Digital Classroom: How Trekking to Educate changes your Thru-Hike

Come Walk With Us Digital Classroom blog.

How does running a digital classroom and providing content along the way to organizations and classrooms change the hike, what is in your backpack, what your schedule looks like?  Moreover does ensuring that you can run a digital classroom on a trail change how you prepare, how you plan, what you carry on you, and what is expected of you on the trail?  Especially in the age of ultralight backpacking and thru hiking.

Goal of trek

In case you haven’t heard, my name is Sonya Richmond and I was – until recently - a GIS Analyst at Bird Studies Canada assisting in the development of Provincial Bird Atlases, and an Ornithological Researcher.  Starting in June 2019 through to October 2021 I am taking a leave from my position at Bird Studies Canada, and have sold my house and donated most of my possessions to fund a planned hike of 24,000 km across Canada along the world’s longest pathway, The Great Trail (formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail).  The plan is to start in Cape Spear, NL in spring 2019 and over the next three years walk west to Victoria, BC, and then venture north from Fort Saskatchewan to Tuktoyaktuk, NT.  While few others have made this trek in its entirety, none have done so with the primary purpose of getting students outdoors into nature to promote youth engagement in the sciences, exploration, and innovation.

As we hike the Great Trail, we will be raising awareness of the importance of protecting migratory birds and bird habitats such as the Boreal Forest, as well as protecting areas of Scientific and Environmental Importance (IBAs). We will emphasize the many opportunities available for becoming active participants in the vibrant outdoor recreation, conservation, and Citizen Science communities across Canada.  Our focus will be on connecting families and youth to nature through birding, promoting healthy active lifestyles, and inspiring a passion to become lifelong explorers, outdoor enthusiasts, and sustainable stewards of the nation’s resources.  A major goal of our walk is get youth active and involved in experiential education opportunities in their own communities.  Research has shown that engagement with nature helps develop healthy, independent, confident and creative individuals who have the self-awareness, communication and critical thinking skills, as well as the creativity necessary to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We believe that birding can be a key means to connecting youth to nature and a way to focus their online activities.  In addition we want to remind Canadian Youth of all that connects nature in our backyard to the environments and habitats throughout the country.  We plan to highlight the connections between habitats in our backyards and local parks and those in places such as the Prairie Grasslands and Boreal Forest.   We are a big and great nation capable of so much and we hope to remind the people of our country of its diversity, natural wonders and potential. 

Over the course of the next three years we are inviting people across Canada to 'Come Walk With Us', either by joining us for a few kilometers on the trail, by following our progress online, or by asking us to give a presentation.  We intend to share a positive message aimed at encouraging and inspiring youth to focus their online and screen time toward becoming Citizen Scientists, to experience the benefits and rewards of spending time in nature, and to become lifelong explorers and protectors of important natural areas.  We intend to deliver unique, positive, accessible, experiential learning opportunities aimed at connecting students and families to nature through birding, and we will do our best to lead by example and inspire through passion.  

We are primarily collaborating with Bird Studies Canada, the country’s leading charitable organization dedicated to the conservation of wild birds to refine our message and in developing an accessible online classroom for teachers to supplement their curriculum.  In addition to Bird Studies Canada we are collaborating with Nature New Brunswick and Nature Newfoundland, have be awarded a grant from the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund, are being sponsored by Clif Bar Canada and Briden Solutions, being advised by members of the Canadian Explorer’s Club and working in conjunction with Science By the Seat of Your Pants, and the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas who are helping us connect with schools, youth, and nature groups across the country.  And this is just the beginning.  As we visit more than 15,000 communities along the trail, we also plan to offer presentations to naturalist organizations, school groups, Boy Scouts / Girl Guides, Seniors Residences, local media outlets, and any other interested parties to share our message with new audiences.  To date the story of our preparations have been reported on the CBC, Explorersweb,, The Trek, SiriusXM as well as a number of regional radio and news broadcasts.

