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Adventure / September 19, 2017

Now there’s an online school for BAMFs

Written by: Brenna Stevens

Editor’s note: This review is not a paid promotion for AIM Adventure U—our writer was fully ready to trash the course if it wasn’t up to snuff. But because we chose to recommend the program, AIM Adventure U has offered our readers a coupon code. Use the code GIANTS20 to score a 20% discount off any course. The offer will expire on October 31 or after 100 students use it.  


Backcountry navigation is a skill best learned in the field. If you really want to learn it right, your best option is to track a hermit to his mountain cabin, bring him a gift of whiskey and gunpowder, and beg him to take you under his wing.

If he agrees, follow him for years as he tracks his lonely path through the wilderness. Learn his strange ways. Become like him—silent and resolute, one with the stones, the moss and the trees.

If he shoos you away, just throw on your PJs and register for an online course with AIM Active Adventure U.

That’s right: there’s now an online school that teaches outdoor adventure skills. It’s a new project from Active Interest Media, the company that publishes Ski, Climbing, and Backpacker magazines. It offers several courses on a wide variety of topics, from outdoor photography to camp cooking to trad climbing.

Most are priced somewhere between $145-199, which, if I’m being honest, is a lot of money for a freelance writer to drop on anything. So I emailed over my “media card,” and got access to AIM’s Backcountry Navigation course for this review.  (Full disclosure: I never actually tried the hermit’s apprentice thing.)

In my review, I tried to answer three basic questions: Is the course complete? Is it effective? And, finally, who is it actually for?


1. Is the course complete?

In a word, yes.

I’d say the whole course takes anywhere from 8-12 hours to complete (excluding the “homework” assignments, which usually involve going for a hike with a compass or something like that). In that time, students work through 48 lessons on seven topics: reading maps, using a compass, route planning, using digital devices, traveling on and off trail, handling common navigation challenges, and getting “un-lost.”

Meet your instructor: mountain guide and backcountry navigation expert Sienna Fry.

Each of those topics is covered exhaustively, but no prerequisite knowledge is required. Students start with basic skills (like reading a topo map), but soon graduate to advanced skills like shooting compass bearings and planning off-trail routes.

Most of the content is presented through a series of 2-5 minute videos, each hosted by Colorado Outward Bound instructor Sienna Fry. Fry is a good teacher—she presents even complicated lessons in a way that is simple, straightforward, and non-intimidating. Her videos are supplemented by some written and interactive materials (I’ll get to those in the next section), and by a series of short quizzes.


2. Is it effective?

As I mentioned above, Fry is a good teacher. Each of her videos is concise and easy to understand. I followed along with my own compass and USGS map, and the experience felt a lot like that of learning in a college lecture hall. There is unfortunately no way to pose questions to the teacher, but I honestly never felt I needed to.

Reading materials are well-written, clearly illustrated, and mercifully short. And the interactive sections, while pretty basic, are effective for memorizing certain bits of info (I felt there was a missed opportunity for some game-like content, though).


The interactive components of AIM U's courses aren't exactly cutting edge, but they are pretty effective teaching tools.

The course is structured in such a way that students must complete each section before moving on to the next. The sections are concluded with a five-question quiz (four correct answers are required to pass).

All in all, I was surprised by how effective this course was. I already know quite a bit about wilderness navigation (I am a NOLS graduate), but I found that I learned a few new skills from Sienna Fry.

Is the course a perfect substitute for field work? Of course not. Wilderness navigation is one of those skills that takes a lot of practice to get right, and that practice just can’t be done online. But this course does a better job describing the core concepts than most books, and its interactive nature helps keep the easily-distracted (like myself) on track.


3. But who is it for?

Before I started the course, this question was nagging at me. Who was taking these courses? Who could possibly be the target market for an outdoor skills course that takes place entirely indoors?

I am, apparently. I balked at the course’s price at first ($149), but it now strikes me as a pretty fair price for the amount of content provided. Though the course isn’t a comprehensive or as memorable as a weeklong Outward Bound trip or a NOLS Semester, it is a very effective backcountry navigation primer. And it can be completed in evenings after school or work.

That makes it perfect for Boy Scout troop leaders, new hikers, and basically anyone who wants to build a basic set of wilderness navigation skills. It won’t make you into an expert—that takes years of practice—but it will get you started.

Do you have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to us at [email protected] 

about the author

Brenna Stevens

Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Brenna has spent more of her life outdoors than in. An avid camper, backpacker, and wine drinker, she writes primarily about outdoor culture for Shoulders of Giants.

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