Explore Austin Summer Wilderness Trip (aka the hardest week of my life)

By: Hannah Bruno, Explore Austin Marketing and Events Manager


When I joined the Explore Austin Staff team in May 2021, I walked in with the expectation the programming would be very similar to organizations I’ve worked for previously. In my experience, youth-focused programs are often simplified for the kids. So, when I agreed to dive headfirst into an Explore Austin Summer Wilderness trip, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Every Explore Austin staff member gets to choose a Summer Wilderness trip to tag along on each year. It was one of the perks I bragged to my friends about as I shared my new role. Having little outdoor experience (ok, none all), I opted to go with one of the younger teams on a backpacking trip to the Ouachita Forest in Southern Arkansas. It seemed the most logical choice, and to be honest, it seemed the easiest. I knew I wouldn’t have time to properly train; biking, canoeing, and rock climbing were out of the question.

The trip was harder than I could have ever anticipated. It was suffocatingly hot and humid. My hiking boots, which had only been tested on short “hikes” in Austin, produced nasty blisters within the first day. We averaged a pace of less than half a mile an hour, wearing 50-pound packs for 10 hours a day.  I was terrified by the thought of having to pull a tick off my body. Just one day into the week-long trek, I was sore and tired and angry at myself for not doing a trial run with a pack before committing to 7 days.

As we ate dinner that night, I chatted with one of the Explorers. She told me how tough the day had been. She didn’t think she could do it again tomorrow. I felt her pain – literally. I felt it in the stinging blisters on my left big toe and in the deep ache between my shoulders. I knew I should be positive. I racked my mind for standard pep talk material. You can do it! You’re tough! Aren’t you glad you took on the challenge? Instead, what came out of my exhausted brain instead was a defeated,

“I know. Today was hard. I wanted to quit more than once. I’m not excited about tomorrow.”

The Explorer looked at me in total shock.

“Really?”, she asked. “I thought all the adults here love to be outside?”

I realized that this Explorer had been trudging along thinking that the trip was only difficult for her. I took the opportunity to set her mind at ease – no, you are not the only one struggling. For the remainder of the trip, I took every opportunity to remind the worn-down Explorers that the trip was physically and emotionally demanding for me, too. We commiserated together. We celebrated together each evening as we reached our new campsite, dropped our packs, and headed to the refreshing river for a swim.

The Explore Austin program is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s not a watered-down outdoor experience designed to keep youth comfortable. It’s true outdoor high adventure. Challenging our youth develops physical and mental resiliency and a willingness to try new things. But, it’s not only our youth who develop from these experiences. As we adults struggle alongside them, admit that we are being challenged, but ultimately continue anyways, we model the kind of adaptability that leads to success in other areas of our lives. That is the kind of experience that leads to authentic and strong relationships.

Will I go on another Summer Wilderness Trip? Absolutely, I will… just maybe not to Arkansas in July.