of the sessions were led by enthusiastic volunteers, students now have connections to leaders willing to help with trip planning and gear finding in the future.  Currently, Sofia is planning her own backpacking trips, the first with members of Packs On Backs and the next as a pre-college celebration.  Overall, this project was received with a lot of enthusiasm with community leaders and participants alike hoping for a continuation of this program as part of Sofia’s senior project.

What’s Next

As a senior in the 2021 class of Orcas Island High School, Sofia hopes to finish out her year with a mix of outdoor and academic time. She does not know where next year will take her, and she is excited to focus on enjoying the community she has built.  Sofia knows that the outdoors have and will be a big part of her life, she is excited to dedicate more time to backpacking once on the mainland. Packs On Backs will likely continue as an inspiration for Sofia’s senior project. She hopes that the enthusiasm she received from students and the community will encourage high schoolers to continue to create a community of backpackers, and support for teens.