Campfire Notes

Five Life Skills Teens Get On The OLC (Outdoor Leadership Course)

Five Life Skills Teens Get On The OLC (Outdoor Leadership Course)

By the end of high school, teens need to have mastered more skills than just reading, writing and math to be successful, thriving adults. Gold Arrow Camp’s Outdoor Leadership Course (OLC) helps campers develop important life skills that stretch them far beyond academics: Leadership, Independence, Communication Skills, Resilience, and Responsibility.


The OLC is a two-week program for young people interested in developing important life skills. Trained leaders guide OLC participants on a challenging, six-day, 30-mile backpacking trip into the High Sierras. Throughout the session, campers develop backcountry navigational and survival skills, practice wilderness first aid skills, and participate in GAC activities.

The purpose of OLC is to challenge teens to learn and grow in self-awareness, develop maturity, discover the value of community and working with others to solve problems and accomplish shared objectives. While growing and learning, participants develop five skills vital for success: Leadership, Independence, Communication Skills, Resilience, and Responsibility.

1. Leadership

“Being a part of OLC has influenced my life after camp because it taught me how to be a leader and being a part of a high school swim team, being a leader is a big part of staying together as a team.” – Sophia, OLC Participant

After arriving at camp, OLC participants receive leadership training before departing on the backpacking trip. They do exercises in team building, learn conflict resolution techniques, and practice positive communication. While in the wilderness, campers have the opportunity to learn and practice map and compass navigation, outdoor cooking, Leave No Trace principles and ethics, sustainable backcountry living, and wildlife biology.

All OLC participants serve as “Leader of the Day,” which means they use navigational skills to determine which path to take, when to stop for breaks, and what to do about any situations that arise while hiking. At the end of the day, the “Leader of the Day” receives feedback from trip leaders and peers.

2. Independence

Achieving independence is essential to making the transition to adulthood, and participating in challenging outdoor program with other teens is a perfect way to develop the self efficacy needed to feel confident away from home. The hard skills learned during the OLC — navigation, outdoor cooking, wilderness first aid, camping, and hiking —  require independence, curiosity, and creative problem solving.


3. Communication Skills

“I love the separation from technology at camp because it allows everyone to love in the moment and have good face-to-face conversations. Especially during OLC, we spent so much time together as a group that I realized technology really draws from social interaction in everyday life.” – Sophie, OLC Participant

Effective communication is arguably the most important of all life skills. Trained trip leaders use positive guidance to facilitate reflection, dialogue and group discussion throughout the program. Leaders encourage campers to think about what happened that day, what their successes and challenges were, and how to grow from those experiences. At the end of the course, all OLC participants have improved communication skills with peers and counselors.

4. Resilience

Research shows that wilderness courses are well-suited to teach outdoor skills, self-confidence in general and confidence during adversity. Participation in an outdoor leadership program have a positive impact on emotional intelligence, specifically on stress management and adaptability. All OLC participants set personal and group goals before leaving on the backpacking portion of the course and work to accomplish those goals throughout the session with the help, direction, and encouragement of trip leaders.

A multi-day backpacking trip through the rugged terrain of the High Sierra has days that tax participants both mentally and physically. In the Outdoor Leadership Course, teens learn to push through challenges through encouragement from their trip leaders, supportive group dynamics, and building their self leadership. While surrounded by their peers, they learn just how far they can push themselves. They learn, literally, that they can climb mountains. After their OLC accomplishments, finding a way to make it to sports practice or finishing up a college admissions essay seem easy.

5. Responsibility

OLC participants are responsible for managing their equipment, completing tasks carefully and on time, admitting their role in mistakes, and working to correct those mistakes. The OLC equips campers to take the initiative to make their own decisions, fulfill obligations, and grow from their experiences.

In addition to the skills OLC participants learn and the growth they experience from the program, there is something else that too many teens don’t have the time to find; genuine face to face FUN!


