Kyle MacDonald // Wilderness as a Powerful Tool for Youth Development


Kyle stands out in the movement for his commitment to overcome obstacles to get more youth outdoors and connect to nature as their birthright. He founded Bay Area Wilderness Training, one of two established organizations in the US providing both leadership training and free access to outdoor gear.


MR: Thinking back to the earliest years of you life, what experiences relate to who you are now and your work with Bay Area Wilderness Training?

KM: My parents took me camping – and the outdoor and wilderness experiences of my childhood have definitely shaped who I am today. My very first memory is sleeping in a tent on a beach in Cape Hatteras and hearing the voices of my parents outside the canvas walls of the tent. I think I was two years old.

Fast forward from my earliest years to immediately following college, I began working for the Youth Opportunities Program of the Appalachian Mountain Club that quietly gets thousands and thousands of kids outdoors every year.

Through working summers with the Youth Opportunities Program in New Hampshire and Maine, I really got first hand experience with the model that I later brought to Bay Area Wilderness Training.  I grew to understand, “Oh, that’s how you do this! That’s the way that kids can have these experiences in the outdoors which are so vital and so powerful and sometimes life transforming.”

One day I asked the director of the Youth Opportunities Program if this model was happening anywhere else and he said no – that was the moment I decided that I had to bring this model to the West Coast and, beyond that, to other places across the country.


MR: Can you tell me more about the model?

KM: The model is in its simplest form training educators, adults that work with youth in some shape or form – training them in leadership skills and providing them with the tools they need to be successful in taking kids outdoors. Bay Area Wilderness Training now has 3 gear libraries in San Francisco, Oakland, and in Milpitas. After we train the teachers and youth workers, they can borrow backpacks, jackets, boots, hats and gloves, tents, sleeping bags, cooking stoves and other equipment from the gear libraries at no cost.  It is through this empowering model that we are able to get over 6,000 youth out every year – and over 20,000 youth in 13 years.

MR: Could you tell me more about the development of leadership skills?

KM: The trainings range from a one-night overnight, very entry level car camping training to a five night backcountry training in Yosemite or in Tahoe National Park. The goal for the training is to make sure the teachers and youth workers know how to keep the kids warm and safe and dry.  Once they know how to do that, then they learn how use wilderness as a powerful tool for youth development.

We create opportunities to experience wonder and inspiration outdoors, the ability to connect to these moments in nature that are fleeting – experiences that are uncalculated and magical. One of the things I can say very confidently is that these trainings are also life transforming for the adults.


MR: Can you give me an example of this leadership experience?

KM: I can point to an incredible woman named Elizabeth, a youth worker with an organization that works primarily with young teenage women that are caught up with the sex trade in Oakland. She uses the outdoors as a tool to develop the young women’s self-esteem and skills.

Elizabeth came to our wilderness training and was just blown away – she had a really powerful experience. The experience made a huge difference in her own belief in herself – the feeling that she could take who she is and what she does into the world.

MR: What are you working on next?

KM: For many years I’ve definitely asked the question, “Why isn’t something like Bay Area Wilderness Training in dozens of cities across the country?” I recently made the decision that it is time to make it happen.  I am creating a national organization, The Outdoors Empowered Network (OEM) that will support the existing organizations, offering wilderness training and access to gear, and seed new organizations – in Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Phoenix, and other places. That is the next chapter.


MR: You have such passion for leadership and working with youth. What do you see as your life purpose? 

KM: I very much identify and see myself as an educator. I feel frequently most engaged, most alive, and most lit up when I’m teaching and engaging with other teachers about education.

My life purpose is to get kids outdoors – I also have this feeling that it is much bigger than that. Where I really find my passion is when I can talk about how incredibly important it is to get kids outdoors and connect them to nature as their birthright. To me, that is powerful work – and a powerful purpose.


Kyle MacDonald can be contacted by email. Learn more about The Outdoors Empowered Network by visiting the website and Facebook.

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