Expedition Life

Now that you’ve signed up for a trip with MWS, you may have more specific questions about your upcoming expedition. Or perhaps you’re still considering if MWS is right for you and you want more information. Our Expedition Life page was created to help YOU come up with answers!

All MWS field expeditions have the same great core curriculum, despite differences in route, technical skills, weather or group dynamics. This means that whatever you choose- packrafting, backpacking, canoeing and/or mountaineering- you’ll learn about local ecology, community building, Montana wilderness and leadership. All of our courses are appropriate for individuals of any experience level whether you’ve never camped under the stars or are trying to take your backcountry skills to the next level. Your experienced instructors will break down each skill into small, digestible sections that are focused on practice and, of course, fun. Most field expeditions include 3 phases that MWS calls the Skill Introduction Phase, Skill Development Phase and the Capstone Phase. Below is an outline of what you can expect on each section:

Expedition Phase 1

Skill Introduction Phase

This initial phase focuses on creating community with your instructors and peers so you can have the best adventure possible. You may participate in team building activities such as visiting a ropes course, talking about your personal goals for the expedition or sharing other activities that are important in your life. As you learn new skills, your instructors will help you build confidence by allowing ample time for hands on practice. You’ll learn how to cook nutritious meals, stay warm and dry in the backcountry, identify surrounding plants and animals and start building friendships that will last a lifetime!

Expedition Phase 2

Skill Development Phase

As you become increasingly comfortable with your surroundings, you will be able to tackle more physical challenges within Phase 2. Now that you’ve mastered some of the basic skills, you can focus on more complex problem solving including advanced backcountry navigation, leadership opportunities and practicing technical skills. Instructors may offer you a chance to lead your peers on a climb, through a rapid or during the hiking day. You’ll learn more about cooking, including baking (backcountry pizza!) and get to contribute to decisions about what experiences will be included on your expedition. During this phase, your instructors will support your leadership opportunities by continuing to manage risk and evaluate hazards as you travel.

Expedition Capstone

Capstone Phase

By now, you and your peers have had ample time to develop as a group. You will most likely feel comfortable and confident traveling and camping in the backcountry and are beginning to develop your own unique leadership style. Now is the time to tackle even bigger challenges such as peak attempts, more complex white water or travel in a smaller group. Some expeditions are long enough that you may be able to complete more than one of these activities! Instructors will acknowledge your hard work by giving you more independence and allowing you to make more decisions about your expedition. The expedition will end with a closing ceremony and a celebratory meal on the last night in the backcountry.

Your course may celebrate with a BBQ, burrito night or other cookout before returning to Bozeman. On the following day, you will travel back to the MWS Cache where you will have access to clean clothes.

Transitioning to Life at Home

You may find yourself sad to leave the backcountry or excited to share your adventure with friends and family. Either way, instructors will help the transition back to the front country feel natural and easy. The positive habits that you and your peers have developed will help you plan your own trips with friends or family from home in the future! Additionally, many of the skills you will learn on an MWS course can help you be successful at school, home, the military, at your job or clubs/groups you may be a part of. Many MWS students just like you stay in touch with the new friends they’ve made via our Facebook groups or by planning their own exciting trips!

Still want more? E-mail our Outreach Coordinator Nicki Bailey (nicki@montanawildernessschool.org) to ask about specific courses, financial aid or other questions!

Lessons and topics often covered during the expedition:

Backcountry camping and expedition skills
Backcountry camping skills

Camp craft:

  • Shelter set-up and care (incl. knots for tarps and tents)
  • Campsite selection and spatial organization
  • Campsite weather proofing
  • General care of the equipment
  • Stove use and safe kitchen practices
  • Cooking skills
  • Camp bear-proofing camp
  • Making fires (when appropriate)

Backcountry travel skills


  • Packing a pack adequately
  • Sharing the load
  • Keeping the group together on the trail (pace setting and sweeping the rear)
  • Applying bear protocols while hiking (including bear spray use)

    Leave No Trace (LNT)

    • Learn the 7 LNT principles
    • Apply LNT principles while traveling in the backcountry and at camp
    • Complete the LNT Awareness Training

