Kris Foster was panicking. While hiking deep in the desert of south-central Utah, the 55-year-old physical education teacher had fallen behind the group. The sun had set hours earlier, shrouding Foster in darkness—real darkness, the kind that’s largely unknown in the modern world where city lights soften the black of night. Foster was painfully aware that she was the oldest in the group, and slowing everyone down, delaying their sleep. Everyone was tired, and hungry. They hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch the day before. Foster’s stomach burned; an unfamiliar hollow ache. Earlier in the day, around what normally would have been dinner time, she’d vomited, her body’s rebellion, she’d assumed, to having consumed nothing but pond water for the past 30 hours. Now, as she struggled to catch up to the group, her mind was launching its own rebellion, in the form of a debilitating inner monologue that could be summarized in four words: You can’t do this.
Foster didn’t realize it at the time, but she wasn’t alone. All 11 of her teammates were struggling with their own doubts and fears. In fact, crippling discomfort is expected at Boulder Outdoor Survival School, better known as BOSS, the oldest and largest wilderness survival school in the world. It’s also the toughest. “Our courses equip people with survival skills, like fire building, and provide actual survival prioritization experience,” says owner and instructor Steve Dessinger. “You learn first-hand that a healthy human can survive for three weeks without food, but can die of exposure within hours.”
Every BOSS Field course, whether the seven-day version, or the 28-day version, starts with what’s known as Impact, where the participants, usually 9-12 people, along with three instructors, go out into the desert wilderness together, each with nothing but a water bottle, a knife, and the clothes on their back. During Impact, participants learn to deal with hunger (you can only eat what you find), temperature extremes (the desert can be hotter than 100 degrees in the day and as cold as freezing at night), and weather variations (yes, it rains in the desert).
After Impact, each participant receives a rain poncho, wool blanket, and food rations. This signifies progression to the Group Expedition portion of the course, where participants develop the skills necessary to survive in the desert. They’ll learn to use a knife to carve a bow drill—a prehistoric friction tool—out of wood, and use it to start a fire. They also learn how to find and build shelter, how to locate and purify water, trail hygiene, nature observation skills, basic navigation, and how to identify edible and medicinal plants. Next comes the Solo, where the team spreads out so each person is alone, putting their new skills to the test in isolation for a period of time. The course ends with a Student Expedition, during which the participants work together to lead a portion of the journey without any support from the instructors.
On the 14-day and 28-day versions of the Field course participants also engage in what’s called large animal processing—slaughtering and butchering an animal, typically a sheep, and breaking it down to all of its usable parts, from hide to bone.
“The Field course challenges different people in different ways,” says Dessinger. “For some, like Kris Foster, Impact is the hardest part. For others, it’s the large animal processing; it gets really emotional. For me—all of our instructors are required to take the Field course as a student—it was the Solo. We each learn the lessons we need to learn most out there.”
Part of what makes BOSS different from other wilderness programs, like Outward Bound, is its focus on primitive skills, both as way to connect more intimately with the natural world, and as a means to honor native cultures that sought to live in harmony with the environment. Participants must do without modern technology in any form, including cell phones, watches, flashlights, technical camping gear, and even lighters and matches.
The primitive part can be a deterrent for some, but many find it appealing, or at least intriguing. Perry Tancredi, 42, first came to BOSS as a participant in 2010. He’d been working in tech for 14 years and was feeling increasingly unhappy in both his job and his marriage. “I felt confused about what I was doing with my life,” he says. “All I knew was that I needed to get away, to unplug, disconnect.” Tancredi used vacation time from his job in San Francisco to take the 14-day Field course. By the end of the experience, he’d cleared his head enough to make some major life decisions. He quit his job, got divorced, and eventually became a BOSS instructor.
Tancredi says that a good number of people come to BOSS for the same reason he did—to get away—but that he sees many different motivations. “People come because they want a physical or mental challenge, or because they want bragging rights, or because they want to learn to do more with less,” he says. “One guy told me he came because he wanted to see a UFO and thought this would be his best shot.”
Similarly, BOSS course participants come from a variety of different backgrounds. They range from recent college graduates to surgeons and everything in between—firemen, nurses, lawyers and teachers. There have even been Hollywood celebrities. Backcountry experience level also varies among participants. Some are seasoned instructors at other wilderness programs, while others have never even been car camping. BOSS doesn’t have any prerequisites for participation, although students must be at least 18 years of age. “We like to say that BOSS does not attract a demographic, so much as a psychographic,” says Tancredi. “The people who choose to take a BOSS course are adventurous, open-minded, and inquisitive. They aren’t afraid of being pushed out of their comfort zone and they’re willing to explore — both the wilderness and themselves.”
BOSS does suggest guidelines around fitness levels. Programs are conducted in rugged canyons and mountains at elevations as high as 11,000 feet above sea level. During some phases of the Field course, participants can hike for as many as 20 miles in a single day. Applicants are advised to complete a 1.5-mile run prior to attending a Field course, and to check their time against The Cooper 1.5-Mile Test. The recommended times differ according to age range and gender. For example, a woman aged 30-39 should be able to run 1.5 miles in 14:31-16:30 minutes. Participants are required to retest when they arrive in Boulder for Orientation.
“The best training for BOSS is aerobic activities like biking, running, swimming, and hiking,” says Dessinger. “Endurance will serve you better than brute strength.” Both Dessinger and Tancredi agree that mental resilience is just as important, if not more important, than pure physical prowess.
Foster says it was her mental game that ultimately got her through the Impact section of the Field course. She had fallen so far behind so many times that she finally told Jesse, one of the instructors, that she was going to stop and go back because she was too old and too slow, and afraid that she was going to ruin it for everyone else. “I remember that moment very clearly,” Foster says. “Jesse stopped walking and said, you are fine, you are where you’re supposed to be, and this is how you’re supposed to feel. He told me that I had everything I needed to do this, and that I absolutely could do it. And I chose to believe him.”
What shifted for Foster that black night in the desert in 2012 was her mental state, a lesson so powerful that she’s returned to BOSS every year since. “I realized that all that fear and worry I was experiencing, all those feelings that I couldn’t do it, were all in my head,” she says. “It was life changing for me—it got me to start asking myself, ‘what else is just all in my head?’”
Foster’s experience of coming to BOSS to learn outdoor survival skills, and leaving having done not only that, but also having had a game-changing revelation about herself, is perhaps the real power of the program. “It’s pretty transformative for people,” says Dessinger. “Who would have thought that learning outdoor survival skills was also a really effective way for people to discover new things about themselves, and to better understand what they wanted out of life?”