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Thinking about AURORA?

There’s a lot to consider. Read through our frequently asked questions to give yourself a better sense of AURORA. More expedition-specific information can be found on their respective pages. Information regarding our COVID-19 response can be found on the COVID-19 and AURORA page. Still have questions? Contact us! We can’t wait to hear from you!

Why AURORA? What would I gain? What’s a GHW credit?

We know transition can be difficult, so we’re here to help. Our backpacking expeditions set you up for success at Penn State by offering you the opportunity to meet other students while challenging yourself and bolstering your self-esteem on the adventure of a lifetime! Who knows, maybe you’ll even develop a lifelong passion for backpacking and the outdoors. And, hey, tell your folks that participation in an outdoor orientation program like AURORA directly correlates with a higher student retention rate!

A GHW credit is a General Health and Wellness Credit — you need three of them to graduate. AURORA will give you all three. Yup, we fulfill an entire Gen Ed requirement!

So you’re saying I’ll get three GHW credits just for being outside?

Well… not exactly. As three-credit courses, AURORA’s expeditions have a few requirements. Positive participation during the expedition is a must, as is keeping a creative, insightful journal. After the expedition, you’ll complete a follow-up community service project and reconnect with your group on campus to learn more about Penn State through classes and other assignments. Generally, Fall AURORA participants meet twice after the expedition for the classroom component (for example, you may meet once in September and then again in October). Summer LEAP ORION participants follow a different model, and more information on that can be found in the ORION FAQ.

Does it cost money?

All AURORA expeditions are 3-credit courses. Tuition rates vary based on your enrollment status and campus of enrollment; class fees vary based on which AURORA program you choose. Please see expedition-specific FAQs for more information.

Oof, the outdoors! I’m not experienced! Do I need to be fit? How far do I hike and how much do I carry?

Don’t worry; instruction is provided! A majority of our participants backpack and camp for the first time with AURORA and have a blast. Those who have more experience can help by sharing their knowledge. Once hitting the trail, participants will remain on the trail full-time for several days until the trip’s conclusion. This includes sleeping outdoors.

We never emphasize the physical aspects of backpacking; our main goals are to provide a unique social experience and to promote personal well-being. But, hiking up to twenty-five miles over five days with a thirty- to forty-pound pack can prove difficult during a hot summer, so we suggest you prepare by engaging early and often in any cardiovascular exercise — jogging, swimming, even walking — prior to your trip. Participants sometimes mention they wish they prepared a little better. But find comfort in knowing that people from all walks of life have completed, and enjoyed, AURORA.

Also, some of our programs don’t stay on the trail full-time or sleep outdoors — like SIRIUS or URSA! Take a look at this year’s offerings to see what’s right for you.

How big are expeditions? I want to go with a friend!

Hundreds of incoming students will participate in AURORA this year, divided into separate expedition groups of ten students. With a balanced representation of gender, each group brings together as many diverse backgrounds as possible. These groups are then led by two leaders, also balanced by gender.

Key concepts of AURORA are respect, teamwork, and camaraderie. Placing two friends in the same group can disrupt commonality among everyone and be detrimental to the group’s progression. Many realize they would not have learned, grown, and enjoyed AURORA as much if they had gone with friends. Trust us — you’ll have more fun this way.

What’s up with the leaders?

Like all of us, AURORA leaders come from a diverse background. Some are Penn State alums or grad students. Many are current undergrad students, studying across various majors such as agriculture, theater, marketing, engineering, and so on. Some are past participants who enjoyed AURORA so much that they wanted to offer others a similar experience! What all leaders have in common is an appreciation for the outdoors and a great deal of experience in both technical and personal aspects of expedition leading. All are Wilderness First Aid certified at a minimum. And cool.

A unique aspect of AURORA is that leaders act as facilitators, rather than guides. Groups work together to make decisions based off the input from all group members. Leaders ensure that all voices are heard and that the decisions made are physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy for the group; hiking pace, when to rest, and other decisions are made as a group. By empowering the group, leaders help participants make the expedition their own.

What do I bring?

Other than a positive attitude and the willingness to have fun, the most important thing to bring is appropriate footwear. Broken-in, supportive hiking boots are necessary. At a minimum, purchase your boots a month ahead of your expedition and then break those puppies in!

