Bushwalking and ski touring with school students

  • Benefits for students
  • Reasons for teachers
  • Educational rationale
  • Independence and control
  • Information for students
  • Leadership qualifications

Why would you, why would anyone, especially in these days of frequent litigation, organise bushwalking and ski touring trips for students? Simply, the rewards are great for both the leader and student alike

Benefits for students

The students learn practical and leadership skills, a love of the bush and how to care for it; they grow in self confidence, fitness, and endurance; they have meaningful personal encounters with people beyond their usual sphere of contact; and they may experience times and places where they can reflect on their own destinies. Students remember trips long after the minutiae of the classroom has been forgotten. Students able to experience extended periods concentrating on outdoor education pursuits at a country campus often note the profound influence of these experiences.

Reasons for teachers

The teacher has the genuine pleasure of seeing all of this happen, has (with luck) a pleasant time away from work day worries, and is able to communicate and share on many topics, and at many levels, while chipping away at traditional teacher/student relationships. There are costs to teachers, however, as depending on responsibilities held at school, a trip does take away time from families or other pursuits. The planning can take a great deal of time and effort, and while on an expedition, there is constant pressure from being totally responsible and in control.

Educational rationale

Developing and publishing an educational rationale is important. It is not enough that students enjoy themselves, or that it is good to experience the great outdoors. As with educational pursuits, rationale, objectives and methods need to be carefully planned, and made clear to all involved. These activities certainly enhance student’s personal, social and academic development, and may also be a part of internal or external award systems (e.g. Duke of Edinburgh’s Award).

In any school, a range of activities is possible. Primary children might start with half-day walks in local areas and build up to bush base-camp activities, while senior students will range from short day walks or ski trips to the kind of extended trips run by several schools, often in conjunction with outside expert consultants. Careful thought needs to be given to enthusing students, equipping them with skills and gear to make the experience worthwhile, and pre-trip planning based on the participants’ skill levels. Extraordinary things can be achieved with school students—but not all will want to try a 40 km bushbash as a first experience.

Independence and control

An issue which arises time and again in taking school students out is that of trust and responsibility. This is reflected in leadership style: an authoritarian style, or one which gives students a great deal of personal freedom and control, or something in between. Should a leader explicitly list every item of gear and personally check this, take control of navigation and route selection, and so on, or rely on students for some or all of these. If the former is chosen, the students will not own the experience, will feel no attachment to the proceedings, and may get less from the experience in terms of growth and satisfaction, than otherwise. However, if a minimal control position is taken, a leader faces the problem of a student pulling a totally inadequate plastic raincoat from a pack as the temperature drops and the snow starts in earnest. Neither approach is satisfactory in the extreme, but a leader must err toward more control whenever issues of safety are concerned, and must also give the impression that total dictatorial leadership will occur if really needed.

Information for students

For any trip, the planning and paperwork consumes at least half of the effort required of the leader. For any trip involving school students, the students and the parents should be told exactly:

  • when and where and how the transport for the trip occurs
  • the proposed route (include a map)
  • a list of required gear
  • the cost if any, and how this should be paid
  • a description of the nature of the trip, and what should be achieved
  • a detailed medical form
  • a list of accompanying staff
  • a suggested food list
  • emergency phone numbers of trip and school contact people.

Such information also needs to be given to all staff who are attending, in whatever capacity, and should also be left with other key staff. Exact requirements of schools vary, but it is best to err on the side of caution. Students should be made aware that emergency phone numbers must be left with the parent or guardian. The planning and paperwork in any trip takes lots of energy. It needs to be done absolutely correctly, so there can be no doubts as to the organised and careful nature of the planning should something go amiss.

Leadership qualifications

Leadership for any trip should not be compromised. While enthusiasm in a leader is certainly useful, first-aid qualifications, substantial experience in organising and bush leadership, fitness, resourcefulness and understanding of the nature of the task are all critical. Ski touring, whether on shorter or longer trips, requires a further level of expertise in ski touring skills, and in the ability to teach these to newcomers. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that virtually any situation which could be expected to arise has been thought through, and that the leaders will be able to do all that is required.

Other issues

Gear is always an issue. A leader cannot run the risk of students being ill equipped and compromising safety. Hire of gear, thoughtful borrowing of gear, and frequent discussions between students and teachers are all approaches that have worked well. Leaders need to be very explicit about safety and gear. Often a letter is not enough and detail must be impressed at a pre-trip meeting. Mobile phones can be useful for remote trips, but likely coverage must be checked. Many remote trips will require other communication technology for reliability.

Leadership while on the trip varies with the individual leader but educational outcomes such as the growth of self confidence and development of skills may be best achieved by giving students as much say as possible in day-to-day life. A good school trip shouldn’t need a lot of finger pointing and shouting.

Parents can be a valuable resource in terms of sharing some of the load of leadership, and it can be a very real and worthwhile social experience for students to experience their own and other parents in outdoor environments.

Maximising benefits from trips

If trips are really to be valued as educational experiences, they must extend beyond the event itself. Students must be allowed to build anticipation very carefully, and must be given all information necessary to be aware of what to expect, although care must be taken not to describe the experience so carefully that the experience itself becomes superfluous. Leaders should try to ensure that last minute rushing does not give the impressions that the trip is constructed on a foundation of stress, rush and anxiety. If there is any possibility of getting a group together after an event, this should be pursued enthusiastically—it’s all part of extending the worth of the event itself.

Is it worth the effort?

The first ascent of one of Australia’s most difficult and remote peaks, Federation Peak, Tasmania, was completed under the leadership of John Bechervaise, with a school group. He was also the first to take a vehicle to Uluru, NT, and to land on the remote Rodondo Island off Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, again with school groups. The experiences gained by the students involved would have certainly been incredible. Even simpler trips achieve something of the same. The importance of generous leadership in guiding students is a great tradition, and something we should all strive to maintain.