Millennials on the Move

By Kate Siber April 25, 2015

Pearce Jensen, a sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University in Minnesota, wore a multicolored jester hat and held a purple balloon as he stood on a frozen field on a zero-degree day in February 2015. He was celebrating a momentous occasion with more than 250 of his classmates.

Saint Benedict & Saint John’s won the first Outdoor Nation Campus Challenge. Part of Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Nation initiative, the contest pitted 10 colleges in a friendly competition to see which could inspire the most people to get active outside. Participants earned points for every nature-based outdoor activity they logged and recorded in Outdoor Nation’s online platform. Across the country, over eight weeks last fall, more than 8,000 people got outside as part of the Campus Challenge and logged more than 43,000 hours of outdoor activity, from running and biking to rafting and camping. 

Jensen was his school’s leading point winner, daily logging up to five outdoor activities and spending two and a half hours biking around campus, hiking in the nearby arboretum among other excursions. His efforts won him a closet full of The North Face gear, but they also helped the school win the coveted National Outdoor Champion title and a grant to hold an outdoor festival on campus, hence Jensen’s jester hat and purple balloon, which were among the celebratory shenanigans that included snow-sled relay races, corn hole, horse-drawn wagon rides in the woods, gear giveaways, a bonfire and hot pancakes. The school also won an expansive gear library of backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and other equipment for student use, which the school’s Outdoor Leadership Center now rents to students for free.

“It’s a personal mission of mine to get people outside,” says Tanner Rayman, the student coordinator who submitted Saint Benedict & Saint John’s application to participate and who oversaw the school’s events and activities. “You see this sedentary lifestyle starting to take over, like people staying inside and playing video games. It was nice walking around campus and seeing more people choosing to be outside.”

The students of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s, who enjoy a campus with seven lakes and tracts of forest, did trail work, hiked in the local arboretum, canoed on Sagatagan Lake and even ventured as far as the Grand Canyon and the Superior Hiking Trail during Thanksgiving break. After winning the gear library, the college was able to outfit more students with gear for spring break trips, such as climbing peaks in Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains and hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“We have so many ways students can use the gear, it’s really exciting,” says Jenny Kutter, the department coordinator for Saint John’s Outdoor University, which offers outdoor activities for students as well as the community. “It also brought the community together around something that’s really important to who we are.”

Thanks to Campus Challenge’s pilot-year success, Outdoor Foundation significantly expanded the initiative in 2015. Sponsored by The North Face and REI Foundation, the first 50 schools to apply by May 1, 2015, received up to $1,000 to activate their campus community plus as much as $1,500 more based on the number of students the school enrolls in the program starting in August 2015. Competing schools will have the summer to devise programming and marketing strategies with help from an online webinar and planning toolkit. Participants will log outdoor nature-based activities during the six-week challenge in September and October 2015. This year, students will be able to log on to the website from their mobile devices or text their activities to a dedicated number.

“We were totally psyched to see so many people get outside for the Campus Challenge last year,” says Stasia Raines, marketing and communications manager for the Outdoor Foundation. “Millennials have trended toward more sedentary lifestyles, and we are thrilled that this initiative can start to turn the tide, connecting young people to their bodies and the outdoors in new and exciting ways.”

If you or someone you know attends a university that could use an expanded gear closet and extra motivation to get its student body outside, send them to The first 50 schools to sign up have a chance to win up to $2,500 in gear and prizes, not to mention highly coveted bragging rights.