We are often asked: “How does a WRFI course work?” Great question! While no two days on a WRFI course are the same, there are components of every WRFI course that are consistent and form the framework for how every WRFI student spends their days on course.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Backcountry = wildlands setting with sparse human inhabitation or impact. WRFI courses explore backcountry settings by foot and by boat, depending on which course you choose.
Backcountry sections are characterized by following a route from campsite to campsite, exploring and having class each day along the way.
Front-Country = municipal setting characterized by human habitation and/or a built environment. WRFI courses travel through small rural communities in Montana, the American Southwest, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.
Front-country sections are characterized by meetings with guest speakers, site visits, class time, re-supplying food and gear as needed, and traveling in the WRFI van to the next backcountry trailhead or launch site. When in a front-country setting, WRFI groups will still be camping.
Every course is a little different, but on average, students can expect to spend around 50-75% of their course in a backcountry setting. The other 50- 25% of time is spent in a front-country setting. Each WRFI course itinerary is split into “front-country” sections and “backcountry” sections that alternate throughout the course.
Whether in the front-country or the backcountry, students can expect to spend some amount of their time everyday traveling, either by foot, in a boat, on a bicycle, or in a WRFI van. In a backcountry setting, approximately half of the day is spent on the trail or in boats. The other half of the day is spent engaged with course academics. In a front-country setting, similarly- about half of the day may be spent traveling, meeting with guest speakers, touring various sites of interest, or re-supplying food and gear and the other half is spent engaging with course academics.
WRFI’s cycling course, “Cycle the Rockies,” is different from our other courses and is technically defined as a “Bike Touring” trip. Students on this course cycle on established roadways (mostly paved, although at time, packed dirt) from one destination to the next. They ride bicycles designed to accommodate small packs (called panniers) attached to racks in the front and back of the bike.
WRFI’s cycling course is “self-supported,” meaning there is not a support vehicle accompanying the group along the way. Students do not need bike touring experience to attend this course! It is designed for beginners and WRFI provides a comprehensive bike touring orientation at the onset of the course as well as bicycles and bike touring equipment for rent.
On a WRFI course learning is happening all time! That said, there is time each day- usually around 2-3 hours- set aside for class time. Class could take place in any number of settings, but it will always be outside! WRFI’s field instructors are gifted educators and they utilize a variety of teaching methodologies to teach course content. Often, class time has a small group discussion format. However, instructors may also choose to deliver information in a lecture format or introduce an activity to teach course material; they also capitalize on “teachable moments” in which examples of course content arise from traveling across the landscape or meeting with a guest speaker.
Students find that their readings and assignments feel relatively similar on a WRFI course to what they may experience on campus. Each course has comprehensive course syllabi that outline course descriptions, assignments, grading rubrics, learning objectives, and course readings. A major difference for students on a WRFI course is that they tend to write quite a bit more than they do in an average class on campus and will not have standard multiple-choice exams. Common assignments on WRFI courses include essay responses to instructor prompts, entries for WRFI’s blog that features student writing exclusively, journaling assignments designed to encourage synthesis and reflection of materials, discussions, and experiences, as well as occasional exams focused on short answer essay questions. In addition to written assignments, students will be evaluated on participation and, on most courses, a final presentation. You will often find yourself curled up in your sleeping bag at night, reading or working your assignments for the next day by headlamp- much as you would find yourself in the library at night if you were back on campus. On average, students spend between 2-3 hours a day on course readings and assignments.
One of the most important aspects of an overall WRFI experience is the small group setting. Learning to function in a small group offers students the opportunity to hone skills associated with communication, leadership, empathy, and personal reflection. WRFI groups often become extremely tight-knit and life-long friendships are formed on every single course. We expect students to respect the context of a small group and to practice tolerance and compassion towards fellow group members. There are a number of expedition responsibilities that rotate throughout the group, for the duration of the course: cooking, cleaning, organizing gear, Leader of the Day, and assisting instructors in various aspects of group management. Clear expectations of expedition responsibilities will be laid out during the course orientation and groups will invariably find a distinct rhythm that works for them and plays to everyone’s strengths.
During those sections when the group is in a front-country setting, they will often have the opportunity to take a shower and find a window of time to connect with the outside world. Most courses also have a “recess” day or two at some point to give students a chance to attend to personal needs and take a brief break from the rigors of being on a field course.