Outdoor Education Courses for Kids and Families

The weather is warming up and for some of us who avoid the cold we are getting ready to get back outside. Do you need to brush up on some skills? Are you looking to learn something new this year? This post is for you!

Here is a round up of some outdoor education courses for kids and families to get you ready for your upcoming outdoor adventures, whatever they may be. 

The classes below are just a starting point for your adventure in education. Beyond what we list below, check out your local park system, local gear and bike shops, local outings clubs, and other community education programs. We’ve provided some links to possible sources of education below.

Many are online (Learn Outside Online is an especially prolific provider, and we only highlight a few of their courses) and can be done from anywhere at your own pace. Others are provided by companies that are available in-person in a wide variety of locations. Let’s get started!

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Camping & Backpacking

Camping and backpacking season is upon us! If you’re a newbie you may be looking for some guidance. If you’re more advanced maybe you’re looking to do more and go farther in the backcountry. There are lots of different options, here are a couple to get your search started!

In addition to the courses listed below, definitely check out your local outfitters. REI and EMS definitely offer classes on many topics. Local shops often do as well.

Also check out local outings clubs. For example, in the Seattle area the Mountaineers and Washington Alpine Club both offer classes that could be interesting. In the northeast, the Appalachian Mountain Club offers classes.

Two young girls on the trail with full backpacking packs.
Team member Calisa shared this photo of her kids on the trail!

Family Camping Online Course

Here at Tales of a Mountain Mama we want you to get outside with your family. To help you get started on your camping journey we have a 5-day email course for you. Just sign up and watch your inbox for tips and information specific to camping with a family!

  • Online, whenever you want
  • FREE

Camping Basics

This course is only one hour long, but REI courses are always helpful and informative. Brush up on your camping knowledge if it’s been a few years or get the basic knowledge you need to get started for the first time.

  • Online, scheduled
  • FREE

Become an Outdoor Backpacking Badass

If you’re looking to kick it up a notch and head out into the backcountry but have no idea where to start, try this! She Dreams of Alpine is a community specifically for women looking to get outside and be empowered. Allison is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. 

  • Online, self-paced, registration only available at specific times so join the waitlist
  • $497


If you’re ready to hit the trails, check in with your local gear shop. Ask them for recommendations and see if they offer courses! REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, and local alpine clubs (e.g., Appalachian Mountain Club, Washington Alpine Club, The Mountaineers) also offer several different courses in which you may be interested.

Local park systems may also offer programs that give you community and skills along the way. For example, in the Cleveland Metroparks, programs range from those geared for parents of young children to have a structured way to explore nature to programs for kids only to programs for adults only. These can be a safe way to start getting your kids out in nature when they are young or you are less confident in your own skills.

Three boys celebrate at an observation deck along a trail.
Taking this crew for a hike is a JOB. Taking the Hike Like a Pro course has helped me feel more informed and prepared!

Backpacking 101

This is a comprehensive introduction to backpacking. It covers gear, packing, navigation, site selection, cooking, and more.

  • Online, self-paced
  • Free with Outside + Membership; may be free without, depending on other use of their resources that month.

Thru-Hiking 101

Everything you need to know to get started in planning the thru-hike of your dreams! This course is taught by Liz Thomas, a world-famous thru-hiker. She’s done it all and is ready to teach you!

  • Online, self-paced
  • Free with Outside + Membership; may be free without, depending on other use of their resources that month.

If you don’t want to do the online course, talk with outfitters along the trail you are interested in hiking. I am most familiar with the Appalachian Trail (particularly Maine and New Hampshire). In Maine, Poet’s Gear Emporium and Appalachian Trail Hostel and Outfitters both have really great information for thru-hikers.

Overnight Programs for Youth

There are more camp programs than we can possibly list here, so we are covering some major organizations that run programs in multiple parts of the country. We also have some recommended resources to look for more regional or local options.

My kids attend a YMCA camp that I went to, and was a counselor at, in the 90s. I’m writing this section from a place of real love for overnight summer programs for kids. In addition to giving kids a way to be outdoors and tech-free for an extended period of time, my kids come back from camp each year more independent and mature than they were when they went to camp. We view summer camp as an integral part of us teaching them to be productive members of society when they grow up.

American Camp Association Camps

If you don’t know where to start, look through our recommendations below, but definitely check out the American Camp Association list of accredited camps. If you start here, you will find camps that meet certain requirements for leadership training, facilities, safety, and programming.

National Outdoor Leadership School

NOLS is a well-known and well-respected outdoor and leadership program. They run expeditions for youth that range from a few weeks to a full college semester. The programs take place all over the world. Everyone I know who has done a NOLS program has come back completely changed by the experience.

Outward Bound

Outward Bound is often presented as the main alternative to NOLS. Both programs are excellent, and ultimately I think the choice between the two comes down to when, where, what, and the cost for your family. Outward Bound has historically focused more on supporting at-risk youth in addition to teaching outdoor skills to youth in paying programs. Outward Bound is also available all over the world. I participated in a mountaineering program in Japan with Outward Bound when I was a high school student. TMM recommends NOLS and Outward Bound equally enthusiastically.