    Self-care and Backcountry First Aid
    • Personal hygiene and cleanliness
    • Appropriate clothing and layering techniques
    • Knowledge of water purification needs and treatment options
    • Use appropriate sun protection
    • Understand preventive measures for blister prevention and care
    • Nutrition and hydration awareness throughout the expedition
    • Familiarity with first aid kit contents and use
    • Participation in the MWS WFA training and certification requirements (if offered)

    Route planning and navigation
    • Planning a route using good judgment
    • Reading a topographical map and use a compass to navigate efficiently
    • Learn to navigate through hazardous mountain terrain (talus, scree, snow slope, steep terrain, etc.)
    • Learn to evaluate a stream crossing and choose an appropriate crossing technique
    Risk Management
    • Learn to identify risks to self and group in a mountain environment
    • Learn what to do in case of lightning
    • Learn how to minimize identified risks to self and group
    • Learn how to positively participate in collaborative group decision making

    Expedition community and lessons about the natural world
    Communication skills
    • Learn to listen to and hears others
    • Verbal and non-verbal communication skills (including body language awareness)
    • Learn to demonstrate an understanding of different tools for effective conflict resolution
    • Learn to accept feedback to build healthier relationships
    • Give feedback to build healthier relationships
    • Present an issue or activity to the group
    • Debrief an activity with the group
    Specific Leadership skills
    • Learn to understand different styles of leadership
    • Demonstrate an understanding of different roles in group decision making
    • Learn to set goals for him/herself and for the group
    • Lead the group through an activity and/or terrain as “Expedition Leader of the Day”
    • Be an active follower supporting the leader of the day
    • Develop coping mechanisms to remain positive and focused during hardship
    Self-Awareness and group awareness
    • Explore personal values and goals
    • Demonstrate an understanding of the importance of expedition behavior and group norms
    • Learn to organize oneself and be on time
    • Understand and respect for each group member’s individual identity
    • Take responsibility for his/her actions
    • Challenges him/herself to become a better group member
    Wild Ecology and conservation
    • Learn to apply Leave No Trace principles to daily life in the front country
    • Learn to identify some local flora and fauna
    • Learn about the area/region of the expedition, its land status/management, and issues affecting it
    • Develop an understanding of the state and federal land management agencies and their roles
    • Participate in a debate about Montana specific natural resource issues with the group
    • Develop an understanding of the importance of conservation of Montana’s wild spaces
    • Travelling in Grizzly Bear habitat
    • Bear spray use and bear precautions
    • Human wildlife interactions
    Technical Skills (expedition dependent)
    Mountaineering Skills

    Alpine Rock-climbing: Students will learn proper use of:

    • Anchors
    • Helmets, Harnesses
    • Knots
    • Belaying
    • Rappelling
    • On rock communication
    • Bouldering/Spotting

    Snow school and snow travel:

    • Snow travel techniques
    • Ice axe use
    • Self-arrest techniques
    • Fixed lines and Prussik ascents
    General River/Boating Skills
    • Learn how and when to use a PFD
    • Learn when to use appropriate river footwear
    • Be aware of other users on the river
    • Learn group management on the water: lead and sweep boats, pod formations, boat spacing
    • Understand the importance of gear location on the river: first aid, communication, rescue
    • Use river communication signals properly and consistently
    • Practice the use of a rescue throw bag
    • Learn basic river hydrology
    • Learn and understand basic river hazards
    • Learn to scout a river section and/or rapid and participate in group’s assessment and decision making to form a route management plan
    • Practice how to ‘take a swim’
    Canoeing Skills
    • Learn to pack and secure equipment in a canoe
    • Learn canoe control and paddling strokes
    • Learn to read water and understand large river hydrology
    • Develop efficient paddling in head and cross winds
    • Develop endurance techniques for long distance paddling
    Packrafting Skills
    • Demonstrate an understanding of a packraft and its components
    • Learn how to put a packraft together and to deflate/pack it
    • Take good care of the packraft parts, paddles, and helmet
    • Learn good paddling techniques: forward stroke, back stroke, ferry across current
    • Learn what to do if a packraft capsizes
    Fly Fishing
    • Tying knots
    • Casting
    • Reading water
    • Catch and release vs. catch and consume. Plus, preparing, cooking and eating fish in bear country