Elpel outdoor classroom with kids making fire bushcraft survival

An education in nature with Tom Elpel.

Although you’re heading into the woods, you’re with Tom Elpel, so leave the camping gear at home. Your knife will suffice. Author, builder, educator, conservationist, and all-around mountain man, Elpel created the Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS) to reconnect southwest Montana kids with nature. OWLS’ day-long programs for elementary-schoolers, and overnight trips for junior-high students, offers a fun experience that fosters a better appreciation for nature in its pure state.

On a plot of lush riparian land along the Jefferson River, under aspens and cottonwoods, the immersive, educational experience has put dirt under kids’ nails and smiles on their faces for over two decades. “Working with kids in nature is the most rewarding work I do,” Elpel says. “Young people are hungry to connect with the real world and are often deprived of the opportunity to experience it.”

Elpel’s knowledge of the environment needs no vetting, as a lifetime of adventures and several books can attest. The OWLS courses go beyond teaching kids how to pull cattail roots and start a fire with sticks, which are useful wilderness skills. A tangible connection to nature comes with wading into the Jefferson’s marsh for a muddy root, and spinning a drill on a plank of wood until your arm hurts. And Elpel shows how these connections have purpose, imparting a better understanding of the natural world and its qualities that are worth protecting.

Most importantly, Elpel makes all of this fun—an essential part of the courses. He’s created an experience that kids can value and for it, they can thank the trees for having bark, the mud for being muddy, and the river for having water. For most, it’s a muddy good time.

To learn more, visit owlschool.org, and read our feature article on riparian conservation with Tom Elepel here.