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Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?
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Benjamin Smith
(bugbomb) - F - M

Locale: South Texas
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 04/10/2007 20:10:14 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 04/11/2007 02:14:13 MDT Print View

> NOLS leadership has also mandated lower initial pack weights (40 pounds) for its Rocky Mountain backpacking courses as of 2008. Forty pounds may not sound that light, but it is a huge improvement over the typical 60 pound loads students start courses with now.

Ye Gods!
Look, from a skeletal and neurological point of view, carrying more than 25% of you body weight gets to be a questionable action. Some people, especially younger people with softer bone and cartiledge, may cause themselves skeletal damage (vertebra, cartiledge...) if they go too far over the 25%. I weight 10 stone: 140 lb. 25% of that is 35 lb. Young students start with 60 lb packs? I question the ethics of the NOLS leadership who recommend this.

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
NOLS? 40 lbs EASY. on 04/11/2007 03:36:04 MDT Print View

I have never attended an NOLS class, but 40 lbs seems reasonable for say.. a 3 day winter hike. 20 lbs base weight, 10 lbs food/water, and 10 lbs of maybe mountaineering/safety gear? (rope,harness,helmet,ice axe,snowshoes,crampons,etc). I assume they are going out there to learn something like mountaineering.

I have a similar FSO weight for an upcoming 3 day mountaineering trip. I have what I would consider "light", but still durable gear. (Snowpeak, Montbell, GraniteGear, etc.) But admittedly I carry many contingency items, truly waterproof stuff sacks, enough insulation for freak storms, freestanding tent, etc..

Reading the forums at other sites, I commonly see 60 and even 80 lb loads being discussed. So 40 lbs for NOLS is really cutting edge! (except around here at BPL)/

You are all welcome to review my 3-season gear list at my profile; comments are welcome. I hope more of you all post your gear lists as well.

Edited by Brett1234 on 04/11/2007 03:39:41 MDT.

Shawn Basil
(Bearpaw) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: NOLS? 40 lbs EASY. on 04/11/2007 06:53:02 MDT Print View

The NOLS standard was that no student should carry more than 40% of their body weight whenever possible. On my Instructor Course, including climbing gear, I stepped off the bus at the trailhead with an 87 pound pack for early May snowpack. This was slightly over my 40% at that time. As an instructor I was able to never carry a load over about 67 pounds because I meticulously cut the weight of all my personal gear. However, it was still largely made up for with group gear and extra food.

I haven't been able to listen to much of the podcast yet, but kitchens will have to take a SERIOUS hit to even hope to achieve a 40 pound standard weight. And Claudia Pearson and bulk rationing are so ingrained in the school heirarchy I honestly don't see it happenning. 40 pounds is a pipe dream as early as 2008 IMO. It took incredible efforts to get a 110-lb young lady's pack down to 42 pounds when I was there, such as moving most of her food to other team members.

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/11/2007 07:47:54 MDT Print View

Shawn, thanks for the insight. Was/is the problem at NOLS the Quantity of recommended gear, or a matter of taking bombproof(thus heavy) gear, or a liability fear which prompts them to take many "what if" items? Or a combination of all these?

David Olsen

Locale: Steptoe Butte
NOLS gear? on 04/11/2007 08:27:24 MDT Print View

Stuff like bringing 4 pairs of different kinds of shoes,
Fishing gear, baking and cooking gear, lots of climbing gear, large first aid kits. They are often doing several
different kinds of activities per trip.

Also 200 denier tarps.
I have tried to talk them into lighter tarps, but they like
using the ones that are made the same as the one they have
in the Smithsonian (not kidding).

Peter Headland
(pheadland) - MLife
It's a religion on 04/11/2007 09:58:56 MDT Print View

To me, the whole NOLS thing has always been like a religion - you have to do it their way or you are "wrong". I think the lightweight backpacking ethos is far more questioning/accepting/inclusive.

I also think the NOLS tradition is an exploitative/dominating relationship with the environment. Lightweight backpacking forces you to integrate into and adapt to your environment, not overwhelm it with brute force.

So, all-in-all, this is a very interesting attempt by them to change direction, but I question whether they are capable of doing it.

