Texas Big Bend and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester

This intensive 10-week leadership semester course is an outstanding opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the rugged landscapes of the Rio Grande and Boundary Water wilderness areas and can also complement a traditional college education.
Travel and study through two spectacular and dramatically different regions of the country while you acquire an extensive range of outdoor skills and a broad understanding of each area’s environmental and ecological challenges along the way. In the great American Southwest, backpack through the Chisos Mountains and navigate thrilling whitewater rapids in the canyons of Big Bend. Then, make your way up north to backpack along the Superior Hiking Trail and canoe in the Boundary Waters. In addition to the extended canoeing and backpacking expeditions, this semester course includes rock climbing, rappelling and canyon exploration.

Course Area

Rio Grande and Big Bend, Texas
On the border of Mexico, a powerful river and a mountainous desert unite in Texas’s Big Bend National Park. The vast Chihuahuan desert is an exotic place of spectacular multi-colored canyons and mountains, one of the last true desert regions in North America. The Rio Grande flows through its heart, forming the boundary between the United States and Mexico. The land itself is awe-inspiring, with canyons towering 300 to 1200 feet over the river.

Big Bend is the 8th largest national park in the lower 48 states, encompassing more than 800,000 acres of majestic mesas, canyons, cacti, and weather-beaten desert.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
Established in 1964, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a labyrinth of lakes and rock that has been specifically protected as a true American wilderness; no roads, power lines, or motorized craft may enter its borders: Therefore, the Boundary Waters has changed little since its unveiling when the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago.

Over 1 million acres in size, the BWCAW extends 150 miles along the Canadian border. With over 1,200 miles of canoe routes, nearly 2,200 designated campsites and more than 1,000 lakes and streams, the BWCAW is a truly amazing place to experience the wilderness.

The BWCAW contains portage-linked lakes and streams, interspersed with islands, forests and crags. It has no piped water, prepared shelters, or signs to point the way. Within these borders you can canoe, portage, and camp in the spirit of the French-Canadian Voyageurs of 200 years ago. The Boundary Waters’ paddling routes offer outstanding opportunities for solitude, remoteness, teamwork, adventure, and challenge.

Superior Hiking Trail, Minnesota
The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is a 296-mile footpath that largely follows the rocky ridgeline above Lake Superior on Minnesota’s North Shore from Duluth to the Canadian border. Well-marked trails, campsites, and challenging terrain make this a perfect thru-hike destination.

National Geographic says the SHT; “is the best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail.”

At its lowest elevation, along the lakeshore, the trail is 602 feet above sea level. At its highest point the trail is 1750 feet above sea level and more than 1000 feet above Lake Superior. The SHT is characterized by ascents to rock outcroppings and cliffs, and descents into numerous river and creek valleys that feature abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.

Along the trail is where we will stop and spend a day rock climbing at Shovel Point which features towering 80-120 foot cliffs jutting right out of the lake. This dramatic site ensures memorable climbing for the novice and experienced rock climber alike.

Gap Year / Semester Courses
Our Gap Year and Semester expeditions take you out of the classroom – and into the world. These courses are all about cultivating independence, developing technical skills, and engaging with the people and places around you. Learn from the best Instructors in the industry. Tackle challenges alongside a supportive crew of motivated peers. Amidst rugged natural landscapes, learn to lead and to follow; to give and receive feedback; and to trust in your own capabilities.

  • Achievable Goals: Instructors work with individual students (average 1 to 4 Instructor/Student ratio) to make solid self-assessments and set achievable goals.
  • Build core skills: Learn and practice wilderness, teamwork and leadership skills. Form a crew that supports and encourages one another, and in the thick of natural challenges, discover there is more in you than you know.
  • Practice Outward Bound values: Learn to incorporate Outward Bound values into everyday life by pushing your own limits and seeking challenge as an opportunity for personal growth.
  • Demonstrate mastery: As the course nears the end, take on more leadership and decision-making responsibilities. Work together to apply new skills and achieve team goals during this final phase of the expedition.
  • What you’ll learn: Return home an experienced leader with technical wilderness skills. Back in the workplace or classroom, apply a renewed commitment to excellence, a capacity to inspire others, and a desire to make a difference.

