Posted by: csdailyblog | May 20, 2011

Students Challenge Themselves with Solo Camping

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Conserve School students put their field skills to work this weekend during solo overnight camping trips. Solo group leaders Cathy Palmer (Director of Outdoor Programs and Residential Life), Robert Eady (Science Teacher), Jess Kavanaugh (Field Instructor), Anita Olson (Field Instructor), and I each took on the responsibility of keeping tabs on seven or eight students who were scattered across our 1200 acres at individual campsites from Saturday morning through Sunday around noon. Students took with them either tents or tarps  for shelter, food in a bear vault, and basic camping equipment like a sleeping bag and a pad. They each also carried a cell phone, powered down and sealed in an envelope so that it was easily available in case of an emergency, but not so easily available that it was tempting to make casual calls or to surf the web. Each group leader camped out at a base camp site close enough to their students’ sites that they could reach them quickly in case of an emergency.

The goals of the Conserve School solo experience are: 1) to help students experience and appreciate a sense of true solitude, so rare in our busy modern lives; 2) to help students gain confidence in their outdoor skills; and 3) to develop students’ faith in their ability to rely on themselves in challenging situations.

Field Instructor and Graduate Fellow Jess Kavanaugh developed a detailed protocol for this solo experience as the culminating project of her environmental education master’s program through our partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources. She researched literature on solo youth camping experiences and contacted other semester schools with solo experiences in order to determine best practices. As a result, we leaders had a wonderfully detailed guide to follow as we supported students through the weekend.

The key element of the plan was the “mailbox” each student hung several yards away from their solo site. Each leader made a number of circuits of their students’ solo sites during the 24-hour period and wrote a note to each student. Students then wrote a note back, letting the leader know how they were doing, so that on the next circuit the leader could read the note and either go on to the next campsite, or, if there seemed to be a problem, check on the student in person. By and large students managed well on their own for the twenty-four hours, and no one needed anything more than occasional minor assistance.

On Sunday at noon, we hiked to each solo site, collecting students as we went, and then each group returned to their respective base camp for a shared meal and conversation about the students’ experiences. Some highlights: the bright, hazy moon on Saturday night; the osprey pair gliding in circles over Dollar Lake; several porcupine sightings; a couple of wolf sightings; and, for me, the herd of deer that came by my tent about 3 AM, their hooves clattering on the stony ground I was camped nearby. One seemed particularly disturbed by the sight of the tent and huffed and snorted over and over again.

In the de-briefing conversations at the base camps, students dicussed how they coped with their fear of being alone in the dark and with the challenge posed by the cold, windy, wet weather on Saturday. They also shared with one another how they reacted to being alone and outdoors  for such a long period of time and told stories of their encounters with the various creatures — most very small — that they shared their sites with during their 24 hours in the woods. Finally, they described the satisfaction at having overcome challenges posed by their solos and explained their goals for the rest of their time at Conserve School.

In addition to developing students’ appreciation of the natural world and confidence in their outdoor skills, the solos were a great way to prepare students for Exploration Week trips, coming up next week.

Mary Anna

Solo camping experiences are one of the many ways students challenge themselves physically and intellectually at Conserve School. Read more about Conserve School’s conservation-based classes and outdoor activities on our website at


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