“What I enjoyed about the OLC was that every day was different, some days we would do longer hikes, and others we would have a lot of time to relax and the enjoy the people and scenery. One of my favorite days out in the backcountry was when we hiked about 5 miles and then hung out in a river for the rest of the afternoon, and then made quesadillas for dinner. The food was always amazing, and there was always plenty to eat. My favorite lunch was probably Nutella and English muffins. We had a lot of Nutella.” – Charlotte, OLC Participant

If you have any questions or would like to know more, visit the Outdoor Leadership Course page, email us, or give us a call at 1-800-554-2267 ex. 0.

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Leaving No Trace at GAC

Leaving No Trace at GAC

Here at GAC, we believe that camp leaves a lasting impact on everyone who experiences it. However, in our backpacking and nature programs, we’ve been working hard to have a smaller impact. Not on campers, but on the environment we camp in! This year was our second summer working with the Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics to become a Leave No Trace Accredited Youth Program. With the guidance of the LNT’s 7 principles, we’ve been making a conscious effort to decrease our impact on nature even as we send more campers into the beauty of the High Sierra!

One of our core values is that we want campers to “experience the awe of nature.” All of our campers have an opportunity to experience nature outside of our traditional camp property. Our youngest campers have an overnight of tent camping (we take care of moving their luggage) that we call Bears’ Adventure. Our middle campers spend one night underneath the stars on a backpacking trip into the Kaiser Wilderness of the Sierra National Forest as a part of our backpacking program. Our oldest campers are given the opportunity to sign up for a backpacking trip, and many do. We even offer a special program, the Outdoor Leadership Course,  for teens who want a more immersive experience in the backcountry. All of these programs adhere to The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
    1. Our trips are planned well in advance and led by certified instructors. They are well versed in how to lead trips with minimal impact on nature.
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
    1. We use well-established trails and sleep on durable surfaces. We are happy to be able to utilize the established trails and camping sites in the national forest.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
    1. Our backpacking trips offer the opportunity for campers to “nature pee,” which is an experience fewer and fewer children have today. The trips also offer the opportunity to learn why it’s important that we do not use toilet paper in the wilderness, and that if TP is necessary, we’ll pack it back to camp for proper disposal.
  4. Leave What You Find
    1. It is tempting to bring home a giant pinecone as a souvenir, but our counselors remind campers to “leave only footprints, and take only photographs.” Our campers bring home plenty of photographs (and other memories).
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
    1. Campfires are an important part of our program, and we work hard to minimize their impact on the backcountry by using established fire sites and keeping the fires small.
  6. Respect Wildlife
    1. We love to see wildlife on a trip, but we know that the forest is their home. That’s why campers and staff never approach wildlife. Instead, they experience wildlife at a distance, in its natural habitat.
    2. We also respect wildlife by making sure that we aren’t tempting them with food. In camp, we don’t allow food (or even food trash) off of the Dining Porch.  On the trail, every bit of food and food trash stays in a “Bear Canister” to prevent us from becoming attractive to forest friends who would like to share our dinners!
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
      1. We’re thrilled when other people get to share our backyard! We’re friendly on the trail, but also make sure we respect their space and their desire to be in nature as well.

When campers are introduced to their program, the backpacking counselors review the LNT 7 principles as a part of the safety discussion before any trip departs. We even have a banner that hangs on our backpacking shed so that they can read along!

The backpacking counselors also lead two different types of programs in camp, called nature and OREO (Outdoor Recreation Educational Opportunity). The goal of OREO is to teach campers to appreciate nature while spending some time out of camp on a day hike and bonding with their cabin group. At the end of the hike, there’s even a reward that shares its name with the acronym OREO!

The goal of the nature program is to support GAC’s core value of experiencing the awe of nature and let campers play games to connect them to nature. We know that exposing campers to the beauty of nature will help them develop a personal connection and want to protect it for future generations.

Since 2017, we have been close partners with the Leave No Trace (LNT) Program and have educated our campers on the 7 LNT principles before every backpacking trip and OREO hike. We are dedicated to minimizing our impact on the Sierra Nevada and helping our campers understand WHY it is important, both for nature and for future generations.  We hope that if you head out for some adventures in nature you and your family can also minimize your impact!

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