Exploring Wisconsin’s Outdoors

Wisconsin Hoofers is UW–Madison’s oldest and largest student-led organization. More than 2,500 Badgers — students, faculty, staff, and community members — belong to Hoofers’ six clubs, and for nearly a century, recreational adventurers just like them have been climbing mountain peaks and exploring shipwrecks in Wisconsin and across America together.

The Hoofers headquarters sit on the west edge of the Memorial Union Terrace. The Union’s Outdoor UW wing was renovated in 2013 as part of the building’s Reinvestment project, which included recreating the original Harold C. Bradley lounge, named after one of the Hoofers founders.

In 1931, professor Harold “Doc” Bradley and Memorial Union director Porter Butts BA 1924, MA1936 set out to establish a club to provide equipment and instruction to students who wanted to enjoy Wisconsin’s beautiful outdoors.

They set up shop in the Union billiards room, with just three pairs of skis and 10 toboggans for rent. The founding members settled on the name Hoofers, meant to “evoke the sense of getting there under your own power.”

A collection of photos including the toboggan slide and ski jump.

Hoofers worked with the Class of 1933 to build a new toboggan slide down the slope of Observatory Hill. Though a little lax by today’s safety standards, the then-innovative slide was made of concrete and featured safety gates, water lines, and an automated release. (Image courtesy of the UW Digital Collections Center.)

Some argue that the organization’s roots actually date back to 1919, when Badgers built a wooden ski jump at Muir Knoll. Shortly after Bradley and Butts established Hoofers, a committee raised $1,600 to replace that track with a professional-quality steel jump, which lasted until 1957.

By its third year, Hoofers had 52 members (22 active Hoofers and 30 “heels,” or new recruits who could eventually earn full Hoofer status through many hours of work, a system eliminated by the 1950s.)

Today, Hoofers has six official clubs, some nearly as old as the organization itself: Outing, Mountaineering, Riding, Sailing, Scuba, and Ski and Snowboard.

Students also compete on freestyle and Alpine skiing, sailing, and equestrian teams, and they teach riding and sailing to children.

Since the 1930s, as interest in recreational trends has evolved, other activities disbanded or were folded into similar clubs, including gliding and hunting. (Fun fact: Aldo Leopold and his wife were among the founding members of an archery club.) A few ecology and environmental clubs were short-lived, though conservation has always been important within the organization.

Thousands of Badgers are proud Hoofer alumni, including world champions and Olympians — Peter Barrett BA1957, MS 1962, LLB 1964 earned gold and silver medals in sailing, and Walter Bietila BA 1939 competed in skiing.