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University Outdoor Recreation Programs Rising in Popularity

University Outdoor Recreation Programs Rising in Popularity

When you think about Alabama, chances are the first type of outdoor recreation that comes to mind is football.

Lance Haynie, program coordinator for outdoor recreation at the University of Alabama (UA), in Tuscaloosa, admits that most people—including many Alabamans themselves—don’t associate the state with outdoorsy pursuits, such as hiking, rock climbing and kayaking. And he is on a mission to change that perception.

“Outdoor recreation, leadership and education are not, in my opinion, a part of the local economy or in the forefront of people’s minds here, the way they are in places like California, Idaho, Oregon or Colorado,” says Haynie, who will present a session at the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) show in April about how he promotes his program. “So it requires a lot of outreach on my part to make the benefits of those types of programs known.”

UA’s decade-old outdoor rec program already has gone a long way toward helping the university’s students and members of the local community discover the state’s caves, canyons, forests, rivers and rock formations through the organized trips that the program offers as well as training clinics and equipment rentals that enable individuals and groups to plan their own adventures.

“No other place in the area offers a one-stop shop where you can rent gear, sign up for guided trips, use an indoor climbing facility and have your bike serviced,” Haynie says. “The closest thing like it is an hour and a half away—at another university.”


Across the country, Mat Erpelding, outdoor program coordinator at Boise State University (BSU), in Boise, ID, says that promoting the program is his biggest challenge, too—but for exactly the opposite reason.

“In Idaho, outdoor recreation is a part of the culture,” Erpelding says. “So for us, selling trips can sometimes be difficult because people can already do it on their own. In other parts of the country where they don’t have the same access to facilities and resources to do these trips on their own, it might be easier to run an outdoor program than here, where there are trails 10 minutes from campus.”

As a result, BSU’s outdoor program tends to offer field adventures that require a higher level of technical skill and more organization, such as ice climbing, to entice participants.

However different the landscapes and cultures of their locations, the outdoor rec program at BSU is similar to UA’s in that it, too, is becoming a bigger part of campus recreation. Erpelding says that although the program has existed at the university since the mid-1970s, it has grown significantly in the last decade.

Part of the growth is due to increased administrative support—BSU’s associate director of campus recreation, Geoff Harrison, comes from an outdoor rec background and is a big advocate of the program—and the other part is because the general perception of outdoor pursuits is gradually changing, Erpelding says.

“Historically, outdoor programming has been considered a ‘fringe’ part of traditional recreation,” Erpelding says, “but it’s become increasingly mainstream, along with interest in ‘green’ activities and the rising popularity of extreme sports. It’s sort of created the perfect storm for growing outdoor programs.”

UA’s program also is growing rapidly, both in terms of its offerings and the level of participation. Haynie, the program’s sole full-time employee, says that he works hard to promote the program as an addition or alternative to traditional rec facility activities, but believes that when people are exposed to outdoor recreation, its benefits speak for themselves.

“We go and do these things, like rock climbing, backpacking or mountain biking, and your mind is automatically engaged in the present moment,” Haynie says. “Whether you’re on a rock face or moving along a trail, there are things that are intrinsically interesting in those activities. And the by-product of engaging in those activities is aerobic activity, muscle conditioning that most people don’t even think about.”

In addition to the physical benefits, outdoor recreation allows a unique mental health advantage because students get away from campus and the stresses of tests and homework, Haynie says.

Although field adventures take students off campus, learning the skills needed for some trips often takes place at the rec center (both UA and BSU have climbing walls and hold kayaking clinics in their rec center pools). This could mean that some students who wouldn’t otherwise take part in traditional rec center activities will discover and use the facilities more frequently.

According to NIRSA, 46 percent of campuses now offer an outdoor adventure program, and that number is rising precisely for the reasons Haynie and Erpelding identified: its natural association with a growing awareness of the environment along with an increased interest in fitness activities that benefit the mind as well as the body.

Just as the activities and benefits of these flourishing outdoor programs differ from those of more traditional campus recreation programs, the opportunities and challenges they present in areas such as revenue generation, place in the greater community and staffing also are unique.



Every university recreation department is different, but in general many of the facilities and programs they offer are funded wholly or in part by mandatory student activity fees and subsidies allocated by the university administration. As state budgets, private investments and donations have decreased, many rec center directors have sought ways to replace the lost funds and generate their own income. It’s something both UA and BSU are doing successfully.

UA’s recreation department gets a lump sum from the administration that is divided among the recreation programs as needed, according to Haynie. However, that only accounts for 50 percent of its funds. The other half is generated by the programs themselves.

A big portion of that self-generated money comes from membership fees. Currently enrolled students have automatic membership at UA’s rec facility, but the university rec offers fee-based memberships to university staff, faculty, alumni and community members. UA’s outdoor program also is a major contributor, thanks to money generated by equipment rental, guided trips and the bike repair shop. All of these services are available to the greater community as well as to students.

“Behind the membership office, I believe I generate the most money for the facility,” Haynie says of the outdoor program.

BSU’s outdoor program is similarly lucrative, and that is also largely due to revenues generated by equipment rentals, which are available to the public. Erpelding says that the subsidies his program receives from campus rec primarily go to support administrative staff.

The field adventures are paid for by trip participants (who must be students, faculty or alumni) and usually just break even. The rental program generates the primary profit, he says, adding that BSU offers the largest four-season equipment rental program in the region.

Since 1998, BSU’s rental program revenues have grown by 75 percent, which Erpelding says is due in part to a greater student population but largely to strategic expansions in inventory.

