Wilderness Survival as Therapy with Dan Coyle

In an uncertain world, getting back to primal basics is empowering. Dan Coyle, the visionary behind Coyle Outside, learned this lesson throughout his life and now guides people ages two to adult in gaining confidence with wilderness survival skills. 

Maybe you’ve seen the classes and summer camps offered through Corvallis Parks & Rec, on fliers throughout town, or his website with such titles as Wilderness Skills Weekend, Forest Gang, or Bushcraft & Survival. Maybe you’ve asked, who is the person who can teach navigation, wilderness first aid, archery, and foraging, as well as knife skills, cordage, and how to build a fire without matches. 

And if you’re looking for someone who does this in such a way that the student gains respect for the environment, then Dan’s your man. 

Getting to Know Dan Coyle 

 Coyle was busy chopping wood when I arrived at his place in South Corvallis to talk with him. As he put down the ax, he said he enjoys making firewood for relaxation. Sitting down in his backyard by a cooled off campfire, there were signs all around that indicate he teaches many practical skills here. His calm yet high energy – exuding a strong sense of manliness without the dreaded “toxic masculinity” – indicates his passion for passing on his wisdom found through nature. 

He moved to Corvallis in 1993 to start a job at Oregon State University as a researcher. He grew up in New Jersey and learned to love being outdoors during college in upstate New York. After college he moved to Oregon, based solely on the hearsay that it’s a good state for outside adventures. 

OSU first hired Coyle to research genetics, then he shifted botany, and then onto field biology. While interesting and environment-related, none felt aligned with what he wanted to do in life. Meanwhile, he had a part-time job teaching whitewater kayaking.  

While teaching, he experienced an eye-opening lesson. One of the kayak maneuvers where the kayaker is flipped over and underwater, which he found exhilarating, frightened others – even though they were in the fairly safe confines of a pool.  

Coyle discovered he enjoyed coaching people through their fears and getting to the point of confidence to say “I f**king did it!”  

A skill he learned as a coach was to be curious about others and their inner motivations.  By asking questions and actively listening to client’s replies, he was able to develop a trusting bond and guide them to emotional growth. 

Wilderness Therapy 

 

Since Coyle liked those “aha” moments when students moved past their fear and went on to do more, he left research and started working for a wilderness therapy business in Bend. At first, he wasn’t sure he’d like working with people or troubled teens because, as a researcher, he didn’t have to regularly interact with others. 

Surprising himself, he discovered he likes the work with kids, the role of talking to them, and creating the energetic space where the struggling youths could confide their worries while figuring out through a nature-based experience what they want their future to look like. Coyle finally found a job that felt meaningful – teaching kids to appreciate the challenges of doing the ‘hard’ things and learning life lessons by being uncomfortable outdoors and surviving the experience. 

After Bend, he went to another wilderness therapy place in Albany. There, he learned the business from bottom to top as he moved up from Guide to Director. Coyle estimates he spent over 1,000 nights camping outdoors with the groups at this ambitious job.  

The teens, Coyle said, often go to these programs because they are in some sort of trouble. He added, “The program causes them to grow emotionally. They learn confidence and self-responsibility, and gratitude for even the basic necessities – or for how their mom does love them. The things they do are wholesome and instill values. While it’s crazy hard, they are safe… just not comfortable.” 

“It becomes a rite of passage,” Coyle said. “ The group, going through this challenge together, often creates an interdependency similar to how soldiers have with the thinking of ‘I’ve got your back and you got mine, even if we don’t see life the same way.’ The reward becomes, for many, the enlightened awareness of ‘We are One.’’’ 

Tree Piece, Wooden Bike Helmets 

Coyle left the Albany job to pursue being his own boss with a start-up business called Coyle Design and Build. He had always been crafty, making fancy wood kayak paddles, wood eyeglasses, hand-made outdoor gear and eventually wood helmets. 

 

At first he had made the Tree Piece helmets with chainsaws. Then he discovered how to use a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine and lasers. Using funds from an Indiegogo campaign, he bought his own tools and paid the related costs that entrepreneurs face. He got two patents, learned how to manufacture and had the helmets safety tested – first with OSU and with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).  

Each helmet was custom made and sold for around $300. What he learned during the process was that the helmets should have been priced closer to $700, yet each one took about $2,000 worth of effort. Like many start-ups, he realized he was investing more than he was earning.

Coyle reached a point where he needed to pivot and find a new way to earn money.  

Corvallis Parks & Rec 

Coyle hit upon an idea for making money that was close to home and made good use of his skills – leading outdoor activities to Corvallis youth. Based on his experience with outdoor activities as well as working with younger people, he reached out to a connection at Corvallis’ Parks & Rec to offer help with summer camps. Coyle started with activities, then weekend events, and just kept adding more programs. Over time, he shifted from activities that required expensive gear to be used in distant locations to teaching primal skills – such as fire building, knife use, cordage, orienteering, wilderness first aid, foraging and creating shelter –  with a minimal amount of tools. 

Coyle’s private/public partnership with Parks & Rec appealed to him because they handled the marketing and liabilities while he offered the city engaging classes. Using this business model, Coyle’s new business, called Coyle Outside, has expanded to 24 municipal, county, or school based agencies beyond Corvallis in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and even as far as Maryland. He said the places are small enough that they can’t do it on their own, but big enough to have clientele to serve. 

Coyle Outside Grew 

Eight years ago, Coyle’s camp business had grown enough he needed help. His first hire came from Craigslist. His new employee, Joey Vogt, had been working in a routine packaging job at North Pacific Paper Company for over 20 years and was burned out. Just as Coyle had, Vogt found a new mission in life – being outdoors, teaching campers confidence through wilderness experiences, and witnessing the students become courageous in the process.  Coyle learned from this unlikely hire that he liked mentoring the teachers, as he said, to also be “all the human being we can.”    

Now when Coyle hires guides, he looks for “MacGyvers” who can make or fix something with just the items on hand. His trainers are not only skilled in survival techniques, but are also mentors with values that campers can admire and emulate. 

Doer, Not Spectator 

Coyle has been involved in the community beyond conducting survival skill classes.  

For the past six or seven years, he has been involved with Team Dirt, a non-profit community organization which started as a mountain bike club and grew to include all levels of bikes. Per their website, Team Dirt is primarily focused on building and maintaining sustainable trails suitable for mountain bikers, but often open for multi-purpose use. Coyle, a board member, is proud of the trails he has designed, built – sometimes with kids from his camps or other volunteers, and maintains in MacDonald and Starker Forests. 

Coyle wants more kids to feel empowered by doing things themselves, not getting ribbons because they showed up. Besides all the Parks & Rec programs he runs, future plans include expanding into more areas and creating year-round programs for homeschooled kids. Right now, he offers homeschooling groups and private schools custom “Outdoor School Week” which may be day based or overnight.  

The mission for all of his programs whether for an adult, teen or child is to build confidence, self-reliance, and group interdependence, because, as he says, “Being told you’re special isn’t the same as feeling you matter.” 

By Stacey Newman Weldon