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Courtesy of Weston Backcountry

Online Outdoor Education Is Popping Up—For Free

From expedition planning to remote leadership, Colorado’s outdoor industry pioneers are creating new ways for communities to forge ahead during a pandemic.

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It takes a lot to keep Coloradans from their outdoor recreation—it takes a global pandemic. As the novel coronavirus has forced local and state governments to ask residents to stay home except for essential errands or work, the outdoors industry is shifting focus, creating new ways for recreationists to connect with our natural world and one another without leaving the comfort of their homes. 

One way they’re doing this is by launching a variety of free or donation-based virtual education courses, from webinars and podcasts to classes and film series. So even though you’re sheltering at home, you can sharpen your outdoors skills and knowledge with expert advice and guidance. Read on for a few ways that local companies are taking their experience from the outdoors to the Internet: 

For Those Looking to Learn New Skills

“One good thing coming out of COVID-19 is that it’s forced us to evolve. We’ve been talking about taking our education online for a while. Now, we are bringing virtual resources full force to our audience at Weston Backcountry,” says Ben Hilley, brand experience manager at the gear company, and founder of Front Range Splitfest, a four-day annual splitboarding event hosted in Winter Park. 

The April rendezvous was canceled on March 17, but Hilley swiftly launched the “Slay At Home Speaker Series,” a live weekly educational webinar hosted by Weston Backcountry and Front Range Splitfest via Zoom. The primary goal? To maintain community connectedness. Episode one featured a panel of Weston Backcountry guides from around the world providing expert advice on “Choosing Your First [Splitboard] Setup,” plus a real-time Q&A. The second webinar topic was “How to Plan a Backcountry Trip.” 

“People have chimed in from Europe and Australia. We broke our attendance record for an educational event,” Hilley says, adding that close to 70 attendees tuned in for the first two sessions (previously, their largest on-site class attendance was 60 students). “And we accessed our guide team in a completely new way that we’ve never been able to do in the past—the first panel featured four guides from California, Japan, Colorado and Utah.” 

Upcoming event: 
Expedition Splitboarding on Denali
Slay At Home Speaker Series, Weston Backcountry
April 17, 6 p.m. 
*Previous webinars are also recorded and available online 

For Those Looking to Be Entertained

Carbondale-based No Man’s Land Film Festival created a virtual film series that allows organizations to co-host a show and fundraise money for a cause. The 90-minute pilot event, hosted on April 3, garnered more than $5,000 in donations (attendance was free) from an 800-person audience to benefit the Boulder Climbing Community’s stewardship projects. Additionally, 5Point Film Festival unveiled 5Point Unlocked, a multi-day series of 90-minute, donation-based shows featuring special guests.

Upcoming events: 
5Point Unlocked
5Point Adventure Film Festival
April 22 and 24, 7 p.m. April 26, 3 p.m. 

Virtual No Man’s Land Film Festival 
Co-hosted by Boulder Climbing Community
April 24, 5-10 p.m. 

For Business Owners and Entrepreneurs

For industry entrepreneurs, Boulder’s Catapult Innovation Labs launched a webinar series called Survive and Thrive. “This [series] brings community together for collaboration in a new way that helps people survive this situation, which we depend on as a whole industry,” says Sharon Houghton, vice president and general manager at Active Interest Media (AIM), parent company of Catapult Innovation Labs. “A lot of times, startups are competitors or fighting for the same funding pool. But at the end of the day, we want innovation in the outdoor industry and to support each other: All ships rise with the tide.” 

The webinar series is focused on startups with an annual revenue of $250,000 to $1 million, though founders and senior managers from all outdoor industry businesses are welcome to attend. Each webinar is hosted by two experts and two founders. “It’s been nice to have both experts and founders. Hearing directly from their peers, other founders, about what they’ve done in response to coronavirus and what they’ve experienced has been really beneficial for attendees,” says Houghton. 

Also for business owners, the Outdoor Industry Association waived initiation fees and started the LinkedIn Outdoor Industry Covid-19 Forum. Camber Outdoors opened complimentary memberships to nonprofits and entrepreneurs, which allows access to events, such as the upcoming webinar, “Understanding Nonprofit Funding through COVID-19 and Beyond.” The organization also created an online library with resources to study inclusion, equity, and diversity in the workplace. Emerald Expositions and its trade shows, including Outdoor Retailer, developed a 10-day webinar series to help outdoor retailers navigate turbulence. 

Upcoming events:
How to Lead Your Team, Remotely?
Survive and Thrive Series, Catapult Innovation Labs
April 20, 12 p.m.
*Previous webinars are recorded and available online

Understanding Nonprofit Funding Through Covid-19 and Beyond
Camber Outdoors
April 21, 12 p.m. 

Taking Control: 10 Action Steps for Retailers to Stay Connected to Their Customers Throughout the COVID-19 Crisis
Stand Up 4 Retail series, Outdoor Retailer and Emerald Expositions
April 22, 10 a.m. 

Many of these educational opportunities were catalyzed to address COVID-19 lockdowns. However, some organizations recognize the potential to employ these digital tools in the future. The top priority of outdoor leaders is to facilitate accessible education and dialogue regardless of participant proximity. “Offering the webinar for free comes down to our core values,” says Sean Eno, founder of Front Range Splitfest and marketing director for Weston Backcountry. “We don’t want to hold education back from people, especially when we can inspire them to get outside. It’s our philosophy to help people overcome barriers—and we don’t tie that hand-in-hand with profit. It’s our responsibility.”

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