The Groundwork

When the notion of trekking the Trans Canada came to us 2-3 years ago, we began planning, and thought to head out at the beginning of spring in 2018 (one year ago).  As we prepared however we began to realize the opportunity that this hike presented to advance people’s interest in nature, birding and the Citizen Sciences.  In particular, this intrigued us as we had a younger family member who experienced a number of challenges given the amount of time he spent online and playing video games rather than staying physically and socially engaged with the world.  At the time we though it would only take a few weeks, or at most a couple of months, to set up an itinerary, design a presentation, and arrange for talks along the route.  In fact, it has taken us almost an entire year to plan and prepare as well as setting up forums to present in.  So what is involved in this process that took so much time? 


Backpack and Equipment

Perhaps our greatest challenge came in ensuring that we were preparing a digital and not a physical classroom.  We needed to create content without adding much weight to our already bulging backpacks.  As such, in conjunction with Bird Studies Canada we have prepared a number of PDFs and printable materials and power point presentations for classrooms.  In addition to which, we will be carrying a set of binoculars and bird field guide to help youth acquaint themselves with the tools of the trade and identification (but let’s be honest I was taking those anyways, this is about my life list too!).  As well as ‘formal clothes’ for presentations (our goal being simply just to not scare students away with my appearance an odour after a month on the trail). So this means that I still wear field pants, or a skort, and my hiking boots, but I am carrying a campaign shirt with our logo on it (in a zip lock bag) that is only worn on these occasions – so in the end I am carrying an extra piece of clothing on me.  

As well as a tablet to carry and convey our presentations on as well as serving as a means of keeping in touch with youth and birders across Canada!  While none of this seems like much, adding  tablet, batteries, binoculars, identification guide, and the like to our backpacks means that we are carrying more gear than most trekkers would prefer. 

Designing Classroom content

Our second challenge came in designing classroom content, that it fit into curriculum, interested students of all age ranges, and yes to some degree entertains enough to keep them engaged for 30 minutes in a classroom (and hopefully for years to come).   Here we have to admit that it was Liza Barney of Bird Studies Canada to whom we owe our greatest debt.  Her experience and advice has proven invaluable.  In addition throughout this process we have developed an entirely new level of respect for teachers from JK to the conclusion of High School – to do this everyday makes you all amazing!

Schedule and Coordination

Our third challenge came in scheduling presentations, classroom visits, and naturalist groups.  While we had a ton of help from the likes of Nature New Brunswick and BSC’s Important Bird Areas groups it still means that we essentially had to plan where we would be on each specific day for three years.  This means that any changes to our schedule whether from weather, injuries, illness, or the like will result in us having to make up time to keep our schedule together – over the course of almost 900 days.  
Added to this we have tried to design and outline regular content to cover different regions, areas of scientific importance, and varying ecozones to supplement our anticipated regular images and updates as we hike.  This might sound easy – but it has become a rather overwhelming project of ensuring that whether we have wifi or not regular content, and information on birds and birding throughout Canada can and will be published.  

Level of commitment

So beyond carrying more equipment and designing classroom content, what does all this mean?

Well, the reality is that few people get into a thru-hike with the intention of quitting or altering their trekking plans.  When you have commitments and expectations however, the option to change your route, change your timing, etc. diminishes – this places a new level of pressure on the process.  This is something we are still getting used to.  Indeed, holding together a schedule and agenda amid the unknown and unexpected is set to be a challenge for us.  With that said, many of the classrooms and organizations which we have already talked to have agreed that our timing may be a little off and been kind enough to offer to pick us up to ensure we are on time to talks and walks as well as return us to the trail afterwards – making our challenges much more manageable.  (Once again our eternal thanks for your understanding)!

In addition, despite all of this we are well aware – and very open to – visiting additional schools and clubs along the way to get more youth outdoors, experiencing nature through birding and becoming involved as Citizen Scientists.

So in the end, it is not necessarily that our level of commitment is higher or that it is more challenging for us than any other trekker out there, but rather that there are a different set of expectations and additional hurdles to be considered and accounted for as we cross Canada.

The past year has been a long road but it I has definitely been worth it…and the adventure is about to begin!

June 1st, 2019 is now just around the corner… and we extend our invitation to any group or classroom who would like us to talk (and who is understanding of our schedule) to get in touch with us (

See you on the trail!

Remember to follow our entire adventure here :