Chico State’s participation in national competition opens students’ minds to outdoor exploration, sustainability
Kyle Gunther walked around a dark room with a garage door as its entrance, in the bowels of the Wildcat Recreation Center at Chico State, where dozens of pairs of hiking boots were stacked, sleeping bags hung from the wall and various outdoor equipment was scattered throughout.
Gunther, a trip leader for the Associated Students’ Adventure Outings program, is responsible for the Chico Gets Outdoors initiative. That effort aims to drive the campus community to participate in a national competition, the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge, which encourages people to explore the natural environs.
“I think it’s kind of hard to think sustainably, or having a sustainable mindset, when you don’t really understand the reasoning for it,” said Gunther, a senior biology major, during a recent chat in the Adventure Outings equipment room. “I think being able to get outdoors really influences that change of pace. It makes you more interested in living a sustainable life.”
Spearheaded at the national level by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to foster an interest in outdoor recreation among young people, the Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge is described as “a Mother Nature-meets-March Madness competition with 100 schools from across the country going head-to-head for four weeks to see who can get the most people outside and active.” It’s a quest to see which school is the “outdoorsiest campus in the nation.”
Students, staff, faculty and community members register on the competition’s website, download an app and post up to five photos a day of some sort of outdoor activity. Participants are required to be in the photo and activities range anywhere from walking to work to rock climbing in the backcountry. They receive points, which go to the school’s total, for each entry taken from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15.
It’s the third year Chico State has participated. The campus finished third in its initial year and seventh place last year. It’s currently in seventh place in its division, the larger of two categories based on enrollment numbers. Last year, Humboldt State took the top spot.
Chico State has long been involved in conservation initiatives, such as its well-known A.S. Recycling program and the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, a group of interdisciplinary faculty searching for methods for farmers to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The competition is just another way to help spread awareness and get people thinking sustainably.
“There’s a strong correlation between how much time people spend outdoors—their comfort and familiarity with being in nature—and their openness to concepts and principles of sustainability or their interest in supporting those types of goals,” said Fletcher Alexander, Chico State’s sustainability programs manager.
The competition was originally organized out of the Institute for Sustainable Development, where Alexander regularly uses competition as a form for engagement.
“Competition is a really effective platform for engaging college students,” he said. “It just works really well with that population.”
Gunther said it made sense for Adventure Outings to take charge this year in organizing the challenge and encouraging participation in it.
“Since it’s an outdoor competition and we are the outdoor group on campus, we felt responsible to push it,” he said.
Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge has corporate sponsors from well-known outdoor recreation companies, including REI, The North Face, Eagles Nest Outfitters and Hyrdo Flask. The companies donate equipment, such as outdoor clothing, hammocks and tents to the participating universities. Adventure Outings uses the donations as incentives to get people involved, such as giving away items as prizes in a scavenger hunt.
The competition also helps get the word out on campus and in the community about what the program offers, Gunther said. Adventure Outings organizes about 30 trips a year, ranging from floats on the Sacramento River to a week-long camping trip to Yosemite National Park, leading participants on several intermediate day hikes around the valley to places like Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls.
The trips range in cost, typically depending on the amount of travel, such as a $15 hike along local flumes or a $136 Tomales Bay sea-kayaking excursion. The cost for nonstudents is typically slightly higher. Participants are required to bring their own gear, or they can rent it from Adventure Outings.
Alexander noted that getting people outside isn’t just about making them conscious of the environment. He says there are tangible benefits, for both health and sustainability. When students spend the day being active outdoors, it means they’re not sitting in front of a television or playing video games, which eats up electricity, Alexander explained.
“If you bike trip to Upper Park for the day, you could say that’s a low carbon-footprint day,” he said.
Gunther echoed him and said he’s enjoyed watching people outside of the campus take part in the challenge.
“I’ve definitely seen a good amount of what seemed to be community members getting involved,” he said. “It’s taken, and it’s really cool to see that.”