Education through Experience: Importance of a Gap Year

In Trip Reports by Will BlackLeave a Comment

Over recent years, the gap year trend has seen a steady rise in popularity, as high school or college graduates and burnt out undergrads seek new ways to expand their horizons. For students with school-related doubts, the benefits of taking a break from their education are plentiful. Seeing the world, making new friends, and gaining real life experiences can be just as, if not more, valuable than a year of directionless schooling.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to explore the world, maybe you’re unsure about your path in school or career choice, or maybe you just want to go on an adventure. Whatever your reason or stage in life, taking a gap year might be just the way to achieve your goals.

I can attest that my gap year is the single greatest choice I’ve made in school this far. It completely changed my outlook on life.

Choosing The Gap Year

During my junior year of college, I knew I needed to make a change. But I wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t very happy with my major, and I didn’t want to waste money pursuing a degree that didn’t inspire me.

A friend of the family recommended the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). As I researched the company and the various courses they offered, I knew I had found what I was searching for.

I’ve always had a desire to travel and explore, but I just wasn’t sure how to do it. NOLS gave me the opportunity to take a break from school, figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and fulfill my dream of seeing some of the raddest places in the world. I decided to do the Himalayan mountaineering course because I thought it would be completely different than anything I had ever experienced.


Rushing to get my Visa and scrambling to pack gear, I barely managed to get on the trip on time. Before I knew it, though, I was stepping off the plane in New Delhi and taking in a world unlike anything I was accustomed to. My classmates and I crammed together on a bus and headed to the NOLS base in Ranikhet, a city in the mountains and our first taste of the beauty of India.

We gathered our gear surrounded by lush forests and sprawling vistas and planned our trip. We slept out on the patio that night under an expanse of dazzling stars . Finally, we drove another six hours to the trailhead and began our journey.

Words can never do justice to the beauty of nature. We all constantly joked about how we couldn’t think of anything else to say other than, “this is amazing,” “I can’t believe it,” or, “this is unreal.” It felt like being on another planet or in some fantasy like Lord of the Rings.

We met villagers along the way, played cricket with some of the kids, and even got to spend a few days with a Holy man, Baba-Ji, at the end of the trail at Zero point. From then on we were completely on our own.

We climbed high into the mountains, setting up several camps to let our bodies adjust to the altitude. We spent weeks on glaciers, melting snow for water and only traveling in the early morning when the snow was hard and the sun was down.

Experience Gained

When you’re living in the wilderness, you focus only on the basics. When are we going to take a break for lunch? Do I have enough water? Where will we set up camp? Life is a lot simpler in the wild, and with that simplicity comes clarity. It’s easy to get wrapped up in worries and stress as a student trying to balance a social life with school, internships, a career, and your dreams. Life can quickly become overwhelming.

When you step out into the wild, the noise and distractions of modern day life fade away. We had no phones, no internet, no music–nothing to distract us from the present. It brought us together as a group, made us connect on a real level, forced us to learn to communicate when conflict arose, and made us find solutions to our problems. We’d play cards at night, talk about our different experiences in school, what brought us to this crazy corner of the world, and mostly what food we were going to eat when the trip was over.


We had an emergency beacon, but realistically we were totally on our own out there, and it made us work together as a group. The wilderness taught us the value of the simple things in life. I’d take a warm bowl of ramen in the backcountry after hiking all day over a five star meal in a restaurant any day. The mountaineering portion of our course was some of the hardest physical work I have ever done. We called it type two fun, where it may not be fun in the moment, but you’re glad you did it in the end.

Returning To Society

Eventually, the trip of a lifetime had to come to a close. After arriving back at the base we returned our gear, packed our bags, headed to the airport, and went our separate ways. After having spent over a month in the lush nature of the Himalayas, readjusting to normal life and society was jarring. Surrounded by thousands of people, busy cars, and advertisements everywhere, it was quite a shock to the system to return home.

Some amenities of modern life were  welcome. Being able to take a shower, listening to music, and access to a variety of different foods all felt incredible. But it wasn’t too long after returning back to the city that my cravings for the outdoors came back in full force. I started planning more hikes, went camping on the weekends, took up climbing — anything I could do to get back to that peace I found on NOLS.

Not only did my passion for the outdoors grow exponentially, but my drive back at school improved too. Skills I learned during my gap year applied to everything I did: handling stressful situations, prioritizing responsibilities, looking at the big picture. I changed my major to geography and found myself excited to be back at school with a clearer direction of where I wanted to take my life.

Going Forward

One of the biggest takeaways from the whole experience was learning how to problem solve and adapt to any situation. Be it in the forests, on a glacier, or back in a classroom, I feel like there’s no situation I can’t handle since my gap year.

Being back in Colorado was great, too, because graduating NOLS wasn’t the end of our group’s adventures. I was fortunate that many of my trip-mates lived close by. Since returning from India, we’ve gone camping in Steamboat, climbed fourteeners, gone backcountry skiing, and much more. Over the months we spent together in the tents, I got to know them better than people I’ve known for years.

The mountains of the Himalayas were some of the most breathtaking sights I have ever had the opportunity to see. I will never forget the roar of avalanches, the howl of wind at night on the glaciers, and the way the stars and the moon lit up the valleys. More memorable than that, though, was having an incredible group of people to share these experiences with. I am incredibly grateful for my gap year to have made this life-changing experience possible.  

Gap years give you the opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone, explore some of the most beautiful places on earth, and make friendships that will last a lifetime. No matter what stage of life you are in, taking a gap year could be one of the greatest things you ever do.

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