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Campus Challenge aims to drive youth resurgence in passion for the outdoors

In-between the all the studying and socializing, more youth should be getting outdoors during their formative college days.

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Those days at college are some of the most formative in a person’s life.

So in-between all the studying and socializing, industry stakeholders see it crucial that there also be some collegiate time carved out for the outdoors.

That’s the goal for college students across the nation participating in the Campus Challenge, the latest effort by the Outdoor Foundation to get youth active and excited about the outdoors.

“We believe that college students are singularly positioned to be the primary force behind a resurgence of an outdoor culture,” said Christine Fanning, executive director for the Outdoor Foundation. “The challenge is [meant] to give a really high profile platform to hopefully inspire a massive shift and massive increase in outdoor participation.”

Described as “March Madness meets Mother Nature,” the showdown includes 10 schools that have eight weeks to earn as many “outdoor activity points” as possible. Points are awarded for 30-plus minute activities that have the outdoors as a focus. Hiking and climbing count, but so do picnics on the quad and outdoor yoga.

“We wanted to make sure we’re not prescribing what ‘outdoor activities’ means,” Fanning said. “If we want to be more inclusive and more welcoming of new, diverse populations, we need to think about redefining outdoor recreation to be more expansive … Whether [you ’re] a hardcore outdoor junkie or someone who likes to walk in the woods, we hope that this campaign resonates for everyone.”

The participating colleges and universities — which span from California to Virginia and range from 50,000+ student bodies to those with less than 3,000 enrollees — are vying for the title of National Outdoor Champion, which will be awarded to the school with the most points overall. The winning school will get a campus-wide celebration, outdoor gear and more.

“We’re leveraging the gamification that we see trending across the country in online technology, [as well as] rewards and recognition to drive outdoor participation,” Fanning said.

The challenge participant with the most points individually, appropriately deemed the Outsider of the Year, wins an internship with the Outdoor Foundation and head-to-toe outfitting from The North Face. Another winner, the Most Outdoorsy Person, will take home outdoor gear like tents, sleeping bags and backpacks. Throughout the contest, smaller prizes like water bottles and hats are being distributed to participants.

Ann Krcik, The North Face’s director of outdoor recreation and brand communication, said that it was a no-brainer to support the Campus Challenge. She points to statistics showing that participation in outdoor activities nosedives after high school. “We want to remind [students] of the importance of exploration in their lives,” she said. And on a bigger scale: “We have to get them to love and enjoy the outdoors in order to protect the outdoors.”

In addition to its gear and apparel offerings, TNF donated $50,000 to the challenge, giving each of the 10 schools a $5,000 grant to kick-start their outdoorsy efforts. That money is being used in a variety of ways as participating schools broadly interpret “outdoor activity.”

James Madison University in Virginia, has been taking advantage of its proximity to the Appalachian Mountains, using its grant toward buses and trip leaders for adventures into the wilderness. With those costs covered, students are able to partake in the trips for free. “We really wanted to take this opportunity to get people engaged in those different resources and be introduced to everything that’s right around us,” said Jenny Merian, a graduate assistant of the school’s adventure program.

In a less traditional vein, student leader Atarah-Sheba Young and fellow members of the Sparkhouse Outdoors Club at the Atlanta University Center (the AUC’s Spelman College is a challenge participant) used a portion of the grant money to put on an evening picnic that included not only food, but culture by way of a talent-show/open mic night with singing, poetry and painting. Camping, climbing and a mass yoga event are also on the docket with gear and transportation provided to eliminate the cost barrier.

Just three weeks into the challenge, Young said she’s already seeing a change in the student body. “There is a new excitement in the air. Everybody is just charged when it comes to getting outside. They finally have a way to release their pent-up outdoor [energy],” she said.

The Outdoor Foundation hopes that the challenge will propel colleges and universities in the short term in order to boost participation in campus outdoor clubs in the near term and a true passion for the outdoors in the long term. As the charitable arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, the Outdoor Foundation recognizes what industry representatives have been saying for years: It’s vital for youth to get enthusiastic about and involved in the outdoors if our industry is going to survive.

With a mission wholly in line with that mantra, the foundation created Outdoor Nation, a community of young people who are leaders in getting their peers out of the AC and into the woods. The Campus Challenge is yet another outreach.

“They are our future customers, those people who will have disposable dollars and disposable time. They are the future leaders of this country, individuals who will make decisions,” Fanning said, listing environmental issues, climate change and trade policy as topics that today’s college students will someday address.

By pushing participants to not only get outside them, but also to engage with faculty, alumni, the local community and their younger peers, Fanning hopes that the challenge will have even wider trickle-down effects.

Students like Young already recognize the wide-reaching impact they can have.

“It’s more than just getting people outside. I want to teach them how to take care of their bodies, how to take care of the environment. That’s definitely my goal,” Young said. “And doing all of that outdoors would be a definite plus.”

The Campus Challenge doesn’t currently have any retail partners, but that’s one of the hopes for next year’s competition. Outdoor Nation is open to ideas of what that might look like — in-store events or retailer booths at campus events are two possibilities — but ultimately, the hope is to create a situation that’s beneficial to all parties. “We’re looking forward to working with industry leaders on the retail side to think about how to drive participation and business through the challenge,” Fanning said.

–Courtney Holden