Backcountry Experience Bonds UM Freshman

First-year UM students return their camping and backpacking gear after spending four days in the wilderness with UM’s Freshman Wilderness Experience. The program provides a close-knit experience for new UM students in diverse outdoor trips across Montana.

MISSOULA – On the same day that over 1,000 incoming freshmen arrived on the University of Montana campus to move into their dorms, a smaller group of first-year students returned their packs and camp gear at UM’s Campus Recreation Outdoor Program Office after spending several days backpacking, canoeing and making new friends in the backcountry.  

Students gathered on a mountain summit give a thumbs up
UM students in the Freshman Wilderness Experience explore Montana's backcountry through one of several trips organized through the program, now its seventh year.

“I thought it was so cool that I was going to be able to find people who shared this common interest with me from day one –before everyone else gets here,” said Taylor Sadewic, a freshman from Sandpoint, Idaho.  

The Freshman Wilderness Experience, a program sponsored by Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Program and UM’s Wilderness Institute, is many students’ first trek into the backcountry. The program takes first-year students on three-night, four-day backpacking and river trips through some of Montana’s most beautiful wilderness areas, including the Bitterroot Mountains, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, the Chain of Lakes and the Upper Missouri River, among other places.  

The program, which started in 2014, helps students develop friendships, a connection to Montana and confidence to carry them into the new semester.  

“Coming to college is arguably one of the biggest transitions of their life and this helps make sure students are set up for success before jumping into this big pond,” said Elizabeth Fricke, director of the Campus Recreation Outdoor Program.  

Students canoe on a river together.
FWE participants paddle the Missouri River together on a multi-day canoe trip. The trips are organized and planned by UM's Campus Recreation Outdoor Program and Wilderness Institute.

This year, about 150 students participated in the program. Students are randomly divided into small groups that are led by upperclassmen, many of whom went on FWE trips as participants their freshman year themselves and want to provide that experience for other students.  

“It made me feel more connected to Missoula and Montana and the University so I wanted to stay involved,” said Madeline Damon, a graduate student who attended FWE as a freshman and now works as the program’s student coordinator.  

Students bond over the obstacles they overcome as a group, which was especially true this year when groups got hit with thunderstorms that soaked all of their gear.  

Charles Nance, a freshman from Los Angeles who went on a trip to the Pintlers, kept the group’s morale up when he started singing during a freezing rain and hail storm. Nance led the group in song through the storm as they held a tarp to keep the water from pooling over their gear. Once back from the trip and sitting on the warm pavement outside the rec center, the group referred to it as one of the high points of the trip.  

“You make connections here that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Elizabeth Davidson, one of the group’s leaders who went on a FWE trip  as a freshman. “In the outdoors, you have to be your most true self. We’re all out there working together and you really learn a lot about the people you’re with.” 

Students howl at the sky together on a mountain summit
A FWE group collectively howls together at a mountain summit.

Although the weather and elevation were challenging parts of the trip, Nance said he enjoyed seeing new biomes and catching his first trout on a fly rod at a lake near one of the campsites.  

“The program is a great opportunity to give students their first experience in the backcountry and educate them about wilderness,” said Andrea Stephens, director of undergraduate and field education for the Wilderness Institute in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at UM.  

On the trip, students learn how to use camp stoves, hang bear bags and practice Leave No Trace principles. For students who want an even more immersive wilderness experience, Stephens said the program serves as a springboard for the Wilderness and Civilization program available at UM, a semester-long minor that takes students on float and backpacking trips.  

After hiking upwards of 20 miles over several days, the students drove back to campus and reunited with other groups. As they emptied their packs, returned any rented gear and cleaned cookware, students recounted lightning and hail storms, huckleberry picking, fishing, cooking blunders and the new memories they had made.  

Sadewic said it was a little overwhelming to return to a bustling campus after being in the woods for four days, but she and her fellow group members found comfort in knowing they already had a close group of friends.

Students return camping gear at UM's campus recreation
FWE participants return rented gear and unpack outside of UM's Campus Outdoor Recreation Program Office.

“One of the coolest parts about it was getting to meet these people and getting so close to them so quickly and now I have seven friends going into the rest of this experience,” Sadewic said.  

Later that evening, the students gathered on a nearby field to eat pizza and perform skits about their trips for one other and parents. One group joked about going swimming but forgetting towels, another talked about accidentally going off trail and bushwhacking, and one group shared that they completely bypassed their campsite and had to backtrack.  

Students sat with their groups as they watched the skits, often leaning over to tap each other on the shoulder and laugh at particularly relatable parts. To an outsider, it would look like they had been friends for years. And judging by their group leaders who reminisced with each other about their experiences as freshmen, that will probably remain true.  

The program costs $275 for backpacking trips and $350 for the river trip. Financial assistance for students who want to participate in the Freshman Wilderness Experience is available through the Bryson Allen Wilderness Experience Fund.  


Contact: Elizabeth Fricke, director, UM Campus Recreation Outdoor Program, 406-243-5176,