The Big Red Bus Drives Outdoor Exploration

Micah Leinbach BA ’14, founder of the Bus for Outdoor Access &Teaching (BOAT), serves community organizations interested in implementing wilderness programs.

In fall 2019, Micah Leinbach led his nonprofit’s first outdoor trip in what his team fondly calls “Big Red.” The 35-seat bus offers enough space for a full team of facilitators, food, and wilderness expedition gear. It also includes speakers for music––preferably played at a high volume.

Micah Leinbach BA ’14

BA in environmental studies

College Outdoors, Students Engaged in Eco-Defense (SEED), Associated Student Body (ASB), the Log student newspaper

As you might expect, driving a very large bus through some very narrow roads (watch out for snowbanks!)

Big Red is the signature vehicle of the nonprofit BOAT, which stands for Bus for Outdoor Access & Teaching. Appropriately enough, “Step aboard for fun” is tagged in white along the bus’s side.

The idea for the nonprofit was not an “aha moment” but a gradual realization, according to Leinbach. “We were looking at what makes it harder for diverse groups to get outside, and most of the time it comes down to resources and knowledge,” he says. “At BOAT, we take care of the boring stuff. We look for organizations who want to run their own programs, and we enable them to do that as a partner.”

In other words, BOAT serves as a logistical back end for organizations looking to provide outdoor trips for their teams, members, or students. In addition to transportation in the form of Big Red, BOAT supplies food, equipment, guiding services, and insurance. All a group needs to do is show up on time in athletic clothes.

The benefits of getting outside are well documented. Spending time in nature is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, with studies showing reduced levels of stress and tension, an increased ability to concentrate, and an enhanced sense of belonging when enjoyed with others. But historically, not everyone has been able to access these benefits. Those who live in cities, particularly racial and ethnic minorities, have been excluded from these experiences and have lacked representation in traditional outdoor organizations.

“We’re helping people to reclaim outdoor experiences and put their own spin on them by building the programs they want,” says Leinbach.

Recent community partners include Outdoor Afro, the Hispanic Access Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban Connections program, which aims to connect those in metropolitan areas with nature. For Leinbach, the greatest endorsement of BOAT’s work has been the number of repeat customers. For example, in February, Big Red traveled to the Michigan Ice Fest for the third year, bringing a team of BIPOC climbers from Detroit, Michigan, to Munising for a weekend of ice climbing.

At Lewis & Clark, Leinbach was an active participant in all College Outdoors activities, which provided early inspiration for BOAT. “The quality of the outdoor program at L&C is truly without equal across the country in terms of training and experience as a leader,” he says. Leinbach continues to travel back to Portland every fall to help support the college’s New Student Trips. In the last three years, alumni have often served as BOAT guides. “We keep the Lewis & Clark connections strong,” Leinbach says.

BOAT currently operates out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Leinbach’s hometown. The nonprofit has completed more than 50 trips. Looking to the future, Leinbach hopes to grow BOAT to new heights, which begins with getting additional buses in more parts of the country—and raising more funding.

“We’re meeting a niche need,” Leinbach says. “What it comes down to is providing our partners with the ability to execute outdoor programming without encroaching on their own unique vision.”