Wilderness Adventures is a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based outdoor education organization that provides students of all ages with unique life skills while exploring the outdoors. They will grow to serve the Bozeman area with their K-8 Base Camp programs by 2023.
As a kid from Central Illinois, a 16-year-old Tom Holland was amazed the first time he found himself in the ocean of mountain peaks making up the Teton Range. The seemingly endless granite and wild, open spaces awoke in him a sense of adventure and he left that summer trip with Wilderness Adventures, a Jackson Hole, Wyoming-based outdoor education organization, armed with a new set of technical skills along with life skills he would carry with him into adulthood.
Holland went on to study business and early childhood education, and become the CEO of the American Camp Association, a nonprofit center for camp professionals out of Indiana. But he kept in touch with Mike and Helen Cottingham, who had originally founded Wilderness Adventures in 1973. In 2016, when the Cottinghams were looking to pass the business along to its next owner, Tom and his wife Catherine rose to the challenge.
“To do what we do is a dream come true,” says Holland, now 42. “I get to go to campfires in the middle of the summer and see the impact of this thing; that’s incredibly magical. The outdoors is a place of solace and connection for kids and that isn’t going away. We feel so lucky and honored to carry this torch.”
Now in its 50th year, through day camps, overnight trips, gap semester programs and custom trips that reach across the U.S. and globe, Wilderness Adventures has inspired and changed the lives of over 40,000 alumni, providing youth with technical and life skills in what the Hollands believe is the most powerful classroom of all—the outdoors.
In a curriculum they call the Trail Map, kids of all ages learn the hard skills of the outdoors—how to pitch a tent, cook outdoors, pack proper supplies and hike to remote locations—and along the way build invaluable soft skills such as teamwork, communication, creative and critical thinking and empathy.
Now, with a pandemic-affected generation navigating their school years, and often over-stimulated by today’s technology and screens, Holland believes the experience of summer camp and outdoor education is more important than ever. It not only provides a reprieve from society but reaching kids early in life has a ripple effect—they grow into more thoughtful stewards for their communities.
“I just think kids need this experience now more than ever,” says Holland. “To be carefree, with role models guiding your experience, to be able to grow and get dirty. We want them to then take the energy and experience that they get and translate it to the rest of their lives.”
Holland runs his business on a philosophy: “There’s room at the campfire for everyone,” meaning socioeconomic or ethnic differences should never deem the outdoors inaccessible. Through their Wilderness Adventures Foundation, the organization aims to reach kids who otherwise may not have been able to experience reaching the peak of the Grand Teton, camping in the wilderness or sharing a campfire with newfound friends.
“Wilderness Adventures’ foundational goal is to ensure finances are never an issue and includes people of different racial and economic backgrounds,” says Holland. “We are trying to make sure our campfire is open to everybody. If you can start with kids, with that influence and commitment to the tenants of this community, I think we can be well equipped.”
Already firmly established in Jackson Hole, Wilderness Adventures looks next to grow their five-day, K-8 Base Camp program into the Bozeman area by 2023, as they hope to reach and educate more youth in beautiful spaces.
“We think the community of Bozeman aligns with outdoor enthusiasm and the opportunity for kids seems just about right,” says Holland. “The program that’s worked for Jackson is something we’re excited to bring to Bozeman.”
Holland recalls the day the Wilderness Adventures brochure arrived in the mail when he was a kid back in the Midwest and how he mowed lawns all summer until he raised the tuition to attend, unaware how much it would change the course of his life.
“I didn’t know about the Tetons or mountains or anything like that,” says Holland. “What that trip did for me as a young adult was instill in me a confidence that I never felt before and that I never imagined. I had a story to tell.”
Today, thanks to Wilderness Adventures, 40,000 other youth in communities across the country have their stories as well.