PurposeThe article discusses Outward Bound's participation in the human potential movement through its incorporation of T-group practices and the reform language of experiential education in the late 1960s and early 1970s.Design/methodology/approachThe article reports on original research conducted using materials from Dartmouth College and other Outward Bound collections from 1957 to 1976. It follows a case study approach to illustrate themes pertaining to Outward Bound's creation and evolution in the United States, and the establishment of experiential education more broadly.FindingsBuilding on prior research (Freeman, 2011; Millikan, 2006), the present article elaborates on the conditions under which Outward Bound abandoned muscular Christianity in favor of humanistic psychology. Experiential education provided both a set of practices and a reform language that helped Outward Bound expand into the educational mainstream, which also helped to extend self-expressive pedagogies into formal and nonformal settings.Research limitations/implicationsThe Dartmouth Outward Bound Center's tenure coincided with and reflected broader cultural changes, from the cold war motif of spiritual warfare, frontier masculinity and national service to the rise of self-expression in education. Future scholars can situate specific curricular initiatives in the context of these paradigms, particularly in outdoor education.Originality/valueThe article draws attention to one of the forms that the human potential movement took in education – experiential education – and the reasons for its adoption. It also reinforces emerging understandings of post-WWII American outdoor education as a product of the cold war and reflective of subsequent changes in the wider culture to a narrower focus on the self.