BOSS got its start in the late 1960’s with a man named Larry Dean Olsen, noted author of Outdoor Survival Skills. In the 50 years since, the school has gone through a few changes of ownership and a significant amount of growth. The program, however, remains true to its original vision: create a place that teaches primitive skills and helps people grow through their experiences in the natural world.
The year was 1968. The place: Provo, Utah. A number of students at Brigham Young University (BYU) lacked motivation and were on the verge of failing out of school. Something had to be done.
A professor at BYU named Larry Dean Olsen had an idea. A lifelong student of survival skills and wilderness travel, Larry suggested the following to the school: let him take the failing students into the wilderness for 30 days. Give him a chance to travel the wilderness with them, to test them physically and mentally and to give them the opportunity to reconnect, renew and recommit to their life’s path. Larry felt that our society had lost its edge, and that mental toughness and the ability to adapt to harsh conditions were no longer common character traits. Larry suggested a wilderness program featuring specific physical and mental obstacles that would produce more adaptable and resourceful people. In the pre-litigious world of the late 1960’s, BYU agreed and, under the supervision of the Department of Youth Leadership, the students went with Larry for a month.
The group started near Green River, Utah and hiked south through Robbers Roost, a maze of sandstone canyons. They then turned West and made their way through Capitol Reef and then up over the 11,000′ Boulder Mountain. For 30 days they hiked, and hiked, and hiked – covering close to 300 miles with little more than a wool blanket and some simple foods. The focus wasn’t on the gear, or on the food, it was on the people and the wilderness. It was on meeting immense challenges boldly and with grace. And when the students returned to civilization, they had changed. As a group they were now motivated students, brimming with the confidence to succeed. As a result of the trip’s enormous success, the BYU Survival Course (also called Youth Leadership 480) was born.
For the next 10 or so years, Youth Leadership 480 continued to take BYU students into the wilderness of Southern Utah to give them the chance to learn primitive skills and meet the challenges of the trail. In 1978, the program moved out from under the umbrella of BYU and established itself in the small town of Boulder, Utah. In 1980, the program was privatized and incorporated as the Boulder Outdoor Survival School, Inc. by Doug Nelson, one of Larry’s instructors.
Doug continued to run BOSS until 1985, when Doug’s friend (and another of Larry’s instructors) David Wescott took the reigns as owner. At this point, BOSS already had a reputation for offering a tough physical and mental challenge to its students. Dave grew the program to include teaching the traditional skills of Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures, adding more depth to the program. He hired instructors who appreciated the history and legacy of indigenous people and who could teach the skills of so-called “primitive” cultures to modern outdoor enthusiasts. In the late 80s, BOSS began expanding beyond Utah, offering courses in Texas, Mexico, and Idaho.
By 1990, in addition to its world-famous Field courses, BOSS was offering Skills courses intensively focusing on the practice of traditional skills. With topics ranging from edible plants to pottery to stone tools, students had the opportunity to explore the world of these skills and the connection to human history they provide in greater depth than the Field Courses allowed, without the challenge of extreme hiking.
In 1994, BOSS alumnus and past staff member Josh Bernstein returned to BOSS as Marketing and Administrative Director, opening new offices in Boulder, Colorado. Combining his degree in anthropology with a more international perspective, Josh restructured the BOSS curriculae to include an even greater emphasis on traditional cultures and drafted a new marketing plan for the school to reach a broader audience. In 1997, Josh took over as president and CEO. Additional courses and training course divisions soon appeared as the school grew to accommodate more students.
In 2001, BOSS’s Field Office in Boulder, Utah moved from a 1/4 acre parcel of land to 41-acres on Highway 12. Back in Colorado, Jenny Stein joined BOSS as Customer Service manager. In 2004, Jeff Sanders took over as Program Director. Under their supervision, the number of students, courses and staff grew significantly.
In late 2010, sensing an opportunity to expand the school’s administrative staff and broaden support for field operations, Josh restructured the Utah leadership. Steve Dessinger, Laurel Holding and Bryan Puskar, all long-time instructors of the school, were promoted to Director positions, each with a specific area of responsibility, and in 2014, Josh Bernstein passed the torch of ownership to Steve Dessinger.
After running the school for four years, Steve decided, with the support of other long-time BOSS staff, to transition the school to become a 501c3 non-profit organization. This enormous shift signaled the strong directive of Steve and the staff for the school to stay true to its roots as an educational institution. The non-profit hit the ground running, with a hard-working board of directors initially made up of the BOSS staff Perry Tancredi, Jessica Ewing, Michael Denisoff, Charlie Detar, and of course Steve Dessinger. The board named Eli Loomis as BOSS’s first executive director.
Today – 50 years of BOSS
As of 2018, BOSS has been serving students for 50 years, longer than any other survival school. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of all the staff members of the school, BOSS remains dedicated to its cause: to offer courses that challenge people to learn about themselves and grow through experiences in the natural world, and to show how ancient knowledge and powerful landscapes can help people transform. After 50 years, our knowledge and experience have deepened. Each course still brings to life the traditional skills, offers the tough mental and physical challenge, and provides the profound wilderness experience unlike anything else in the world.