Playing our ACES: Explore Austin’s Secret to Comprehensive Youth Development

Way back in 2006, when Explore Austin was established, our founders wanted to create a way for outdoor adventure to be used as a conduit for youth to learn lifelong, transferrable skills. Enter our ACES curriculum. ACES are the backbone of the Explore Austin leadership program, and each year of the program focuses on developing a particular ACES trait, while the final year focuses on putting all of the traits together. Through our Saturday Challenges, mentors and trip leaders emphasize qualities and actions that make an Explorer Action-Oriented, Courageous, an Excellent Teammate, and a Strong Communicator.

Climbing a cliff face or biking down a steep mountain trail is no time to be on the fence about your situational goals. We ask Explorers in our program to recognize a need for practical solutions and measurable goals. Learning the importance of being action-oriented means that youth develop the necessary planning and executive skills required to coordinate a 10-mile hike to the top of a summit, delegate necessary campsite tasks, and manage ambiguous outdoor situations. This skill translates into the real world as time management, self-motivation, and confidence.

There is no better place to develop trust in yourself than the great outdoors. Explore Austin brings youth into a totally new and often intimidating environment – whether it’s their first time sleeping away from home, or they’re scared of heights, or their legs feel like jelly after a day of carrying a 50lbs backpack. When our program participants to push themselves physically and mentally, they develop the capacity to deal with adversity and to keep their goals in sight. It’s this mental fortitude and courage which will empower them to set and achieve big, scary, ambitious goals in education, careers, extracurricular activities, and more!

As the adage goes, a team is only as strong as its weakest link. As our program encourages both Explorers and Mentors to build solid relationships, it is also equally focused on cultivating youth who are dependable and respectful teammates. Asking youth to reflect earnestly on questions like “Am I responsible?”, “Can I honestly say I’m contributing to the group?”, and “Am I thinking about others or am I only considering myself?” engages them in community-mindedness. Being an excellent teammate in the backcountry turns into being a caring, engaged, and empathetic teammate in your family, friend-group, sports team, and beyond.

Being able to communicate effectively is perhaps the most important of all life skills. Being a good communicator doesn’t only require saying the right thing at the right time. Above all, it requires mutual respect. Through the Explore Austin program, youth and mentors alike are introduced to different world views, perspectives, and belief systems. As relationships are built through Saturday Challenges and Summer wilderness trips, participants begin to share their thoughts and opinion. This open transfer of ideas can only work in a safe and respectful environment. Learning to treat others with dignity and listening to differing ideas and respectfully communicating their own is a crucial skill to develop in our youth.

These are the skills Explore Austin believes helps youth in achieving comprehensive wellbeing and the social-emotional skills that will allow them to achieve their definition of success throughout their entire lives.

The ABC’s of Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the first outdoor activities our Explorers tackle in the Explore Austin program. While it may seem simple – put on your pack and hit the trail – you may be surprised to learn there’s a science behind filling the perfect backpack. Our expert trip leaders teach our Explorers the ABC’s of backpacking, and now you can learn the basics, as well.

When packing, think about your stuff and ask yourself these questions: What will I need today? What don’t I need?
You can make your life easier by placing the items you need in an easy to reach location. Items like a raincoat, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and snacks should live at the top of your pack, or in a separate, convenient pocket. Items like pajamas, dirty clothes and a sleeping bag should be packed at the bottom. You won’t need these items until the evening; plus, you won’t have to dig through your dirty clothes for that raincoat in a downpour.

Balancing a pack is important. Imagine having 30 lbs in your pack. Where would you want that weight? All on one side, at the top or at the bottom? The correct answer is all of the above. The weight of your gear should be distributed so that your pack is an extension of your body. The key is placing heavy items in the middle of the pack, closest to your own back. Imagine the area above your hips and below your shoulder blades; that is where you want your heaviest items. If you have too much weight toward the top, you will be top-heavy, and your shoulders will hurt more.

Keep your gear tight and compressed in your bag. If you have straps, tighten them down. This keep everything in a nice, neat, manageable bundle. Your center of gravity will thank you for the extra effort to keep things compact.

Every space in your pack should be utilized. If you see a small deformity, a little hole of space, fill that hole. Stuff some socks in there, maybe even a shirt or two. This is not the time to fold nicely; stuff it all and make sure all that space is used. Space is limited and we want to be efficient.

We know – in the movies the hikers always have stuff hanging off their packs. It looks so cool and totally rugged! But, according to the experts, you want to make sure to pack all your gear inside your pack. That Nalgene strapped to the outside will fall off and that wet towel tied on might not make the trip. If you are packing smart, then every piece of gear has a purpose and loosing that piece of gear will create problems.

If you are traveling with food and fuel (like a canister of propane for a camp stove), make sure the fuel is packed below the food. Why? If that fuel leaks and gravity takes it down into some food, that awesome dinner you were looking forward to all day is no good to eat. This is also a good rule for items like shampoo and sunscreen.

There you have it! The ABC’s of Backpacking! While these rules are a good place to start, there are many ways to pack and everyone should develop their own systems. Play around. Practice packing. Take many trips. If you have any tried-and-true tips, drop a comment and share your expertise with us!

Explorer Spotlight: Victoria Uriogstegui

When asked what stands out most during her six years in the Explore Austin program, East Austin resident and recent high school graduate Victoria Uriostegui has no shortage of tales about heart-pounding, stomach-churning, adrenaline-pumping challenges. In her calm and frank way, Victoria narrates her first trip with the EA program. She recalls the anxiety of boarding a plane for the first time, the nerves of spending her first nights away from home, the exhilaration of mountain biking down steep and slippery gravel trails, the terror of sleeping in a tent in the freezing wilderness, petrified that every bump or rustle was a hungry bear lumbering into the campsite for a late-night snack. While riddled with pure emotions, these memories are punctuated with evidence of personal growth and a continued sense of community, as Victoria shares that she learned to channel her fear into determination and began to lean on her teammates and mentors to give her the little push of courage she needed to scale a boulder or press on through aching feet to cover the last miles of a backpacking trek.

Victoria and her Explore Austin Team, the Arrows, at a Saturday Challenge

As trust between mentor and mentee was built challenge by challenge, the pushes to climb a little higher or paddle a little faster evolved into candid conversations about the future. Victoria’s mentor began to discuss what her life could look like past high school and the EA program. They pushed Victoria to weigh her interests against potential careers, giving her the opportunity to take career assessments and personality evaluations. During this time, while working with the homeless population in her community, Victoria realized that she wanted to be a force for good, continuing the community-oriented work that benefited her so greatly. Now, accepted to the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication and Leadership, Victoria plans to pursue a career in the nonprofit or public sector. She’ll begin her journey in Fall 2021, with UT’s incoming freshman class.

Bringing the story full circle, Victoria is headed back to the place that spurred her path to leadership. Interning with Explore Austin’s fund development team, Victoria is playing a key role in advocating for the financial support that is required to achieve outdoor equity. In her own words, Victoria shares why the Explore Austin program is so important to her.

The Arrows on their Capstone Summer Wilderness Trip in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

“It wasn’t until I entered Explore Austin that I truly blossomed. The program was like a long retreat for me, where I discovered myself and refined my abilities. I began to form leadership skills my younger, timid self wouldn’t have believed. I look at all I’ve done, and I think about all about the opportunities I missed thinking they were “too hard.” Reflecting on my teammates and mentors, all amazing women, seeing them persevere through numerous challenges, has made me confident and proud. I am determined to be strong like them. I am determined to steadily hold the reins of my future.”