Backpacking in the badlands

Students gain confidence and leadership skills during weeklong trip.

Ken Gilbertson standing in the Badlands
Professor Ken Gilbertson

For nearly four decades, UMD faculty and students have been taking a backpacking trip to the North Dakota Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Professor Ken Gilbertson has been leading the group for about 35 years. It started as a Recreational Sports Outdoor Program activity, he recalls. But he and other instructors recognized early on that it had the potential to be more than an extracurricular excursion.

The trip presents an important opportunity for self-reflection and lessons in leadership, according to Gilbertson. He developed the curriculum for the “Outdoor Leadership” class, which has become a required course for upper-level students in UMD’s Environmental and Outdoor Education (EOE) major

Alumni have approached Gilbertson years after taking the course to tell him they are still using skills developed in Outdoor Leadership. “It’s one of the most powerful classes for students because they get so much insight into themselves,” he says.

3 tents nestled between two hills in the Badlands of North Dakota for a school-assigned backpacking trip

Desiree Hagenbeck, a senior in the EOE program, was one of the students that participated in the 2022 trip. She had never been backpacking before and started the trip with some anxiety but ultimately embraced the experience. She appreciated the way the trip helped her feel connected to the land and gave her a real sense of the place. 

“It gave me the confidence that I can go out and try different things that I’ve never done before,” Hagenbeck says. “In a way, it was like self-discovery.”

Putting Theory to the Test 

Students learn theories about leadership and group dynamics during the initial classroom component of the course. This theory helps them frame and understand their experience. 

During the trip, students are immersed in the place the Lakota dubbed "mako sica" or “bad lands,” for a week. The rugged landscape and climate can be unforgiving. Though it’s typically quite dry, this year’s group endured a fair amount of rain and mud during their trip in mid-May. 

During the course of the trip, students took turns leading the group and navigating the challenging terrain by map and compass. They encountered a range of wild creatures such as bison, wild horses, pronghorn, elk and rattlesnakes.

A group of students wearing hiking gear traversing through the mud in the Badlands of North Dakota

Joseph Hulet, a junior in the EOE major, had high praise for this year’s trip. He said it was “both one of the most difficult outdoor trips I have ever taken, and also the most rewarding and beneficial outdoor trip I have ever taken on every level imaginable.”

Hulet shares that the group “endured the blazing heat, howling wind, and heavy rain and snow, all while carrying everything that we brought on our backs (roughly 45 pounds per pack). He characterizes it as a “character-building experience” that repeatedly tested “both our leadership and group dynamic skills.” 

Learning how to work as a cohesive team is one of the course’s primary learning outcomes. “Each person adds a new dynamic,” Gilbertson explains, pointing out that group dynamics are more pronounced in a setting like this because students are depending on one another.

Hulet notes that the challenges the group faced “only brought our group closer together, which ended up making this trip a life-changing experience for me.”

A group of students wearing hiking gear navigating through the Badlands of South Dakota while all reading a map huddled in a group

Hagenbeck agrees. She was pleasantly surprised at how well the group of five students got along and were able to problem-solve together. The students even spent a couple of nights on their own without faculty guidance. “We helped each other grow. We could see each other’s confidence grow—especially in terms of leadership,” says Hagenbeck.

The practical team and leadership skills learned in Outdoor Leadership don’t just apply to wilderness trips, they can be applied to any number of challenging life situations. As a veteran educator, Gilbertson has high praise for this unique method of teaching. “You can’t duplicate this kind of learning—even with weeks spent in a classroom. For me, this is the best kind of classroom and the best way to teach.”

A group of students wearing hiking gear smiling for a photo while navigating through the Badlands of North Dakota
From L to R: Desiree Hagenbeck, Abby Kopp-Reddy, Joseph Hulet, Mikaela Peterson and Anna Troyna