Dofe Expeditions during Covid-19

It’s been a tough time for running an outdoor business. It’s been very hard on freelance instructors, there is a very real prospect that many outdoor education centres in Scotland will close and for my business, an Approved Activity Provider running Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions, I’d say we’ve only just managed to get through these very lean times.

In early March 2020 the year ahead looked really promising: lots of expeditions, walking holidays, bushcraft jobs and hillwalking guiding filled the diary, all the way through to September. In mid March however all that changed.

The first week of lockdown was spent rescheduling expeditions to August, September and October. My guess was that schools were unlikely to be back to normal til then. April was spent designing some software for managing Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions – Exped Manager (see images below) – and catching up on lots of route planning and admin.

May was perhaps the most concerning month, the number of daily deaths in Scotland were stubbornly high and our collective hope for suppressing the virus and a return to normality was at its lowest ebb. It was around this time that some of our customers made the call to scrub expeditions altogether and hope for a return in Spring 2021. I went on furlough, shut the business down as best I could, and tried to maintain a daily routine of exercise, walking and cycling from my flat in Partick.

By June however, there was some hope. Numbers of infections, patients in intensive care and deaths seemed to be slowly coming down. The first furlough payment came through, I got a bounce back loan and I was really fortunate to get a tourism grant from the Scottish Government; all hugely helpful support for a small business. I also spent a good amount of time writing risk assessments and a COVID-19 policy, thinking through how best to mitigate risks whilst allowing expeditions, in some form, to happen.

And then, by mid July, the travel restriction was lifted and work could resume: mostly hillwalking jobs with small numbers of clients. It was great to be out again. Being outside all day with a couple of clients didn’t pose any difficulties in terms of adhering to social distancing rules and it was a really positive and rewarding experience – for me and the clients – to be out in the hills, despite the midgies and rain.

In July and August we also ran some open Silver and Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions. We introduced a number of measures to reduce risk; things like:

  • Running expeditions closer to home
  • Smaller groups;
  • Minimising the use of the minibus;
  • One tent per participant;
  • Minimising the sharing of equipment; and,
  • Good hygiene with washing of hands and the use of hand sanitising gel.

We also trialled a back to back gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition with both the practice and qualifying expeditions happening over six days. This was a big deal, a real challenge for the participants. At the start there was real doubt among some that they’d get to the end. Over time though, as the tally of km grew and the supply of compeed dwindled, their confidence grew. It was fantastic to see them finish. I was really proud of how they did. They showed a great deal of commitment, team work and resilience to get through to the end.

Two things struck me about running these expeditions. Firstly, running the expeditions in the way we did, with small groups etc, meant that the number social contacts they had, over four days or six days, was really small, smaller perhaps than they’d have had in any other context, confirming to me that the level of risk posed by the experience was as low. Secondly, I was struck by how valuable an experience it was for the young people. It was clear to me that the experience of being outside, trekking through Highlands with their friends and meeting the challenge of navigating, working with others and dealing with all the midgies was perhaps the most important educational experience they’ve had since March, when school finished.

In running an outdoor business you are used to assessing risk and making a judgement about the benefits of the experience verses the risks. Whether you are trekking, climbing or kayaking you can never remove all risk, that’s the nature of adventure. Running the expeditions showed me that there was a way to balance the rewards and benefits of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions with the new and added risk of Covid-19.

As an aside, during the expeditions, I managed to do my crafty, bushcraft thing of making stuff: more baskets etc!

Now that schools are back we have been able to continue running Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions with our local authority partners. Owing to the hard work and rigorous planning of development officers like Viki Williams from Glasgow, we’ve been able to run ‘expeditions with a difference’, expeditions with no camping or minibus where the participants walk from their school each day, exploring the countryside and urban parks in their neighbourhood. This has been working well and allowing young people to undertake their expedition and finish off their award.

It’s likely that this model of expedition will continue through the rest of the year but perhaps in Spring next year we’ll be back to normal expeditions. Here’s hoping!

For info new dates for open Gold expeditions for 2021 have been posted up on our website.

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