Today's Lesson: Keeping Your Head Above Water

Virtual Expedition

Big City Mountaineers has run close to 400 week-long expeditions over the last 21 years. As many of our long-time volunteers and Instructors can attest to, every single expedition has its own unique richness. The bonding of our teens and adults with each of their personalities, life-experiences, and challenges will look different every time!

Before You Go

There are a number of variables that go into a BCM journey before it ever starts. Because the backcountry offers so many twists and unforeseen happenings it is best to start getting to know your fellow adult leaders before you set out on the trail together. The Instructor will take the initiative to start the communication through calls/e-mails with the other adults. These opportunities to get to know one another are important to you feeling comfortable as a team and your ability to lead the student group efficiently and with impact. If all adult leaders are in the same city, face-to-face meetings and/or pre-expedition activities are effective and encouraged. The Instructor can answer a lot of the questions that new volunteers and agency leaders have about the BCM program because of his/her experience. BCM may also help facilitate these discussions.


Some important aspects to cover include necessary gear, on- and off-water/trail responsibilities, and general BCM guidelines/expectations. As the team gets to know each other, the Instructor can start to create roles for each adult leader based on past experience and skill sets. Who will start out cooking? Is one person going to be more comfortable teaching the teens how to set up tents? Is somebody especially passionate about photography? This type of basic planning and role assignment will ease the first few days of the experience and everyone more comfortable as they know what is expected of them.


The youth agency leader can explain the background that the teens are coming from and help prepare the other adult leaders to give them the best possible experience. While volunteers may have many questions about the individual teens, agency leaders are encouraged to only share extremely pertinent information with volunteers (they may share more with instructors). The expedition is an opportunity for the students to have a ‘blank slate’ and the expedition is your opportunity to get to know them as you gain their trust. It is important to get together with the teens before the expedition through pre expedition programs to start building rapport. Meeting beforehand eases some of the fears that both adults and teens (and their families) have about spending such an intense period of time with complete strangers.

Meeting With Youth

Spending some time at the youth agency you have been placed with or in pre-expedition programs will give you a starting block for understanding who the teens on your expedition are. Talking to the teens at an orientation session, for example, is also a great opportunity to share more about yourself and why you wanted to volunteer for a program like BCM’s. Speaking with the group about your past wilderness experiences and your life in general can increase enthusiasm and lessen any anxiety they may be feeling. Building rapport while discussing everyone’s expectations for the week-long journey will set the stage for a meaningful and memorable expedition.

Pre-Expedition Programs

Getting together with the youth and youth organization staff before the expedition to do some training is crucial. For paddling programs you will get on the water and start learning canoeing basics. For backpacking programs you may go for a hike to break in boots or participate in a team building day to get ready for your expedition. These days are a great way to make everyone more comfortable with each other and with the idea of being in the backcountry together.

Other Pre-Expedition Commitments:


All adult team members are required to participate in training sessions. These will be online, and in person. BCM trainings are mandatory for new and returning adult team members and will help crystallize our objectives, curriculum and policies, and will help set you up for a positive experience on an expedition.



All adult team members are required to read and understand the Handbook, which is distributed both electronically and in hard-copy. The Handbook outlines information that will be helpful to you on your journey with us, including BCM guidelines and policies, curriculum, lessons and traditions, and resources to help you work with urban, under-resourced youth.


On Expedition

*Please note, Chicago canoe programs have a preliminary driving day to reach Minneapolis, MN. Travel days are an important part of developing rapport. This itinerary begins upon arrival at BCM’s gear location.


Day 1

The first day brings the team together as teens and adults converge at BCM’s regional program staging areas. Once everyone is together, personal gear will be issued to the teens and the team will load food, personal gear, and group gear into vans to drive to an initial base camp. (Base camps vary by region but are often car-camping situations at or near the trailheads.) After settling in, you’ll introduce preliminary backcountry lessons (canoe programs will practice on the water) and will spend time getting to know one another and developing your team.

Outcomes: Building rapport, trust building, introducing BCM rituals, creating a positive learning environment: group contract, setting clear expectations, creating an environment of respect.


Day 2

This is your first day in the backcountry and getting an early start is very important. This day can be challenging due to all the new experiences – portaging or carrying a pack, traveling as a group, and navigating through difficult terrain. Once you arrive at your campsite your Instructor will go over the chores that need to be done. The evening will include more backcountry lessons, quotes, reflection, fun games, and dinner before everyone falls into a well-deserved sleep.

Outcomes: Building relationships, student goals, team goals, introduction of wilderness travel and camping skills.


Day 3

The third day is more travel. This day is much like day 2, except that the team has a better idea of what to expect from each other, the environment, and the art of backcountry travel!

Outcomes: Learning from challenges, working as a team/care for others, coaching and empowering students.


Day 4

Day four will often be your group’s challenge day. This day may include a summit attempt, an extra-long portage, or activities that you facilitate to give the students a feeling of success and achievement.

Outcomes: Students actively leading in their leadership positions, if possible minimal coaching to allow for maximum teen ownership of the experience, and summit experience.


Day 5

On the fifth day you begin your journey home. At this point your team will have many shared experiences and teens will be taking on a lot of responsibility for themselves and leadership of the expedition.

Outcomes: Students are taking responsibility for most aspects of the expedition, building self-esteem and resilience.


Day 6

On the morning of day six, the teens are almost always up and packed before their leaders!  You will travel to the trailhead and begin taking care of end of expedition logistics. In the evening you will hold a celebration dinner where the team is commended for their accomplishments on the expedition. Teens create awards for the adults, and the adults create awards for the teens. Everyone talks about the incredible feats and the majestic scenery of the past five days. This celebration is often a highlight of the week.

Outcome: Celebration and transference: as the expedition comes to an end, it is important to help the youth fit the journey in the context of their lives. The physical expedition, matched with the activities used to reinforce experiences, provides a useful metaphor for challenges and circumstances that teens will encounter in their day-to-day lives. Taking time to ensure that the teens see these parallels and connections can be the key for positive changes and decision making in their lives.


Day 7

Logistics for the final day vary greatly between regions, but in summary, groups drive back to their respective gear staging areas and then everyone heads for home. Good-byes and congratulations are passed around and final pictures are taken.

Post-Expedition Programs

Once you have returned home, you and the teens will be doing a lot of reflecting as you shift back to your “normal” lives; think about ways to follow up with the teens on your expedition to help them transfer learning and meaning from the wilderness journey to their urban environment. Call the youth program and see how they are doing in school and other activities. Make it a high priority to participate in BCM’s post-expedition dinner celebration and post-expedition programs so you and the teens can reconnect and reminisce. Many mentors send photos to the teens along with segments from their journals of the expedition. Be creative and think of other ways that you can continue the correspondence and relationship on your own.


While the Instructor wraps up his/her logistical responsibilities after the expedition, it is also useful to get addition feedback from volunteers and youth agency staff. The surveys that you will receive are very helpful to BCM to make the program better each season…let us know what went well and what did not. We love to hear stories from your adventure, so share your experience and photos with us!