Why You Should Get Outside for Your Gap Year

By Molly Herber

Feb 12, 2016

Each year, more students choose to take a gap year before college, spending the year after graduating high school to travel, work, or volunteer. A gap year is a great way to gain experience, learn about yourself, and take a break from the traditional classroom before buckling down for another four years of school. Choosing the right gap year program can be tricky. If you type “gap year” into your search bar, you'll see what feels like an endless list of options.

But if you’re looking for a program that’s truly different, where you’ll gain actual skills, completely unplug, and learn by experience rather than from lectures, you should consider getting off the beaten track and taking an outdoor gap year.

Here are our some of favorite reasons for taking an outdoor gap year:

Assess Your Goals

Map reading in the YukonPhoto by Brent Day.

Spending time in the wilderness is a great way to get out of your daily routine and gain perspective. Maybe you’ll realize that it’s time to forge a new path, or maybe you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the passions you’ve always pursued. When you strip away the distractions and spend some time reflecting, you’ll have a better sense of what you want and the time to plan how to get there.

Learn How You Face Challenges

Canoeing through rapids on the Salmon RiverPhoto by Adam Swisher.

is a natural part of the wilderness experience. You’ll learn to deal with ever-changing weather patterns and terrain as well as the mental challenge of being far from home in an unfamiliar environment. As you meet these challenges, you’ll see yourself at your best and your worst. That experience will build your self-awareness and help you develop the skills to take on future challenges with greater resilience.

Earn Academic Credit

NOLS instructor teaches group of students in the mountainsPhoto by Ben Lester.

If you’re burnt out or feel like learning in the classroom is too abstract, the experiential education you’ll gain on a wilderness gap year is a great way to recharge and get excited about learning again. Earning academic credit will both help you prepare for college and show admission officers that you have spent your year responsibly, rather than taken a yearlong vacation.

Get Away from the Tourist Traps

Enjoying a chai stop in the HimalayasPhoto by Cass Colman.

An outdoor gap year will get you away from the tourist centers and into the areas where people live their real lives without putting on a show. Wilderness travel means traveling slowly, and that gives you a chance to truly connect with people and understand how and why they live the way they do.

Truly Unplug

silhouetted figure faces snow-covered mountainsPhoto by Tracy Baynes.

We spend our days surrounded by screens—for social reasons, work, school—nearly everything. Even leaving your phone at home for a few hours can feel like you’ve lost an arm. On a wilderness gap year, you’ll have extended time away from technology. No distractions, no stress about the success of your last Instagram post. You’re injected into a world that’s fully real, and your interactions with people are all personal and direct.

Practice Making Impactful Decisions

NOLS students learn to rock climbPhoto by Jared Steinman.

You only become a better leader with practice, and a huge part of leadership is knowing how to assess a situation and make a decision. Opportunities for practicing real decision-making can be hard to come by in the frontcountry, but in the wilderness your days will be full of them. When should you leave camp? Should you paddle around the island to the south or the north? Throughout the day you’ll learn whether your decisions were effective or not, and with that experience you'll be well-prepared to continue leading after your gap year.

Develop Strong Relationships

NOLS participants jump for joy in the backcountryPhoto by Kyle Duba.

Wilderness trips are intense social experiences. You spend extended time with a small group of people and experience all kinds of emotional highs and lows, from the exhilaration of reaching a summit to the stress of deciding what to do when caught in a lightning storm. You’ll learn to deal with conflicting personalities and how to work well on a team. More than that, you’ll develop lifetime friendships rooted in these shared experiences.

Gain Lifelong Outdoor Skills

Smiling NOLS participant bakes backcountry buns in a snowy kitchenPhoto by Kyle Duba.

Once you know how to camp, a whole world of adventure opens up to you. You know that you can rely on yourself to set up a good camp, cook, and have a good time outside. While most gap years consist of experiences that you can’t re-create, with the outdoor experience and leadership skills gained during a wilderness gap year, you’ll be able to get to other amazing wilderness areas in your own backyard and share those experiences with your family and friends.

Know It's Time Well Spent

NOLS students to sit and reflect looking out at the in New ZealandPhoto by Nick Garrett.

When you’re in the wilderness, not a day is wasted. You will do something good for yourself every day, even if that’s just keeping warm and comfortable or taking a moment to notice the complexity of the environment around you. Knowing that you’re capable of doing this for yourself means that you’ll leave your gap year knowing it was time well-spent.

Embark on an unforgettable journey and experience the transformative power of the great outdoors during your gap year. Discover NOLS Gap Year Programs and learn more about planning an outdoor gap year. 

[Editor's Note: Blog post updated 3/1/2019]

Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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