As a new member who's been lurking for a while, I wanted to provide a hopefully unique contribution with my short review of the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) 28 Day Field Course, which I took last September. For the record, I am not affiliated in any way with BOSS other than through my participation in this course.
If you haven't heard of BOSS, they are the longest continuously-running wilderness survival course in the US. BOSS was established in 1968 by a BYU professor named Larry Dean Olsen who used to take his students out into the desert to re-acquaint them with the skills and philosophies that primitive man used to survive. Larry believed that the modern world had disconnected man from the natural world. He taught his students how to adapt themselves to the desert, and to nature, in context of a challenging month-long trek.
While BOSS is called a "survival school," it's not what the name might call to mind. This course is not a "Bear Grills" experience, focused on gadgets or gimmicks (or drinking one's own urine)- instead it's a chance to relearn the basic primitive skills that served man until the major changes recently imposed by the industrial revolution. These skills are still in wide use in many "developing" parts of the world.
BOSS is also decidedly not a "leadership school" or "management retreat"- the focus is not on teamwork, decision making, or assertiveness, but instead on developing the knowledge and attitude that enables you to feel comfortable and safe in an outdoor survival situation.
For the gear-heads on this site, you should know that the course is decidedly "low tech." No flashlights, no stoves, no cuben fiber tents, etc., etc. Your primary gear is a wool blanket, a knife (fixed blade), a cup, a poncho, and parachute cord. One of the first things you learn is how to make your own back pack using your blanket and seat belt webbing. Students also make their fire-starting kits from available natural materials- either you do this well or no fire.
During the course, students are also completely disconnected from the outside world- no phone, no email, no news... nothing. This can be difficult for those tied to their technology or to their spouses and children. I fell into both categories.
BOSS takes part in Southern Utah (Boulder, UT- not Boulder, CO) and is broken into several phases. I'm intentionally leaving out a lot of the details out of respect to the course and to not "ruin" the experience for potential future students.
- Impact Phase: No food other than what you find, lots and lots of calories expended, lots of good knowledge taught in context of actual challenges that the group is facing. You will drink some really unpleasant water, but the creatures living in this water may be your only food.
- GroupEx: Lots of land nav, more skills training including cordage making, fire-starting, knife care, fire starting, water seeking, etc.
- Survival Camp: Upgrade primitive shelter and other skills, also game processing with local livestock. In my course, I ended up being the student who took the life of our sheep (this was "opt in"- we drew straws among volunteers)- I can tell you that the process was extremely humane, respectful, and emotional and was done in the context of practical instruction. I can also tell you that ALL of the animal was used in some way.
- More Group Travel and Solo Phase: In addition to more high speed movement through the desert, there's a 5 day "solo" camp where you get to enjoy nature in solitude at a fixed location. This was by far my favorite part- the location I had was stunningly beautiful.
- Final Challenge and Graduation: A group challenge after solo, then a nice close to the entire 28 days with team and instructors. Upon leaving, I realized how much I actually had bonded with some of my classmates.
WHAT DID I LIKE?
- Underlying course philosophy is great: BOSS doesn't position nature as an adversary ("man vs. wild"), but instead as our ancestral home. They go beyond "leave no trace" and into "positive impact"- this means that we try to, when possible, leave each site we use better than we found it (removing the impact of those who came before us).
- Class size is also great: We had a very diverse group of 7 students and 2 instructors, which was perfect. I was the token "corporate" guy in the group which made things fun around the campfire- the rest included a couple of river guides, a logistics consultant, and a very cool guy from Belgium who had the additional challenge of very basic English skills (thankfully, I know some French and was able to help a bit).
- Skills are taught in context of the need: This is the coolest part to me. They teach about thermoregulation, for example, immediately after a particularly difficult night dealing with the cold. This makes the training "stick" because you have experienced the downside of not using it.
- Skills & experiences are useful: Perhaps my confidence is unjustified, but I now feel that I would be OK in most situations if I lost some "key" items while outdoors. I know how my body & mind operate without food and I've lived without manufactured shelter in fairly cold conditions. I also have a pretty good grip, intellectually, on the priorities of survival.
- Instructors "walk the talk": My two instructors, who happened to be a couple, spend a very large part of their lives living in primitive conditions out of doors. They live the philosophy year round.
- Diversity of conditions at course location: This was truly an eye opener- I experienced 85+ degree days and miserable snow & hail within very short periods. Altitude changes were fairly dramatic ranging from 6k above to 11k above. Variable conditions were both physically and psychologically challenging, but made for a more interesting course overall. Total elapsed travel was about 220 miles over the course.
THINGS THAT I DIDN'T LIKE AS MUCH:
- Was EXTREMELY difficult to be away from family for this long- after the first two weeks, I longed to hear the voices of my wife & children. I also imagined many nightmare scenarios that could be happening at home or, to a lesser extent, at work. This is not a BOSS issue per se, but just something to really think about. I'm not ashamed to say that I teared up when I first heard my wife on the phone when the course was over.
- I personally would have liked more focus on wild edibles- had some training, but I don't feel sufficiently schooled in this area.
- Group politics- as you can expect, challenges, including hunger, occasionally pushed people to act in less than collaborative ways. I think this was instructive early in the course, but there were some conflicts later on that I think the instructors could have helped to resolve. That said, I also understand that they may have taken a non-interventionist approach since learning to resolve (or not resolve) our own conflicts within the group is another aspect of survival.
I'm super glad that I took this course and am, of course, thankful to my family and my work for enabling me to be away for so long. BOSS profoundly changed the way I see the outdoors and has made me more "at home" in the wild. The course is expensive, but to me the opportunity for this physical, mental, and emotional challenge was worth it.
Over the course, I lost 18 pounds, about half of which I think I needed to lose (I've gained back the other half :) ). I feel better post-course and more able to deal with physical challenge.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
No- it was a great "once in a lifetime" experience but one time is enough. :)
Starting fire with a bow drill and sage bark...
Cold and wet on the mountaintop...
My "solo" camp- five days, just me, my thoughts, and noone else...