I have kids involved in both Girl Scouts and BSA Scouts (at the troop and cub level). My daughter does both. As with the NOLS vs. Outward Bound debate, I have no intention of getting into the debates between the two programs. Both Girl Scouts and BSA Scouts run summer camp programs.

Girl Scouts offers sleep away programs for girls starting from the summer after first grade. BSA Scouts offers Cub Scout programs (rising elementary school kids) that are long-weekend programs parents attend with them. Troop-level scouts (rising middle school and up) can attend with troops or as individuals who join other scouts going without troops. The camps are run by local councils, so you’ll have to do some looking to find the ones nearest to you.

Inspiring Girls Expeditions

I have a soft spot in my heart for this program because it was started by someone I went to graduate school with, while she was a PhD student. Each team of leaders includes a working scientist, guide, and artist (all women) who take high school girls (and trans, non-binary, gender queer, agender, and gender queer individuals) on serious expeditions. These programs are heavily subsidized (and possibly free).


As with Scouts, YMCA programs are not centrally organized or coordinated, so you’ll need to look around the area you want to send your child to camp. Some are co-ed and others are not. There are good arguments for both types, depending on your family and the needs of your kids. My children attend a YMCA camp in New Hampshire and love it. Most of the YMCA camps that I have interacted with often focus on traditional “campy” things like swimming, archery, arts and crafts, and canoeing.

Raleigh International

This is an international organization that runs adventure programs for semesters, summers, or gap-years. It is aimed at older youth and young-adults. I was selected for a Raleigh program as a high schooler (in Hong Kong) but was unable to actually do a course. My selection weekend was an eye-opening challenge for me. We were given a small gear list and not allowed to take anything beyond it.

Over the 24-hours of the selection weekend, we worked in teams to cook (we even had to kill a chicken, but that seems unlikely to be something your youth is asked to do unless you are also in Asia; we also were give vegetables to cook but no knife to cut them with), set up tents, and go on a night hike. I think we did some low ropes types challenges.

We had minimal time to sleep and didn’t actually get to sleep in the tents we set up. The general idea was to put us into stressful situations and see how we handled them so that they could determine who was resilient enough for the course. I loved every minute of it.

First Aid

As a mom, I’m constantly bandaging some kind of wound.  Or so it seems. A wilderness first aid or even a first responder course will give you necessary skills and some peace of mind as well! Check out this awesome post for more about wilderness first aid for outdoor families.

Two girls are practicing rolling a patient onto a mat in an  first aid Outdoor Education Courses for Kids.
Team member Rita’s girls participating in a first aid course.

Wilderness First Aid

Wilderness First Aid courses are in-person but they have them across the country. They are an industry leader and you will certainly come away with a vast amount of knowledge!

  • In-person
  • Varies, $200+ depending on the level, location, and duration.

The “Big Three” wilderness medicine providers are NOLS Wilderness Medicine, SOLO and Wilderness Medical Associates. I have done classes with all three and found them to be very similar and all high quality. Many local mountaineering and alpine clubs host these organizations offering courses. Local Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of America councils also often offer classes.

Local parks and colleges also sometimes offer courses. I just finished Wilderness First Aid through the Cleveland Metroparks. When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, I got and maintained a Wilderness First Responder certification through classes offered by universities to students and the general public.

For an upgrade off WFA, look for Wilderness First Responder (WFR) classes. These are 70-80 hour classes, but can be available in hybrid format with as a few as 3-4 ten-hour days in person.

Wilderness medicine student checks on another student during a course practice.
Wilderness medicine student checks on another student during a course practice.

Wilderness Medicine for Health-care Professionals

Health-care professionals can also benefit from wilderness medicine training. However, because you have a different starting point than the general public, there are special courses to bridge from your front-country medical training to a wilderness setting. These courses are also supposed to be great.

As might be expected, the Big Three offer these courses as well. In a quick search, I found a Wilderness EMS Upgrade from WMA, a Wilderness Module course for medical professionals from SOLO, and four different courses for medical professionals from NOLS.


One of the most basic skills you’ll need when you’re getting outside is the ability to navigate. Knowing where you are and how to get to a desired destination will always come in handy! Check out these courses to get started. Also check out our post on teaching navigation skills to kids.

Two boys pointing to their location on a trailhead map.
We always check out the trailhead map to get an idea of where we are and where we are going.

Intro to Navigation 

This is a series of four detailed articles from REI. Each article is broken down into sections and includes detailed graphics and videos. This is a great place to start or to brush up!

  • Online, self-paced
  • FREE

Basic Map and Compass Skills

This class is provided by Outside magazine. It covers reading maps and how to use a compass. They even offer a Gaia GPS introduction as well if you’re looking for something more advanced.

  • Online, self-paced
  • Free with Outside + Membership; may be free without, depending on other use of their resources that month.

Stewardship & Leave No Trace

As people start to spend more time outdoors it is important for us to be wise stewards of the land. When we know how to respect the environment we are protecting it for future generations. Make sure you and your family take the time to learn more and recreate responsibly.