Starting to break in boots can be as simple as wearing them at dinner or walking around the block until they are comfortable enough for a short hike. Continual wear will then get them ready for a longer hike like AURORA. Those who don’t break in their boots develop painful blisters on their feet and definitely don’t enjoy the expedition as much as everyone else. Plenty of information exists online about finding proper boots and breaking them in, but contact us if you have any questions.

Camping and backpacking gear (think of sleeping bags, backpacks, ground pads, etc.) are provided during the trip. If you have it, you are more than welcome to bring your own gear, though we reserve the right to review it upon arrival. If we feel that our equipment is more suitable for the expedition, we will lend you ours and securely store yours for the week.

After registration, you’ll receive an Essential Information Packet (EIP) filled with important information such as a full list of required clothing and personal items. Program-specific EIPs can be found on each expedition’s page. We have curated the gear list over two decades, and it contains only the lightest and most practical items for your comfort outdoors. Some examples might be a mid-weight fleece, a rain jacket, a certain number of socks, etc. Lists are dependent on the expedition. Your items don’t need to be identical to the list’s items, but should be comparable. Borrowing is a great way to fulfill your needs without breaking the bank, and we will also provide information on discounts for purchasing new items after you register. As a Penn State course, all drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and weapons are prohibited from AURORA — including your pocketknife.

I can bring my cell phone, right? How will my parents contact me?

Here it is, the moment of truth: cell phones are strictly prohibited. They distract from the program’s goals. Group leaders will carry a cell phone for use in an emergency or if our marketing team asks them to take photos. You are more than welcome to bring your own camera or GoPro, as long as it is not attached to a phone. If parents need to contact you on the trail, they can call Jen Emigh, AURORA Director, at (814) 865-3890, day or night.

What if I need to leave early?

Whether it is by your own personal choice or due to injury or family emergency, no refunds (see expedition-specific FAQs for costs) will be given if you leave the expedition early. Accommodations and transportation are to be arranged and paid for by the participant and their family.

What if I have to cancel?

If you must cancel, please do so by email at If you cancel on or after June 1, you will be charged a cancellation fee. Please see expedition-specific FAQs for accurate cancellation fees.

Personal hygiene?!

Hygiene will be addressed on the trail. Many expeditions will hike through remote areas without shower and bathroom facilities. How will you stay clean? Wash dishes? Drink and cook with pure water? Deal with human waste? Your leaders will show you how! Hiking in remote locations does not require you to forgo cleanliness.

AURORA follows “Leave No Trace” principles, and you will learn how to apply them while living in the wilderness. To learn more, visit Leave No Trace or pick up a copy of The Backpacker’s Field Manual by Rick Curtis.

Having their period on the trail is a common fear for some participants. No worries! Leaders will teach you how to handle your hygiene, trash, and other concerns. This should not be a factor that keeps you from participating. But, you should pack extra supplies, just in case!

I’m on the trail when I’m supposed to move into my dorm!

We enjoy a special partnership with the housing assignment office — a partnership that allows University Park AURORA participants to move into their dorms prior to starting the program.

To ask any questions or pursue this process, please email or call 814-865-7501.

AURORA is part of Shaver’s Creek! What’s that?

Penn State founded Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in 1976 as an outdoor classroom for students to get hands-on experience teaching in — and about — the natural world. Since then, it has expanded to offer more than 30 credit courses a year, including courses on environmental interpretation, adventure and leadership, and us — AURORA!

Opportunities at Shaver’s Creek go well beyond the classroom. Shaver’s Creek is open to the public seven days a week from mid-February through mid-December, free of admission. Students can enjoy miles of hiking trails through Penn State’s 7,000-acre Stone Valley Forest or enjoy seeing the Visitor Center’s resident birds of prey, reptiles, and amphibians.

Students can get involved in other ways at Shaver’s Creek by volunteering to help with animal care, educational programs, festivals, and other areas, or even earn income through a Penn State work-study position. Look around the website to learn more!

What other supportive communities do you recommend?

We recommend the Wellness Community that Housing offers through their Special Living Options! Join and you’ll live and learn with like-minded peers from different walks of life. Take advantage of this unique community by participating in an active and engaging living environment that focuses on a holistic approach to wellness, student success and well-being, and the pursuit of life-long health. You’ll have opportunities to pursue outdoor recreation, intramural sports, mindfulness activities, community service, and free Wellness Services from the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness.

As proud affiliates of this Special Living Option, participation in AURORA is a great way to get an early start on the Wellness Community experience.