What’s The Difference Between NCOAE and Other Outdoor Programs

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What’s The Difference?

As an accredited outdoor education and adventure programming provider, we here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) know that you have other choices and are committed to finding the best guided wilderness experience for your children or yourself. You are wise to ask the question, “What makes your organization different and, more importantly, better than the other choices out there” like NOLS and Outward Bound, for example? That is exactly the question you should be asking every adventure-based company under consideration.

To answer that question, we put together the following chart comparing what we offer to other outdoor/recreational/camp alternatives:

  • Residential summer camps
  • Tour operators
  • GAP programs
  • Semester programs
  • Urban summer programs
  • Other outdoor and adventure-based schools

Residential Summer Camps

  • Living units of 12–50 students, often divided into smaller groups for specific activities
  • A wide array of activities such as arts & crafts, sports, outdoor activities, and environmental pursuits
  • Opportunities for students to try new things and be somewhat in charge of new responsibilities, such as cleaning the bathhouse
  • Limited backcountry activities in which campers have the option, but not the obligation, to participate
  • Meals mostly prepared by camp kitchen staff and served in the dining hall with limited opportunities for campers to cook meals for themselves and their campmates
  • Centralized lodging, meals, and bathhouse facilities
  • Routine environment and activities coordinated from a central home base


  • Small groups with a 1:6 instructor-to-student ratio
  • Programs for individuals, school groups, university groups, nonprofit groups, and others
  • Outcome-focused curriculum
  • Activities chosen carefully to optimize experiential education outcomes
  • Opportunities to try new things and develop higher levels of responsibility and leadership
  • Backcountry meal prep with participants largely responsible for preparing meals
  • Group participation in most activities, followed by expertly facilitated end-of-day discussions about what was experienced and learned
  • Wilderness environment — most activities/adventures are conducted in unique land and water wilderness environments
  • Backpacking — working together, participants carry everything they need to live in the

Tour Operators

  • A specific activity or package of activities, such as kayaking, whitewater rafting, or bird watching
  • An emphasis on fun and recreation
  • Limited education focused on a narrow skill set such as paddle techniques, water safety, local flora and fauna, or local/regional history
  • Highly regimented — participants follow instructions with little to no opportunity to take on leadership roles
  • Full-service guided tours in which participants primarily play a passive role, mostly as sightseers


  • A custom array of educational and recreational opportunities, with human-powered outdoor recreation activity serving as the vehicle used to drive personal growth, group dynamics, and leadership development
  • Active engagement in a range of educational lessons/activities focused on technical skill development, leadership development, and environmental sciences
  • Opportunities for students to learn and grow — and then lead
  • Experiential education for developing the technical outdoor skills to live comfortably and safely in the backcountry
  • A highly customized personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum

Gap and Semester Programs

  • International travel
  • Duration of three to six months
  • High-school, college, and adult offerings
  • Cultural and foreign language immersion opportunities
  • Limited backcountry experiences (not part of most gap and semester programs)
  • Remote locations for some programs


  • Domestic and international travel; for example, from New Hampshire to Oregon to Ecuador
  • Shorter duration — 42-day and 60-day programs
  • Travel that is split into different legs/segments
  • Cultural immersion opportunities
  • Backcountry activities
  • NCOAE’s core experiential learning and personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum
  • Course offerings tailored to domestic and international locations
  • Programming for 18-plus aged participants exclusively

Urban Summer Programs & Day Camps

  • Mostly day camp programming
  • Primarily based in urban areas
  • Broad array of activities such as dance, sports, skateboarding, and crafts
  • Supplemental outdoor activities such as archery and pool activities
  • Less defined curriculum
  • Local community input on program design
  • Short trips to natural environments, but primarily focused on activities/experiences in urban settings


  • Primarily outdoor-based programs with limited time in any urban settings
  • Primarily overnight, multi-day programming with limited (if any) day programs
  • Backcountry wilderness environments
  • Development of technical outdoor skills
  • Personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum in small-group settings in a wilderness environment to improve group dynamics and an understanding and appreciation of one’s individual and collective impact in a community

Other Outdoor and Adventure-Based Schools

  • Focus primarily on outdoor skill development
  • Less focus on personal and interpersonal reflection and growth and on leadership development
  • Inability to customize programming
  • Limited to a few course areas and unable to roll out new ones to address changes in student needs and demands
  • Limited flexibility to pivot in response to client or staff feedback when warranted
  • More focus on allowing the environment and the physical experience of an expedition dictate the individual student’s learning and experience
  • Unaccredited by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE)


  • A well-rounded experience, with time for learning and challenge but also for relaxation and reflection, enabling participants to generalize and internalize so they can apply their learning when they return to their home or school communities
  • Outdoor activities that extend beyond participation to meet the outcomes defined in our unique core curriculum
  • Customized experiences for each partner organization and each class/year of students
  • Flexibility and passion for continuously improving our programs
  • The ability to pivot as needed to meet the school/organization/individual group needs
  • A careful balance of technical outdoor skill and leadership development
  • Sensitivity and flexibility regarding the pace of learning to ensure that participants are not pushed too hard or too far into a place of anxiety and frustration
  • Optimization of group dynamics and group bonding to reinforce the application of personal and leadership development and skills in a community setting
  • Bound by the Association for Experiential Education’s (AEE’s) strict standards of accreditation for program governance and administration, risk management, participant transportation, backcountry equipment and nutrition, and more

Here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education, we have expertise not only in the principles and curriculum that drive our unique approach to outdoor education and adventure programming but also in the theories that guide outdoor experiential education itself. By staying informed about alternative outdoor adventure and education offerings and actively engaging in networking and educational opportunities provided by our industry membership and trade associations, we are confident in our ability to assist you in making an informed choice. 

We encourage you to continue your research and ask numerous questions. If we can be of additional assistance, please reach out to us by calling our headquarters at (910) 399-8090 or emailing us at info@ncoae.org, or by visiting our blog for more information.