Leave No Trace

If you spend a lot of time outside or lead groups of any kind, you may be interested in learning even more. This course focuses on the Leave No Trace principles which every recreationist should know and follow. This is the real deal; at the end of the course, you are certified as a master educator.

  • In-person
  • Varies, $600+ depending on the level, location, and duration

Survival Skills

Jessie Krebs Teaches Wilderness Survival

You can find survival courses just about anywhere. Masterclass is an original source of online learning and always has the best instructors. You’re sure to learn a ton in this course!

  • Online, self-paced
  • Varies, $15/month for membership and access to all courses

You can also look for in person classes that are local to where you live. If I search for “survival class Ohio”, I get a whole bunch of links for classes all over the state. Some are more reputable than others, but you can always ask for references if you are looking at a course.

Bike Maintenance

Complete Guide to Bike Maintenance

I can’t be the only mom who dreads the cost of bike tune-ups and maintenance required at the beginning of each season for a garage full of bikes! I’ve had my eye on this course for a while and this year may be the year I finally enroll and learn to do it on my own. Plenty of basic information so you can take care of most issues on your own.

  • Online, self-paced
  • Varies, $45+ depending on your subscription level

When you are looking for bike maintenance knowledge, be sure to check out your local bike shop and any local REI or EMS shops (or other outfitters). There are often courses run by these organizations that will give you crucial skills to keep your bike in better shape. My husband is a shop service manager and definitely wants people to learn basic maintenance so that he gets bikes to work on that are in better shape.

And don’t forget to check out our Bike Maintenance for Families post!

Taking Kids and Youth into the Outdoors

Both my kids are involved in scouts (my daughter is in Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts, my son is in Scouts BSA) and I have learned that these organizations run good trainings to help adults become more comfortable in the outdoors. If your kids are already in these organizations, there is a decent chance you got tapped for a volunteer role of some kind. That means you have access to their outdoor training.

Outdoor Essentials

For Girl Scouts, you have to do Outdoor Essentials to be allowed to take girls on camp overnights. This is partly about how to do things the “Girl Scout Way” but also about leave no trace, feeding kids on a campout, cooking on a fire, and building fires. Lots of good info.

  • Price will vary by council; for my area it is $15
  • 8 hour course with optional overnight; can be done as a hybrid with just 4 hours in person

Basic Adult Leadership Outdoor Orientation

For Boy Scouts, the basic training for Cub Scout adults is BALOO (Basic Adult Leadership Outdoor Orientation). I haven’t done this course, but have heard good things about it. Again, it is about both the Cub Scout way of doing camping trips, but also about the skills you need.

  • Price will vary by council.
  • This is a weekend course.

Introduction to Outdoor Leadership Skills

Introduction to Outdoor Leadership Skills (IOLS) is the troop-level equivalent of BALOO. In my area it is combined with Scout Leader Specific Skills into a single Scoutmaster Basic course. It is a weekend course that teaches you all the outdoor skills that scouts need to get to the First Class Rank. This will include non-outdoor skills, but since Scouts BSA focuses on leadership through outdoor experiences, it will include all the skills you need for camping.

I just finished taking the class and loved it, even though I knew many of the outdoor skills they taught. We covered sleep systems, orienteering, plant and animal id, cooking (stoves and fires), lighting fires, using axes, running campfire programs, feminine hygiene, and a variety of soft skills. I highly recommend this course.

  • Price may vary; what I see is about $45 right now.
  • This is a weekend course.

Hunting and Fishing

Hunting and fishing are also ways to spend time outdoors, and they are just as intimidating to break into as rock climbing, mountain biking, and backpacking. Aside from the options below, be sure to check out your own local outfitter.

Sisterhood of the Outdoors

Sisterhood of the Outdoors is designed to help women learn the skills they need to be comfortable with these sports. TMM Member Jami’s mother- in-law has participated in many of their activities and reports that they are great.

  • Price varies depending on what you choose to do.
  • Length of time varies.

Local Park and DNR Courses (Minnesota as an Example)

Local parks and Departments of Natural Resources also sometimes run classes. They want to expand who is out in nature, so they try to be accessible.

  • Price varies.
  • Length of time varies.

Learn New Outdoor Skills

There are a million other outdoor skills you may be interested in developing. For every skill, there is a course for you! Check your local parks, local gear and bike shops, community colleges, outdoors clubs, and continuing education programs.

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Outdoor Education Courses for Kids and Families

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  • Amanda, her husband, Josh, and their children, Colby and Lua, live in Oberlin, OH where Amanda is a Geosciences professor at Oberlin College. Amanda's parents live in New Hampshire and so they spend a lot of time there as well. They take advantage of homeschooling to maximize outdoors time for everyone. Amanda grew up in Hong Kong and spent summers in New Hampshire, where she found her love for nature. Pursuing a PhD in geosciences to study why Earth looks the way it does and how people change those processes was a natural outgrowth of her love for being outside. Their outdoor sports sort of follow seasons: the winter they love to ski, in the fall they race cyclocross, in the spring they ride bikes on day trips, and in the summer they rock climb, bike tour, take overnight canoe trips, and backpack.

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