The rental program’s profits were previously directly reinvested in BSU’s outdoor program. But after some changes in campus recreation’s structure, Erpelding says that more of his program’s profits are now going into a student affairs account and being redistributed to the program as subsidies as needed.

It’s a different story for Cal Adventures, the outdoor recreation program at the University of California, Berkeley.

The program is part of Berkeley’s Recreational Sports department, which was at one time merged with the school’s NCAA athletics department but now comes under the management of Business and Administrative Services (BAS) because it must be a self-sufficient department, despite getting some money from student activity fees, says Rachel Herrmann, Cal Adventures’ youth program manager.

“It’s a challenge because we need to make prices accessible to our students, but we also want to give them services that they really want,” Herrmann says.

Berkeley’s outdoor program also includes youth programming, such as recreation-based summer day camps and weekend clinics for children in the community.

The youth adventures program is part of the university’s commitment to serving its community by providing access to its facilities and services in a difficult economy.

“We basically operate like a nonprofit government agency,” Herrmann says. “The money that we’re charging for our programs covers our costs. And obviously with the economy as it is, we’re struggling to keep ourselves out of the red.”

Cal Adventures offers a variety of activities, and almost all are open to the public. Unlike UA and BSU, much of Berkeley’s outdoor program is customized for its participants, who range from student organizations and nonprofits who request backpacking and kayaking trips to corporations that arrange ropes course activities to promote group dynamics and team-building for employees.

The corporate groups pay a higher price, which helps Cal offer a reduced rate for student and nonprofit groups.

Berkeley’s largely aquatic-based program has one major external source of funding. For the past 10 years, it has received a grant from California’s Department of Boating and Waterways, which can only be used for aquatic equipment.

The department also provides assistance for staff training and certification, and they contribute to scholarships for Berkeley’s youth aquatics program, which benefits individuals and groups that could not otherwise afford to participate.



Partnerships with private companies are important for these outdoor programs as they can help increase revenues, referrals and value for participants.

The Berkeley program has formed a relationship with REI, a national chain of outfitters that sponsors an annual touring film fest. Berkeley’s campus hosts the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and in return proceeds from ticket sales go to the outdoor program’s scholarship fund.

UA has an ongoing relationship with a local gear shop, Alabama Outdoors. The outdoor program often puts the shop’s logo on the flyers for program trips, and participants receive a card that offers a one-time discount on equipment they may want to purchase for the trip. In return, the for-profit outfitter refers to UA any customers who want to rent rather than buy equipment and displays the program’s trip schedule in the store.

The outfitter also gets involved with UA’s annual indoor climbing competition, helping to advertise the public event and sometimes negotiating with the shop’s suppliers to provide product samples for the event’s goody bags. The program does not advertise most of its services off campus, so word of mouth referrals from partnerships like this are all the more important.

Erpelding says BSU’s program does not have any formal partnerships, but it, too, relies on referrals rather than advertising to generate equipment rental business, so he maintains a good rapport with local businesses.

“We have a really positive relationship with private outfitters in the area—we send customers their way and they send people to us,” Erpelding says. “Because the program is so well established and known in the community, we don’t need to publicize it.”



Staff requirements for outdoor programs can be different from those of traditional recreation programs, especially given the technical skills needed to lead off-campus trips.

Berkeley’s outdoor program employs a handful of students who lead the freshman orientation trips program, On a Trail Somewhere, among other things, but Herrmann says its staff primarily consists of professionals. Student commitment is often shorter term as they are busy with coursework or opportunities such as internships and study abroad. The professionals, on the other hand, have a longer-term commitment, even though they are often part-time or seasonal employees. Some of the program’s sailing instructors have been there for 20 years.

Both BSU’s and UA’s outdoor programs are largely staffed by students, but each trains its trip leaders differently.

BSU’s trip leaders are students at the university who are trained by senior campus and outdoor rec staff as well as some instructors hired from the community, Erpelding says. The students, who get between 120 to 140 hours of training before going into the field as an assistant leader, pay for their training, which is based on curriculum from various outdoor education bodies, such as the Wilderness Education Association and the American Mountain Guide Association.

“They don’t receive university credit for the training they do with the outdoor program, yet if you ask them when they graduate what the most influential part of their college career was, they’ll almost always say it was the training they got in outdoor programs,” Erpelding says.

Haynie is the only full-time staff member of UA’s outdoor rec program, but he employs 25 student staff members.

He personally trains his staff, including trip leaders, and involves current student staff members in the hiring and training process whenever possible. For instance, this year he instituted an apprenticeship program for bike shop employees and now has two freshmen studying under the shop’s three senior bike mechanics who will soon graduate.

In addition to staff with technical skills, UA’s program also requires a lot of administrative staff to help organize the trips. Before every off-campus adventure, the program’s administrators collect participants’ medical information and local sheriff and emergency room contact details for a packet designed by UA’s risk management office. They also pre-program a trip cell phone with participants’ emergency contact numbers and those of the local hospitals, sheriff’s office and search and rescue groups.

“We do a lot of work on the front end to make sure our students and our trip leaders are prepared,” Haynie says.

While managing the staff he has today, Haynie is always looking to the future. He recently taught an outdoor leadership course in UA’s New College, an interdisciplinary studies program, which culminated in a class trip that gave each student the chance to take the lead on a particular segment. He will teach the class again next semester and says that over time, it could become a good way to recruit student staff and help spread the interest in the program and in outdoor recreation in general.

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