September 1, 2023 | NEWS | By Marynn Krull
After a year of less-than-ideal trip leader participation, Outdoor Education opened the school year by implementing new policies to incentivize increased trip leader involvement. On Friday, Aug. 18, student trip leaders received an email from Assistant Director of Outdoor Education, Andrew Harrow, describing new expectations and subsequent benefits for those who sign a Returning Trip Leader Agreement.
As part of the agreement, trip leaders are now being asked to lead at least two trips per semester and one overnight trip per year, assist with one on-campus event, participate in two training courses, attend at least one trip leader community-building event and attend at least two trip leader meetings per semester. Additionally, signatories are expected to maintain endorsement checklists, as well as CPR and First Aid certifications.
The benefits of this new program include professional development, financial support to pursue training and certification, an annual trip leader uniform item and pro-deals through outdoor retailers.
“We have been seeing a decline in our leader involvement, as well as student enrollment in trips,” said Harrow. He attributed the change in part to COVID-19, as well as the previous system, which allowed some leaders to “fall through the cracks” after completing trip leader training. With corresponding updates to trip leader training, the program could add as many as 40 new trip leaders this year.
After conducting student surveys and receiving somewhat contradictory feedback, OE leadership narrowed down a few areas of improvement on which to base procedural changes: increasing contact between trained leaders and OE pro staff, building confidence in trip leader preparedness, nurturing a sense of community between trip leaders, and incentivizing greater involvement among trained leaders.
Harrow specified that the agreement is not binding or punitive – trip leader status won’t be revoked for those who choose not to sign the agreement.
“We are more than happy to be flexible and to work with trip leaders to meet them where they’re at [with] what’s going to work well for them [so that they] feel like they can be involved and be successful in their involvement in our program,” Harrow said. He added that students who don’t sign the agreement can still lead trips for OE, minus the added benefits.
Harrow says the goal is to increase trip leader engagement overall. “We want to welcome all trip leaders, whether they feel like ‘I am an outdoorsy person’ or like ‘I am really only wanting to lead a few times.”’ Harrow said, “And we want to you know that even if you want to do the bare minimum as a trip leader, we still want you to get the value and benefits out of being involved with our office, [without it feeling like] a sunk cost like you’re expending yourself to be here.”
Still, some trip leaders aren’t convinced that the benefits of leading OE trips outweigh the costs associated with planning them. Jesus Rivas ’25 explained that the added benefits don’t outweigh the significant time it takes to plan and lead trips as an unpaid volunteer. Rivas said the previous recruitment strategy – claiming that trip leadership is a flexible, low-commitment, and free way to go on fun trips – is misleading.
“Yes, when you [lead], trips are free, but you still have to pay for your rent and your college tuition, you know?” Rivas said, explaining that completing trip planning paperwork, conducting multiple medical interviews with attendees and acquiring food and supplies can take upwards of four hours. “It’s a full-time job when you’re on the field,” Rivas said, “You’re with a group of 10 students. You have to always be watching out.”
After about 30 to 45 days of leading, Rivas said it became unsustainable for him. Now, rather than leading through OE, Rivas works at the Gear House and goes on trips with friends. He says a stipend would make leading these trips more realistic: “It’s not going to cover your entire college expenses, but it would help to … purchase things that you need.”
However, there are legal as well as logistical limitations to paying OE trip leaders. “Once you start paying students, especially with the student employment rules and laws, there’s only so many hours that you can work as a student leader,” Harrow explained, noting that an overnight weekend trip would quickly exceed the number of hours students are legally allowed to work.
“It also changes our interactions with land management agencies because once we start paying people, we start having to charge more than a novel deposit for a trip,” Harrow said.
Despite the limitations of paying trip leaders, Harrow says OE hopes to complement the intrinsic benefits of leadership, while incentivizing leaders with new bonuses.
“I really enjoy trip planning…and going into the Outdoor Ed office to meet with the pro staff and brainstorm ideas and get recommendations,” said Jake Hams ’26, who has led about 27 days of trips, “I find it really fulfilling, so that kind of motivates me to do it.”
Hams mentioned struggling at first with planning a backpacking block break trip while in Organic Chemistry, but explained that delegating responsibilities with his co-leader helped reduce the pressure.
Moreover, Hams added that the new expectations don’t require trip leaders to propose and plan their own trips – just to lead them. Hams says leading premade trips significantly reduces the number of hours it takes him to organize and lead a trip.
Still, Hams noted that there were lots of premade trips last semester that weren’t picked up by trip leaders. Rivas said that premade trips tend to be shorter and closer to campus than more intensive overnight trips, such as backpacking or camping.
“I think for those who are already involved in the program, [the expectations are] what we’re already doing.…I don’t feel like a lot is changing.” Hams said.