The start of a course, or any trip with new people, is usually a little bit messy. Setting up the tent just took 45 minutes and, when you finally finish, you realize that no one has started cooking dinner yet. On top of that, you don’t even have water to cook with yet.
You haven’t established a routine that helps you get everything done and roles aren’t defined. Beginner campers may not even know what they can do to help yet.
Knowing what needs to be done and how to do it are, for me, important parts of expedition behavior.
At NOLS, we teach expedition behavior as one of our seven leadership skills. It looks different for every person, but always has themes of helping out, respecting others, and working toward group goals.
I first saw expedition behavior in action on the mountaineering course I took with NOLS in 2008, my first significant camping experience.
We’d chosen a campsite tucked in between limber and whitebark pines. Our water source, a trickle where the water pooled just enough to fill a bottle, was about a 15-minute walk down a steep hill, bobbing and weaving through trees on crumbling dirt. Down wasn’t so bad as up—a slow trudge with several pounds of extra weight.
It was my turn to cook breakfast, so I woke up early. On the way to our group kitchen, I remembered with a sinking feeling that I hadn’t filled up our water yet. Instead of starting to boil water the moment I arrived in the kitchen, I had a muscle-crunching 30-minute walk down and back up that hill.
The part of my brain that gets stressed easily started talking as I hurried to the kitchen: “Breakfast is going to be late, everyone will be waiting, and I’ll still have to wash dishes and then won’t get packed on time, and then everyone’s going to leave late—” You know, the type of stress that feels worse because other people are depending on you.
But when I got to our kitchen area, I saw that our water dromedary wasn’t limp and empty, but full to bursting and nestled neatly by the pots and stove. One of my groupmates must have noticed the water was empty and filled it before going to bed. Without being asked, they stepped up to help when they saw a need.
I didn’t start the trip knowing exactly what I could do to be a good teammate. Carrying more weight in my backpack or setting up our tent quickly were beyond my abilities then.
Examples like this showed me there were other ways I could contribute—ways that didn’t depend on me being physically strong or having a lot of technical skills. I started looking out for more ways to help and made a habit of checking the water before going to bed, even when it wasn’t my turn.
You’ll see this pattern on a lot of expeditions: as people learn about each other and become more invested in the group’s goals, helping becomes habitual, instinctive. You see more people sharing snacks, volunteering to carry the bear fence, or helping with tent setup, even when it isn’t their tent. Members of the group understand that their actions, even if they’re small, are a part of what makes the whole group run a rapid, climb a pass, or have a wonderful time moving through the wilderness.
The great thing about this helping mindset is that it's transferable. Your sense of community doesn’t come from wilderness by itself—it comes from what you do there. When you’re able to keep an eye out for simple ways to help, wherever you are, that's when you really bring home your wilderness experiences.
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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