From city parks to the most remote wild spaces, over 1 million students have participated in Outward Bound programs.
For 60 years, through a variety of activities and environments, Outward Bound has worked diligently to achieve and maintain its position as a leader in outdoor education.
Risk and uncertainty are central to adventure and personal growth. In a supportive environment with instructors and crewmates, students are encouraged to take part in activities that involve unfamiliar challenges, like group initiatives, navigating a route on foot or by boat, rock climbing or summiting a mountain. These challenges – physical, interpersonal, emotional – present opportunities for students to develop their judgment, push boundaries, uncover new potential, and build self-confidence. By embracing this philosophy, Outward Bound is committed to systematically identifying, assessing and mitigating hazards, while at the same time providing real challenges to our students.
OUR COMMITMENT TO EMOTIONAL AND PHYSICAL SAFETY
The physical, emotional, and psychological safety of students and staff is a foundational priority for Outward Bound. We aspire to always conduct our programs safely, whatever the activity, environment or student population. Our attention to safety is central to who we are.
Outward Bound USA is comprised of ten Schools that serve over 40,000 students each year on courses of 1 to 85 days in length. Our success is the result of a culture that emphasizes transparency, information sharing, collaborative problem solving, and candid discussions. Our organization maintains a safety management system that incorporates every level of the organization, from School Boards and leaders to instructors, students and partners. Our safety management system is built on five principles.
1. Exceptional, Qualified Staff
Instructor Training and Development
Outward Bound Instructors receive regular training in the outdoor activities and environments in which we run our courses. New Instructors receive extensive training in teaching and facilitation, risk management, judgment, decision making, conflict resolution and emergency procedures. After completing initial training, instructors work directly under experienced staff before being promoted to a Lead Instructor position. Lead Instructors receive continuing training and professional development annually.
Additionally, all Instructors must meet rigorous minimum technical requirements.
Instructors who lead longer expeditions hold navigation, campcraft, and emergency management qualifications
Instructors who teach rock or ice climbing, canyoning, mountaineering, canoeing, rafting or sea kayaking are trained and assessed according to a specific in-house qualification that is based on industry standard set by organizations such as the American Canoe Association (ACA), the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA).
Instructors who lead sailing courses hold a US Coast Guards Captain’s License and Lifeguard or Emergency Water Safety certifications.
All instructors have cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid certifications. Instructors who teach overnight courses are required to hold a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification. Instructors are trained in emotional first aid skills, based on recognized curricula such as Psychological First Aid (PFA) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). Some hold additional certifications related to other work experience, such as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), ski patrollers or mountain rescue team members. The purpose of these levels of training is to become generally knowledgeable about how the brain and the body work, learn to address problems with minimal resources, and to recognize when someone needs professional healthcare and begin an evacuation.
The design, quality and safety of each Outward Bound course is the responsibility of a team of staff. Supporting our instructors are course directors and logistics coordinators assigned to each course, and program supervisors who oversee all operations and provide 24-hour emergency response. These staff have access to medical and mental health advisors for consultation, as required.
2. Student Preparation and Participation
Managing risk at Outward Bound goes beyond the responsibilities of our instructors and support staff. Our educational objective is to include students in the safety management process and teach students that physical and psychological safety are paramount to learning, preparation is key, and increasing challenge and adventure demands heightened awareness, discretion and training. These processes begin when a student enrolls on a course.
All Outward Bound Schools have a dedicated student services and admissions team to support individuals or intact groups in selecting and preparing for an Outward Bound course. These staff guide individual students and parents in selecting the right course and can partner with intact groups to design a course that fits their needs. Admissions staff provide students and families with information on the course environment and activities, the physical and emotional challenges of the course, and the expectations for participation.
The student admissions and enrollment process describes to students what to expect, what will be required, and how to prepare for an Outward Bound course. Resources may include:
Course descriptions and preparation materials (e.g., course itineraries, essential eligibility criteria, gear and equipment lists) designed to get students ready for their course.
Interviews or other opportunities to ask questions of School admissions staff.
A behavioral expectations document that summarizes the expectations Outward Bound has of students and students will have of each other.
A health history review that gathers critical information and allows students and Outward Bound staff to plan for student medical and mental health needs.
