Outdoor Living Skills: Ready, Set, Go

by Brigitta Modglin

I began using the Outdoor Living Skills (OLS) program when I worked at a Girl Scout camp in Iowa, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Each group of campers had a specific set of requirements and activities based on their program specialty, designated by the camp director. One area of requirements was outdoor skills, and we were given a checklist for the level with which we were working. As I continued my years at that camp, I learned that the checklists were developed from the OLS program. I also realized that the staff actually completed the Program Leader Course requirements (informally) throughout staff training — preparing us to teach the skills to campers. Campers didn’t even know they were participating in an actual formal program until they completed a level and got a patch. Staff just knew the OLS program as a way of life at camp, as standard and regular as swimming, eating in the dining hall, and having a campfire. My, what a sneaky camp director I had!

Needless to say, I was hooked and became quite familiar with the OLS curriculum, which was integrated into the camp programming, and went on to become an instructor and eventually a trainer. This is a progressive program already designed and easy to modify to a variety of settings — and all the resources are available to go with it.

What Is the OLS Program?

The American Camping Association originally developed the Campcrafter program — an organized program to teach outdoor skills — known today as the Outdoor Living Skills program. Just as swimming, horseback riding, canoeing, and many other camp activities have different levels, so do outdoor skills.

The goal of the OLS program is simply to promote an understanding of the natural environment and the value of minimum-impact camping. The OLS program also teaches the skills necessary to enjoy camping and the outdoors. ACA’s OLS program is based on five levels:

It encompasses six skill areas:

  • On Your Way
  • Being Safe
  • Exploring Your World
  • Putting It On Your Plate
  • Tools and Ties
  • Finding Your Way

Survival Day — Using the OLS Program at an Outdoor Education Center
Amanda Gray currently works at an outdoor education center. She incorporated the OLS program into an existing program called “Survival Day,” that encompasses fire building, orienteering, knots, cooking, and safety preparedness. By using the OLS program, the center is able to easily gear the activities to the age and abilities of the student groups. The center also frequently uses the checklists to remind staff of what needs to be done and to get organized. According to the center’s educational program leader, “We use the OLS program with our outdoor education curriculum because it helps to make the system run smoothly and, at the end of the day, the kids know more and feel good because they experience success.”

What Are the Benefitsof Using the OLS Program?

  1. The foremost benefit of the OLS program is the ability to provide a quality program empowering participants with the knowledge and skills to enjoy the outdoors in an environmentally friendly and responsible manner.
  2. It is a proven program that can be used with almost any group of participants without extensive training. This ensures that each camper is receiving consistent outdoor skills instruction.
  3. OLS is an outdoor skills program that is flexible and can be adapted to many different kinds of facilities and programs.

How Do I Use the OLS Program with Participants/Campers?

With five progressive levels, the program is easy to implement and use with campers of all ages.

  1. Compare the sessions/programs offered to your campers (age, length of stay) with each of the OLS levels. Determine which level is best suited for each session. For example, a group of campers age nine who are at camp for a week could reasonably accomplish Level 1, Earth. Whereas, a group of fourteen-year-old campers who are coming to camp for two weeks and going on a backpacking trip could likely complete Level 4, Weather.
    Depending on the amount of time available at camp to spend on outdoor skills, participants may be able to complete an entire level in a weeklong session of resident or day camp. Don’t be concerned if there isn’t enough time — it is okay if participants don’t complete an entire level during their stay (see step 3).
  2. Train your staff in the skills for the levels they will be using. The basic Program Leader course will cover all the skills for the first three levels of the OLS program. If you have camper programs that are more advanced, older campers or other campers in programs that offer trips, you may want to consider the Advanced Program Leader course to encompass the skills for Levels 4 and 5. Each course is approximately 10-12 hours.
    A handy way to get all staff trained is to have the staff supervising the outdoor program or whoever oversees the counselor staff attend an OLS Instructor course. Instructor courses are available throughout the country (in case your staff person lives in another state) — particularly in the spring. The newly-trained instructor can now coordinate with the camp director to integrate the OLS Program Leader lessons into the precamp training schedule.
    Don’t forget to recognize staff training accomplishments of your Instructors and your Program Leaders so they can include the training on their resume for work in the camp or outdoor field.
  3. Create a system for tracking. Skill sheets are available in the OLS Program Manual to track skill completion by group. This is very handy to keep track of each group’s accomplishments. As an alternative, you can create your own log sheet to track skills completion by individual campers. In a setting where campers return year after year, you may find this system to be the easiest. Each camper has an OLS record log (created in-house) with all the requirements for each level. At the end of every session, the staff documents which requirements each camper has completed. The OLS record log goes in the camper’s file until the next time the camper returns. Staff continues documenting which skills have been accomplished during each subsequent session the camper attends.
  4. Provide staff with resources. Place the Outdoor Living Skills Program Manual: An Environmentally Friendly Guide in every unit so that staff can reference the skills and resource information, as needed. OLS level grids are part of the staff manual. The OLS Field Guide is also a great tool and small enough to fit in any backpack!
  5. Determine how you will recognize participant accomplishment. ACA offers triangular patches for each level of participant recognition. When a camper completes a level, the camp can provide a certificate of accomplishment. If the camper also wants a patch, the patches can be available for purchase at the camp store. Those completing an entire level can also be recognized at the camp’s final campfire or other award ceremony.

