Friendships Forged in the Outdoors

Rachel O'Neil08 Mar, 2022

Let’s set the scene: It’s the opening day at Adventure Treks! Students have arrived, the group is on their way from the airport to their first campsite, and the van is filled with nervous laughter and typical “get to know you” questions: “where are you from?” “how was your flight?” “have you ever done this before?” Instructors are facilitating icebreakers and cracking corny jokes to keep the conversations flowing. An occasional silence falls to allow a Billie Eilish song to play. Students are away from home, away from the identity they’ve formed at school. Everyone gives each other a little extra distance, feeling slightly reserved, and talking with those nearest them.

On the first day of each trip, a regional director speaks to the group about how Adventure Treks operates, including our goals and expectations for our students. We set the stage for how to create the absolute best AT community ever, one that allows them to create lifelong friends. Sometimes this “speech” gets some skeptical looks, especially from new students, but the instructors and directors share a knowing smile—these teenagers are about to embark on an adventure to build the most authentic friendships and inclusive community they’ve ever experienced. We can’t wait to see this group again on closing day.

Onto act 2: It’s the closing night of the same trip. A regional director arrives to the campsite with pizza and ice cream, eager to see the trip’s community transformation and hear the stories of overcoming adversity, hilarious inside jokes that we won’t understand, alter-egos and dance parties, and every other moment students won’t forget for a long time. The energy is so different from opening day—quite frankly, you can feel a buzz emanating from the group—as everyone is gathered in a circle, huddled close as they reminisce and make sure everyone is included. They’ve each written down their phone numbers and social media handles in the group journal so they can stay in touch after the trip. They’re discussing which AT trip they’ll return to the following summer, and they’re debating which holiday they should plan a reunion for. You can feel the joy radiating from every single person as the final evening meeting reflects on powerful moments throughout the trip.


The power of an Adventure Treks trip has once again created an experience that resulted in authentic, kind, and meaningful friendships. As a regional director in summer 2021, I encountered this over and over again as I visited trips across the North American west. Witnessing friendships forged at AT is a powerful thing, whether it’s multi-year students reuniting on their capstone Alaska trip, or 13-year-olds not wanting their two-week Colorado trip to end.

At Adventure Treks, away from the pressure of academics and athletics, students don’t have to worry about “fitting in” or conforming to a particular identity. They can just be themselves—and be celebrated for that. This is what helps cements the powerful bond that students create through each shared challenge of backpacking trips and mountain summits, of Iron Chef cooking competitions and silly dance-offs. We laud each other’s achievements and successes, we praise others for the kind things they did for each other, and we have vulnerable and honest conversations regarding conflict.

Students often say that the friends they make at AT are the strongest ones in their lives; this is evidenced by stories of reunions, backpacking trips planned by the students themselves, AT-themed birthday parties, evening meetings held over FaceTime or Zoom, and the ever-active group texts.

Many former students have even become instructors; in summer 2021, we had 12 AT alumni on staff. Not only do they remember their student days fondly, but as instructors, they’ve also created incredibly meaningful relationships with their staff teams and students who now look up to them.

To further illustrate the lasting power of AT friendships, we’ve asked Laura Gaines, a former-student-turned-instructor, about the friendships she’s made on her three student trips and four seasons on staff.

Friendships without preconceived notions or distractions

On the first day of each AT trip, whether it’s a student’s first or fifth adventure, everyone is essentially in the same boat.

“With no preexisting social strata established, and without the pressures of school, sports, and social media, friendships at AT form among people who have no reason to be anything other than their most authentic selves. The friends I made at AT are people who truly understand and know the best and most genuine version of me, and they remind me of it when I might feel lost,” Laura says.

Overcome adversity and building trust creates a lasting bond

As full of wonderful and fun moments Adventure Treks, we also face challenges that must be worked through. Laura says that her friendships have lasted because they can endure life beyond an AT trip.

“A friendship formed through adversity [backpacking in the rain, taking a wrong turn, a dried-up water source] is a friendship you can lean on in adversity. I have spent a night stranded on a ridge with my AT friends; I have endured rain, lightning, wind, and sickness alongside them. The sad reality is that most hardships in the ‘real world’ are not as full of adventure and excitement as the ones you face at Adventure Treks. Since graduating as a student, I have continued to lean on my AT friends when I was sad or going through a tough time—because I learned to trust them during hard times, like when we were stuck in a rainstorm in Alaska.”

After finishing their capstone Leadership Summit course, Laura and her AT peers reunited for a personal backpacking trip.

“We modeled our trip after an Adventure Treks trip; we even made ramen extreme during our backpack in Yosemite National Park. It had been a year since I’d seen most of those people, yet as we soaked our feet in the river after a long hike, I felt that I was back in a community where I was truly seen as a person.”

Friendship created for the right reasons

Unlike in school, an AT trip is unique in that you don’t need to “find” your friends. The nature of this program allows communities to flourish naturally.

“I didn’t ‘choose’ my Adventure Treks friends—they just happened to be on the same trip as me. People I probably wouldn’t have ever talked to in school are the same people with whom I have confided my truths and hardships and would trust with my life. Adventure Treks provides this cool opportunity to become close with people from across the country, across the world, or even next door.

“My 2016 Leadership Summit trip was among the best communities I have ever been a part of. We were all friends, and everybody was in on every joke, antic, and conversation. I very distinctly remember an evening meeting we held on a dock in Sequim, WA. The water had bioluminescent algae in it, so when you dipped a finger in, tiny flecks of light would sparkle. It struck me how incredibly lucky we were to have found each other, even though we came from all over. Of all the places to be, we were sitting in a circle on a dock, experiencing a rare and uniquely beautiful natural phenomenon. I have chased this feeling for the entirety of my adult life.”

Friendships with long-lasting support

What qualities in a friend do you look for? Laura expressed the importance of friends who are with you no matter what, not just when it is convenient for them. She says “‘fair weather friendships’ simply do not exist at AT, considering weather is often fickle rather than fair. My AT friends have seen me at the top of the world (literally, if you count a mountaintop) and in the darkest depths… yet they never fail to see me.  [From AT, I have] people in my life who know and understand the person I am underneath.”

Unique and powerful shared experiences

Friendships at Adventure Treks grow quickly and strongly because you get to create your a unique experience “separate from the world where we live our daily lives. Adventure Treks trips are truly unique and valuable experiences. They changed me forever, and I cherish the people who were there alongside me when I discovered a world I truly loved. My friends at AT understand what it’s like to grow so much in such a short period of time, and to witness the stunning wilderness areas we visited. To this day, I have never been able to fully describe what the wilderness of California or Alaska or Washington is like… but my AT friends get it.”


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