Participatory Risk Management Curriculum
Outward Bound students are part of the safety management system on course. While no expertise is assumed and no experience is required, students are expected to follow instructions, build a positive learning environment for each other, and progressively learn new skills. Courses begin with a welcome from Instructors that introduces key safety concepts and a gear and equipment check to establish that each student has what they need. All new activities begin with a briefing that includes identification of hazards and safety directions. As students’ understanding of safety management grows, Instructors will transfer more of the responsibility for risk assessment, mitigation and decision making to the group.
3. Emergency Planning and Preparation
All Outward Bound locations have emergency response plans and run annual drills of their emergency systems. Staff receive regular training and updates in emergency communications and use of emergency equipment. Although focus is placed on anticipation and prevention, the real risks encountered on our programs necessitate preparation for adaptive responses to a wide variety of unexpected events.
Outward Bound adheres to a pre-determined staff-to-student ratio suitable for each course environment and activities. On longer expeditions, we maintain a high ratio (approximately 1:6) while instructors demonstrate, coach and observe the students as they learn the skills necessary to progressively gain independence. There will be times when students are not directly supervised, such as when eating, sleeping, time in camp, solo activity, or traveling during their Final Expedition. At such times, the students will be able to ask questions or get help if needed. Our supervision policies are based on our experience that well-trained teenagers and adults alike make good decisions with or without direct instructor supervision.
Each course carries a cell phone or satellite-based device for emergency communication. However, coverage in remote course areas is sometimes limited, and there is no guarantee that an electronic device will work at any given time from any given location. Staff are trained to use field communication technology and to be self-reliant for periods when required.
Emergency Support and Management
Each Outward Bound group carries carefully selected first aid equipment according to the activity and environment. Staff receive training and updates on treating minor injuries and illnesses on course and assessing and stabilizing more serious issues for evacuation to a medical facility. The remote setting for many of our longer courses means that evacuation may take a few hours to a day or longer. Staff are trained to respond with the understanding that location, terrain or weather may make rapid evacuation impossible. Additionally, international courses are supported by a professional health and security services firm, On Call International.
4. Program Review and Continuous Improvement
Outward Bound is committed to continuously and critically reviewing operations with a focus on learning and improving. Our review processes drive continuous learning and improvement, including post course debriefs, staff performance and course evaluations, routine safety reviews, regular equipment inspections and student outcome data analysis.
Schools participate in audits on a regular schedule to measure compliance with Outward Bound national standards and to identify areas for future improvement efforts. National program audits are conducted by the OBUSA Risk and Safety Department and overseen by local and national Board Safety Committees.
Wilderness Risk Management Conference
The Wilderness Risk Management Conference is an annual conference held in North America that offers an outstanding educational experience to help attendees to mitigate the risks inherent in exploring, working, teaching, and recreating in wild places. Outward Bound is one of the three founding partner organizations and a core contributor to the conference Steering Committee. Outward Bound USA Director of Risk & Safety, Mike Pigg, was elected the Conference Steering Committee Chair from 2019 – 2022. Outward Bound is an active participant at this conference, sharing common practices in risk management and leaning from outdoor industry professionals.
5. Governance and Oversight
Risk is essential to the nature of Outward Bound and our educational mission to provide powerful learning experiences, and risk management requires alignment on what is an appropriate level of risk to ensure participants are able to fully participate in challenging activities. Safety governance serves as the foundation of our safety management framework and ensures our Boards and senior leadership have a significant role in setting our approach to risk and are responsible for monitoring, assessing, and optimizing our safety performance.
Safety Committee of the Board
The Safety Committee of the OBUSA Board oversees safety culture and safety management of Outward Bound in the US. Comprised of members with diverse professional expertise, this group supports and challenges management to ensure an appropriate balance in risk is maintained, while monitoring current and emerging risks to the organization. In addition, each Outward Bound School maintains and active Board Safety Committee to serve the same purpose locally.
OBUSA Risk and Safety Department
The OBUSA Risk and Safety Department leads safety and risk management operations for Outward Bound in the USA. The Department oversees the development of and compliance with Outward Bound national standards. Current and emerging risks inform the Department’s focus, as well as program audits, incident data, information from industry partners, legal and medical professionals, and senior staff at Outward Bound Schools across the country.
Outward Bound International
Outward Bound USA is part of an international network of 37 Schools spread over 34 countries on six continents. Outward Bound is managed globally by Outward Bound International, who regularly reviews our safety management systems against rigorous licensing standards.
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