Listed below are a few of the activities:

Whitewater Canoeing

After first learning basic whitewater strokes in calm currents, you’ll begin the expedition. Paddling as a group, you will spend two weeks traveling down-river through sections of calm currents and whitewater. The waters of the Rio Grande offer beginning paddlers a progressive challenge — and a perfect place to learn and hone skills.

Your instructors will assist you in mastering skills of paddling, scouting, and running rapids. You will learn all the skills you need to move efficiently downriver. As there are only two students in a whitewater canoe everyone will have the opportunity to ‘captain their watercraft’. You will learn to adapt to the river and desert environments and reset your internal clock to rise with the sun and sleep with the moon.

Backpacking the Superior Hiking Trail.

On the southern edge of the massive Canadian Shield, a granite rock formation that runs from Minnesota to Hudson Bay and the Northwest Territories, sits the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Superior.

The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) follows the northern shore of the lake from Duluth, Minnesota to Canada covering almost 300-miles along the low-lying Sawtooth Mountain range. You will spend your days hiking on the trail which meanders through dense boreal forest, offers awe-inspiring overlooks, and plunges into pristine river valleys. Well-marked trails, designated campsites, and challenging terrain make the SHT a great backpacking experience.

Rock Climbing & High Ropes Course

During 3 climbing days, students learn about general rock-climbing equipment, safety and etiquette. Students have many opportunities to climb, belay, and rappel while learning and employing safety systems that are compliant with national standards.

The rock climbing sites provide a number of different route options including cracks, sheer faces, and chimneys. Regardless of a student’s rock climbing background, they are sure to find a route that will engage them and encourage the expansion of their comfort zone.

Looking out over the top of the boreal forest, the High Ropes Course is an incredible obstacle course set 30-feet in the air. Students will swing from Tarzan ropes, walk on tightrope wires, and climb a cargo net before jumping on the zip line for an exhilarating ride back to solid ground.


As part of your course, you will complete an extended canoe expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) that is entirely self-supported. This expedition includes learning the art of paddling a canoe in a variety of conditions as well as portaging, map and compass reading, route finding, expedition planning, and Leave No Trace® wilderness living principles. Paddling partners work together to navigate a variety of waterways such as lakes, rivers, and swamps.


Groups work as a team to carry packs and canoes over portage trails when transitioning from one lake to another or around challenging rapids. Portage trails are rugged and often rocky or hilly. They vary in length from 10 yards to a mile or longer. Pack weights vary depending on the length of the trip. Personal packs weigh at least 40 pounds and sometimes considerably more; food and equipment packs usually weigh between 50 and 70 pounds.

Each 75-pound canoe is carried upside down on one person’s shoulders by utilizing the pads attached to the center thwart.


Weather and time permitting, the Solo experience provides an important break from the rigors of the expedition and gives students the opportunity to reflect on their Outward Bound experience. Many students use this time to make significant decisions about their future, journal, or write letters to friends and family. The duration of Solo depends on the course length and type, as well as the competency and preparedness of the student group. Students on a Leadership Semester Course typically experience one to two 48-72 hour Solos.

Regardless of Solo length, all students receive sufficient food, water, and shelter to keep them safe and healthy during Solo. Instructors choose Solo sites to offer as much solitude as possible while retaining some proximity to the whole group. While students spend the majority of their Solo time alone, Instructors do check on each student as often as needed, usually 1-4 times per day, to ensure that each student feels safe and comfortable. The two Solos are purposefully scheduled so that students have plenty of time to acclimate to their new environments beforehand.

Students often have mixed feelings leading up to Solo: nervousness and hesitation regarding the unknown but also excitement to rest, reflect, and test their new skills while alone. Students often find that Solo provokes profound and powerful learning in a short period of time and often becomes one of the most memorable parts of their Outward Bound experience.