Can the OLS ProgramBe Used with an Outdoor Education Program?

Of course, the OLS program can integrate with outdoor and environmental education programs and facilities. To develop a curriculum and lesson plans for an outdoor education center, the OLS Program Leader lessons can be modified to suit the schedule of the school groups attending. In doing this, you can create several “classes” of OLS skills including a few that have multiple levels.

What about Day Camps, Park Districts and Other Programs?

Day camp programs, after school programs, park districts, and many other outdoor programs can use the OLS program, as well. Recently, a park department included several outdoor skills sessions in its summer schedule. Several very talented education majors were able to pick up the lesson plans from the Program Leader Manual, read through the Outdoor Living Skills: An Environmentally Friendly Guide, and teach the sessions with wonderful success. The staff commented on the convenience and ease of the lessons and information while the parents and participants gave rave reviews on the quality of the program and the knowledgeable staff.

In What Other Ways CanWe Use the OLS Program?

Other ways to utilize the OLS program include integrating it into any program or activity that takes place in the natural environment. A few years ago, a Girl Scout council offered a training program for their leaders that included an introduction to Girl Scouting, the basics of an overnight (in the home or other building), tent camping, and outdoor cooking. The director of training integrated ACA’s OLS program into the council’s outdoor training program for leaders. Several of the council trainers reviewed the OLS program requirements and compared them with requirements of the basics of overnight, tent camping, and outdoor cooking trainings. They determined that by adding a few training sessions on knots and tools, weather, ecology, and how to use the OLS program, they could fill the gap between the Girl Scout council training and the OLS program.

Additionally, if the current Girl Scout instructors went through OLS Instructor training, they could then “qualify” their participants as OLS Program Leaders. If an OLS Instructor were teaching an outdoor skills workshop, the instructor would sign the leaders training record as an official OLS training. When the Girl Scout leader had completed the council’s basic trainings and the additional OLS workshops, the leader would qualify as a Program Leader and could begin using the program with their Girl Scouts.

Each spring, a weekend training bonanza was held and offered Girl Scout leaders workshops on a variety of outdoor skills, crafts, activities, and programming. During one of the weekend bonanzas, the instructors of the outdoor skills workshops used the OLS Program Leader lessons as the curriculum. The instructors were happy to have lesson plans and resource materials provided and participant feedback was very positive.

OLS Complete Training Package is available from the ACA Bookstore.

Brigitta Modglin earned a B. S. in recreation, park and tourism administration from Western Illinois University. A member of the American Camping Association (ACA) for nine years, Brigitta recently became the executive director for ACA’s Indiana Section. She is an OLS Instructor and Trainer and has presented at conferences for several state education and environmental education associations as well as the ACA Mid States Camping Conference.

Originally published in the 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.




If you want to live away from Home alone, you need to make sure that you have got some skills. You need to be more industrial because you don’t know when you will need help and can’t always expect people to help you. catalina island hotel