Last summer, Kayla Wales spent 21 days in the Pioneer Mountains learning to enjoy the rainy times when she was huddled under a tarp as much as the sunny days.

She developed mountaineering skills, became friends with teenagers who had similar interests, gained a deeper appreciation for conservation and, before she’d even returned home, decided she wanted to do it again this summer.

In June, Wales, a senior at the Bozeman Field School, will spend 12 days backpacking and packrafting in the Badger-Two Medicine area. She is looking forward to visiting a place she’s long been interested in and hopes to face her fear of water.

“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors but have never been on such a long trip before last summer,” she said. “It was incredible to be in the wilderness for that long. It was a powerful experience.”

Wales is one of 170 students who have participated in the Montana Wilderness School, a Bozeman-based nonprofit focused on introducing Montanans to the public lands in their backyard.

The school, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, is now accepting applications for this summer and hosting its annual scholarship fund drive.

The 10 trips offered this summer range from 10 to 21 days and will run from June to August. Each trip includes about 10 students between age 14 and 18 and centers on technical skills from backpacking to horse packing to rock climbing. Participants don’t need prior outdoors experience, and equipment is included in the trips. The school provides need-based financial aid and, last year, gave $114,000 in scholarships to 42 students, many of whom live in Gallatin and Park counties.

Although students come from all over the country, the school focuses on enrolling Montanans.

“We are hyper-focused on the local thing … Having it for local kids is a really important aspect of the program,” said Josh Olsen, co-founder and program director. “As a kid who grew up in Montana, there wasn’t a program like this and there should have been because this is a way for kids to spend time on the public lands in their state (and) to experience wild places. As they become future decision makers of the state, … they know about the conservation issues that are relevant to Montana.”

On the trips, students learn outdoor skills from setting up tents to cooking in the backcountry and participate in lessons on topics that include public land access, wildlife management and Native American history.

“The students bring in ideas and perspectives from their communities, so it’s a real melting pot and opportunity to share experiences and learn lessons together,” said Gar Duke, co-founder and executive director. “We really hope they learn a lot about this state and about the importance of public lands. We hope that they become advocates, voters and a voice for public lands.”

The program also includes leadership skill development by teaching students to talk to and listen to their peers.

“An understanding of how to work with and communicate with diverse people, especially under stress, like during a rainstorm on a mountain, is essential and transferable,” Olsen said. “The mountains, rivers and backcountry are really great teachers for empowering students to know that they can tolerate adversity, they are capable and they have the grit to deal with life.”

Duke and Olsen have both spent significant time in the outdoors and were involved in several wilderness education programs before they decided to launch their own. They wanted to take the best aspects of programs they had seen and combine them with a Montana-specific curriculum.

They began in a studio in Duke’s backyard where they taught themselves how to run a nonprofit. Then in summer 2015, they held their first three courses, enrolling 16 students. The school has since grown, expanding to a warehouse on Shawnee Way before moving to a property about 20 miles north of Bozeman where it anticipates hosting 100 students this summer.

Duke and Olsen are planning to strengthen their programs, adding more lessons on Native Americans and emphasizing the inclusion of diverse students through tribal and rural outreach. They are also working to ensure the school’s long-term financial stability so the programs will be available for years to come.

“It’s about growing smart and growing so that we’re making sure we have a high-quality program,” Olsen said. “Even if that means we grow slowly, I think it’s critical that we continue to provide the best program that we can.”

Perrin Stein is the county, state and federal government reporter for the Chronicle.