Outward Bound

Outside the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

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  • My 16 yr old son is interested in the outdoors and we are looking into NOLS and OB trips during the summer.  I've heard a lot of good things about both, with friends who they themselves, or their kids, have gone on trips over the years.

    Both OB and NOLS trips are whitewater rafting/climbing for about 2 weeks. The NOLS trip will likely have 15 participants (ages of 16-20, with average age 18) with 5 instructors, but the OB trip will only have 7 kids with 2 instructors but limited to ages 16-17 yrs.  My understanding so far is that OB trips focus on self development and leadership skills, whereas the NOLS trips focus on the outdoor activity skills, with developing confidence and leadership as an added benefit from participation in the activity. 

    In searching online, I found some very old posts (didn't specify if it was OB or NOLs) where people reported a lack of supervision (with kids going off to smoke pot or have sex) on these sorts of trips, which seems hard to imagine with the adult/kid ratio they advertise. I also read that for OB, there were "at risk kids" going who had delinquency problems and were sent on the trips as a last resort, but problems with behavior and serious conflicts with kids occurred during the course, kids ended up dropping out, etc.  Others wrote about having had some great experiences with both NOLS and OB.

    I'm leaning toward the NOLS trip because I think that with the larger group, even though not limited to 16/17 yr old, and more instructors, there will be more opportunities for a positive social experiences. and I think my son would prefer it to be focused on skill development in rafting/kayaking, rather than purposefully focusing on self development and being put in challenging situations to build character and leadership.  He has lot of grit and is highly motivated with respect to outdoor sport, although would benefit from leadership development.

    Wondering if anyone here has any experience with these programs, either with kids having gone to them or having gone themselves.


    This might be too long ago to be relevant but when I was a teenager - 20 years ago - I attended an OB one summer as a freshman and when I was a junior, a NOLS course. Both were great experiences from my perspective. The OB course in the Colorado mountains was more self reflection/ general backcountry travel, including a one day solo and an endurance run. The NOLS course was in British Columbia's Wadding range and involved extensive glacier travel. It was a much more technical course and an amazing experience to explore remote terrain. My sister attend a NOLS course too, in Alaska's Brooks range, and also had similar experiences. 

    I would recommend the NOLS course, if you had to choose one, based on my own experiences and your descriptions of what your son is interested in. It will be a remarkable experience!

    Hi my daughter did a 4 week NOLS trip 3 summers ago that was 2.5 weeks backpacking and 1.5 weeks rafting and loved it. One of those life-changing experiences that she will never forget. The program is all about leadership development through challenging activities and that is what you get. But it's the kind of experience where you learn leadership skills without really being focused on that. My daughter is a high level soccer player and has done quite a bit of hiking and climbing in Colorado and she was very physically challenged by the course. It is not something you just sign up for - they screen kids to make sure they can handle the physicality of the program. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Archived Q&A and Reviews

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Experience with Outward Bound?

June 2007

Our 14 year old son is going on an Outward Bound course this summer. We're wondering if anyone has had experience with them. Thanks! Debbi

My partner was an Outward Bound instructor until a few years ago and he still talks about that as being the best time of his life. To put your mind at ease, safety is the first and foremost consideration in creating the courses. Your kid might be uncomfortable, maybe wet, tired or a little cold at some point, but he will never be put at risk. Outward Bound can be a life changing experience for young people. It was for my partner who first went on a scholarship at 19 and then returned as an instructor a few years later. anon

More reviews

April 2004

Re: Looking for suggestions for summer camps
If your teen is resisting your wishes to send him/her to summer camp this year, then maybe it's time to check out something that will challenge your child---mentally, physically, and even emotionally. Outward Bound has been offering year-round wilderness programs to youth in the U.S. for the last 40 years. This non-profit school uses the wilderness and activities such as rock-climbing, rafting, sea kayaking, and backpacking to encourage growth and the discovery of new capabilities, self-confidence and responsibility. For information about open-enrollment, family, parent/child, and special focus courses go to: www.outwardboundwest.org Informative presentations offered throughout the Bay Area and California. For information call (415) 537-0869 or 1-800-862-4454 Scott

June 2001

Reply to Depressed 14-year-old
My son did a three week High Sierra Outward Bound trip during the summer of his 14th year (he's now 16). If I had unlimited funds, I would do it again for him; however, I don't and that one time was good enough. It was a very challenging course where they learned many aspects of mountaineering as well as leave no trace wilderness camping and had a three day solo. For him it was perfect timing as a kind of rite of passage, which our boys don't have in this culture. It really boosted his self-confidence. I've only heard good things about OB over the many years they've been in existence and they far exceeded my expectations. It was well worth the expense. Joan

July 2001

My experience with Outward Bound is strangely mixed. Sixteen years ago my oldest son went and was able to continue his drugged torpor throughout their trip. However he has since presented it on his resume as a watershed event in leadership. At the time it did not change either his hostility or depression. Allen