The College Student’s Guide to Getting Outside

Here’s how to make the most of free time that’s worth carving out in formative years to learn outdoor activities—and make friends who share them—that can last a lifetime.

The fall back-to-school hustle doesn’t mean hanging up your hiking boots, fishing rods, and climbing shoes. There are more ways than you realize to get out exploring and active in the Great Outdoors—even in the throes of academia. And it will likely even help your studies; spending time outside has been proven to boost everything from concentration levels, mood and sleep schedules, while lowering stress levels about that upcoming exam. It’s also an ideal social setting to help you meet other students—in a more fun setting than the classroom. 

“College can be startlingly isolating,” says Ben Cherry, a student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, who has been climbing at the Gunks since he was a toddler. “Students need a space to escape the stress of studying and writing papers.”

Here’s how to carve the free time to get outside this school season. 

Make the Time

While you’ll likely be busier than ever at school, make sure to carve out some Me Time to get outside. It’s easy for your schedule to get booked solid by class, studying, eating and social everything else. But establish at least a couple times a week—say, that quick hour between classes on Thursday, or that gap between labs on Monday—to sneak out for a brief excursion outside, be it a hike, run or ride.

Are you an incoming freshman? Ask your school about outdoor or wilderness orientation trips—and take advantage as they can offer the simplest entry into both a connected social group, and to your institution’s outdoor programming. 

Anything Counts 

Relieving the stress of studies can be as simple as tossing a Frisbee. You’ll be surprised how easy it can be to inspire a pickup soccer or kickball game. Set up a slackline in the quad and you’ll quickly connect with other like-minded folks, oriented to being active outdoors.

The key, says Cherry, is to start small, even if it’s just going out for a walk. “Whenever you have the slightest inclination to head out on a little adventure to give yourself space and take a breath, just do it,” he says. “You’ll thank yourself later.”  

Other easy outdoor activities on campus, he says, include skating, climbing, watching the sunset at the fields, setting up hammocks, or an extended stroll away from a screen. From there, expand your horizons by heading off campus for outdoor activities, whether it’s seeking out the local rail trail, singletrack network or cross-country skiing center. And you don’t need a car for these forays, either, even to just check quirky attractions in town, local bouldering best bets, new hikes, or swimming hole plunges.

“Little outdoor treasures are scattered around all over,” he says. “All you have to do is uncover them. Go explore; it might not be easy to find outdoor activities at first, but just give it the college try.”

Join the Club 

Beyond intramural sports (another easy way to get more socially active, outside), most colleges and universities have some sort of outdoor club or program designed to help students get involved in outdoor activities. Seek out lessons or outings for beginners, a list of other students with similar interests, and even rental programs for such outdoor gear as climbing equipment, skis and snowboards, kayaks and paddleboards, surfboards, bikes, even sailboats.

The clubs vary with the school’s location, often focusing on the region’s best outdoor activities. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder has a well-established climbing program in its club, while the Western Washington University – Bellingham has a thriving sea kayaking program, and the University of California San Diego prides itself on its surfing club. Get a group of friends together and enroll or, barring that, take the initiative to join by yourself—you’re guaranteed to meet like-minded adventure partners the first time you show up, who will likely become friends for life.

“We focus on granting everyday student a chance to break away from the monotony of the urban landscape to get outdoors,” says Aiden Bell of the University of Pittsburgh’s Outdoors Club, adding that last year the club gained 500 new members and organized 15 official trips—and innumerable “unofficial” ones—into nearby outdoor getaways. “We’ve made rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting, and others way easier for students to experience,” he says. “While it can be difficult to balance joining these trips with schoolwork, the experience is well worth it.”

Adds Cherry: “Our outing club is an amazing resource, and is always looking to fill out their expeditions with anyone who’s interested. It helps lend an escape to everyday student life while also offering a community to join.”

Check the Old Chalkboards 

In days before tethers to digital devices, cork boards in the dorm and student center commons listed students looking for other students to join in on outings. While those are still there, 21st-century tech has made it even easier, with Meetup groups and other apps designed to facilitate connection and motivation to get outside. Ask your Resident Advisor or your dorm’s front desk if there are any outing clubs you can join or event calendars listing group activities and events.

Scope Your Town 

Running into a dead end at school? Think outside the box. Put a search engine to work to find paddling, climbing, hiking or other outdoor clubs in your area. Find their site or social calendars to target nearby group events. Many clubs and organizations also host outings, especially for beginners complete with club members willing to supply equipment and instruction. Another option: Call around or, better yet, visit local outdoor stores to ask about the area’s best outdoor options—you may meet others who share your sport’s passion. Sign up for their e-newsletters and check their sites and post-it boards for events, volunteer opportunities, outings and people looking for partners for activities that interest you. 

Speaking of outdoor store visits, if you don’t have the right equipment for a new activity (or the funds to purchase it), just rent your gear. Public Lands has in-store rental offerings of the hard goods far too bulky to store in a dorm room. Think: mountain bikes, e-bikes, kayaks, plus seasonal ski and snowboard packages (including boots and bindings). Not anywhere near a store? Public Lands offers online rentals via FedEx to any residence or street address in the continental U.S., though limited to packable soft goods and camp equipment like tents, sleeping bags, hammocks, chairs and cookware  guaranteed to be in new or like-new condition. 

Rally Your Friends 

There’s no better motivator than peer pressure. So put a plan together, rally up your friends and get out there. Whether it’s exploring a new trail, launching a canoe on different waters, signing up for a surfing class, or trying out a new climbing gym or a pool offering kayak-rolling sessions—one person’s motivation and enthusiasm can go a long way toward getting others to tag along. You’ll be glad you did.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.