Personal Challenge Event

Time and weather permitting, the course will end with a Personal Challenge Event (PCE) that is a final individual physical feat.

The PCE is non-competitive triathlon-style paddle, portage, run, or ski to show each student how their mental and physical stamina has grown as a result of their wilderness expedition and training regime. Students celebrate the completion of their PCE and wilderness expedition with a final banquet and graduation ceremony at the VOBS basecamp.

Please submit the Course Inquiry form or call (828) 239-2376 to discuss if this course is right for you.

Visit the Voyageur Outward Bound School frequently asked questions page to learn more about the application process, scholarships, what to expect, how to pack and where your course begins.

Upon enrollment on a Voyageur Outward Bound School course students receive a day-by-day course itinerary, detailed packing list, and detailed arrival and departure information specific to their course.

Scholarship Info

Our Scholarship Program is guided by a single principle: Every person should be given the opportunity to experience adventure and challenge, develop character and compassion, and learn leadership skills and service ethics, regardless of financial ability.

Moreover, we bring together diverse groups of students to instill cultural understanding and teamwork skills that enable them to become principled leaders.

Thanks to generous donations from alumni, parents, corporations, foundations, and others, Outward Bound awards up to $3.7 million in scholarships to 6,000 students each year.

The Voyageur Outward Bound School scholarship program is need-based and in order to be considered, applicants must first enroll on a course, pay a $500 deposit and check a box noting that they are interested in a Scholarship. The deposit payment is applied toward the total cost of the course and includes a $150 enrollment processing fee (usually non-refundable). After the applicant enrolls, a Course Advisor will send them a Scholarship Application along with the other enrollment materials. The applicant is required to submit a copy of their most recent 1040 tax return along with the completed Scholarship Application. The average scholarship is 15-30% off of the posted fee. If the applicant receives an Outward Bound scholarship but it’s not enough for them to participate, Outward Bound will refund their $500 deposit, including the $150 enrollment processing fee.

In some cases, applicants can schedule a payment plan with the Voyageur Outward Bound School rather than paying for the whole course in one lump sum. In cases of payment plans, final balances are due at least 90 days prior to the course-start.

Packing for a Voyageur Outward Bound School course

In general, Outward Bound provides sleeping bags, sleeping mats, rain gear, and all group cooking, camping and traveling equipment. Students need to provide their own clothing, footwear, toiletries and a few other items, like a headlamp and water bottle.

Traveling to and from the Voyageur Outward Bound School

MN Courses:  In most cases, but not all, Voyageur Outward Bound School students meet in the Duluth International Airport baggage claim at 1:00 PM on the first day of the course. Students typically return to the Duluth International Airport around 11:30 AM on the last day of the course and should plan to fly out any time after 1:00 PM to account for check-in and security clearance.

TX Courses:  In most cases, but not all, Voyageur Outward Bound School students arrive in El Paso, TX the day before their course officially begins.  Students spend the night in a local hotel (not included in course-cost) as directed by their Course Advisor. Students typically return to the El Paso International Airport around 1:00 PM on the last day of the course and should plan to fly out any time after 2:00 PM to account for check-in and security clearance.

Explicit travel directions will be shared with you after you enroll on a course.  Students should refrain from making travel plans prior to being approved for their course and receiving travel details for their specific course as the exact details may differ slightly from the directions listed above.

Please submit the Course Inquiry form or call (828) 239-2376 to discuss if this course is right for you.

Leadership Semester – 72 Day Expeditions

Dates Days Age Tuition Course #
3.7.17 – 5.17.17 72 18 – 30 $9295 VRGL-782
3.6.18 – 5.16.18 72 18+ $9795 VRGL-882

Spots fill quickly! Reserve a spot and speak with a Course Advisor.

Rio Grande and Boundary Waters Leadership Semester

Applicant Information


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