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How To Choose An Outdoorsy College

Author: Hilary Oliver

September 12, 2019

Heading to college is a great time to make the leap to try new outdoor adventures, or find a place where you can dive more deeply into the sports you already love. But between location, cost, different programs and entrance requirements, what’s the best outdoorsy school for you? Here are some things to consider, and a few tips that might be helpful as you look for a school where you can combine your education with your climbing, rafting, running, or whatever it is that makes your heart soar in the outdoors.

Decide how involved you want to be in your sport.
Are you looking to be competitive? Like, join a ski or climbing team? That will help narrow down your choices. Are you looking to work in outdoor education, or pursue a degree in outdoor recreation? That will also narrow down your choices. If you’re mainly looking to enjoy time in the outdoors as a hobby, part of your college lifestyle as a whole, then it might be helpful to look past those that are known for their teams or degrees.

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See past the lists.
Of course, you could go by one of many lists, like the Best Colleges For Outdoor Enthusiasts or 20 Best Colleges and Universities for Outdoor Adventurers. They’re certainly helpful—but often, there’s a fantastic school nearby the more famous school that might cost a bit less, but still offers outdoor access and community. For example, Colorado State University in Fort Collins lies just an hour north of the University of Colorado in Boulder—and is also along the foothills of the Front Range. Though you might not see it on the top 10 lists, it also has great access to hiking, biking, climbing, rafting, paddling, camping and other fun outdoor pursuits.

Look for the outdoor community–it’s there, even in the less famous outdoor destinations.
When you’re starting school, meeting other people with similar interests can make a huge difference in how much get outdoors and have fun. It can be tough to motivate to go camping or skiing by yourself—especially if you’ve never done it before! Many schools have outdoor recreation groups where you can go on trips with other students and even rent gear at a discounted rate. Local gear shops also often host events, and MeetUp groups are another way to meet other young people looking to get outdoors. Even at schools that aren’t famous for their outdoor access, you will likely find others who are passionate about adventure and will be excited to carpool or plan trips together.

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Read a map.
Aside from community, access to public lands is what really makes a school great for outdoor adventures. One sure-fire way to find a good spot is to pull out an old-fashioned map. Find the schools you’re looking at, and scan the nearby area on the map. How close is the nearest public land? (Hint: Usually it’s green or brown on the map.) Maybe it’s a state park, maybe it’s an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management or National Forest. Maybe there’s even a national park within a day’s drive. Take a little time to research what’s nearby—even if it’s not famous, you might be surprised by what’s accessible for a weekend trip. It doesn't necessarily have to be in a mountain town or out in the middle of nowhere!

Search out jobs.
A fun way to stay in touch with the outdoor community, or even adventure a bit yourself, is to find a summer job that’s outdoor oriented. When you’re looking at schools, are there gear shops or guide companies nearby where you could possibly work? It’s a great way to make some money while having a break from the rest of school life.

If you’re excited for getting more into the outdoors in college, you’re in luck—there are so many ways to do it. Odds are, you will look back on your college years as some of the most fun and free times of your life. But college can also be stressful. Tough classes and managing a new type of workload can really take it of you. That’s just one more argument for choosing a school with some sort of access to nature. Even if it’s just a stroll around tree-lined park, time outdoors is a great stress reliever. So when you’re bogged down with homework, don’t forget to strap on your shoes once in a while and get outdoors—wherever you are.

Hilary Oliver

​Hilary Oliver is a freelance writer and creator of TheGription.com. She loves climbing, biking and writing about climbing and biking. Her work has appeared on Adventure Journal, The Dirtbag Diaries, Freehub Magazine, Women’s Adventure, The Clymb, Women’s Movement and several other publications and web sites. If she’s not on the trail or up a rock, you can probably find her typing away on her laptop, hopefully within close proximity to strong coffee and hot breakfast burritos.