Edited by pheadland on 04/11/2007 10:02:07 MDT.

Kenneth Knight
(kenknight) - MLife

Locale: SE Michigan
Max. carrying weight based on your weight? on 04/11/2007 10:59:17 MDT Print View

Roger started this off with the 25% carying weight of your total body weight. I've heard this number forever, but I've never been able to track down if it really has a basis in actual fact. Does the number of days the load is being carried matter, the distance or hours per day matter? You have to figure the location of the weight matters too, right?

We've all seen scores and scores of people carrying loads that are clearly more than 25% of their weight. This is not anything new. How much does an infantryman carry today - less than they did 30 years ago but still a lot more than that 25% rule. A hunter schlepping his gear plus a dresed down deer is going to be breaking that barrier. And I've only listed examples where that weight is external. I've left out fatter people let alone pregant women.

Now, I would absolutely hate to carry 60 to say nothing of 80 pounds. I am not even sure I could get an 80 pound pack up and on to my shoulders. I don't think I've broken 40 in quite some time and that includes the two-week trip in the Seward Peninsula 2 years ago.

Jason Ham
(jasonham) - MLife

Locale: Sierra Nevada
Institutional Lightweight Backpacking, NOLS or otherwise on 04/11/2007 11:20:21 MDT Print View

I run a program here in California that has done 25 day backpacking courses for the past 30 years. My wife and I just took this program over after many years of instructing and one of our missions is to lighten the packs. It is harder than you might imagine, even for a program that isn't as hierarchial or ingrained as is NOLS or OB.

The main difficulties are durability and longevity for the gear in our gear shed that gets issued twice a year to students. Students are not the most attentive to gear care even with very good instructors providing feedback constantly. This results in light gear getting trashed within a course's time (25 user days) or within a year at best (50 user days).

I want this to work so I am committed and open to any gear change possible.

Aside from gear, the majority weight on our trips is from food or water. We have 12 days of rations to carry, being resupplied once on our 25 day Sierra course. Add to this the weight of a required bear canister (we just purchased Wild Ideas Expeditions, an improvement of 4 pounds over the double garcias we used to carry) and you have a hefty amount of food (nearly 22 pounds per person.)

Our Death Valley course has shorter ration times (4-7 days), but students have to carry a two to three days worth of water between water sources (24 pounds when topped off.)

Gear seems like the least of our concerns, but we look at every piece anyway and encourage extreme frugality in our students choices for personal clothing, etc.

Still, 40 pounds for our courses sounds like a pipe dream unless we do something drastic like change our resupply points, which would result in a very different itinerary.

I'll be interested to see where this discussion goes and if any innovations come out of it.

Our current innovations have mostly been in the realm of not taking things that have gone in the past...

No frypans, instead of the two that were issued per group. (NOLS uses Frybakes...awesome to cook on, but weigh a lot.)

3-4 33oz bottles of fuel instead of 5-6 33oz bottles. (We use Whisperlites, this is just enough to make it for 12 days of cooking for 10-12 people on two stoves.)

No canned food. We only use pouched tuna and chicken for meat products, tomato powder, etc. Thus, no can openers or swiss army knives necessary.

No climbing shoes. Students carry running shoes for camp or backup hiking shoes and hike in boots. On climbing days they can choose one pair that works best. We aren't climbing 5.10, so getting up 5.5 in boots is plenty challenging.

You get the idea...

Edited by jasonham on 04/11/2007 11:23:45 MDT.

Ron Bell
(mountainlaureldesigns) - F - M

Locale: USA
Nols on 04/11/2007 11:33:41 MDT Print View

Seperate from the gear weights, course focus, thier enviormental/teaching/cooking/leadership approaches, etc, of NOLS- I hear a growing voice that is starting to loudly say Business Opportunity!

NOLS charges $3,600 tuition for a 14 day LW course that is not all that light or travels all that far, at least by BPL standards.

The fact that thier LW course grew 400% in one year with limited advertising tells me that there is a market for that type education. I suspect that the NOLS leadership might be scrambling a bit in light of this fact. Anyone willing to fork out that much $ will at some point start looking for the best value that fits thier goals. With web info so avialble, they won't have to look far.

Since NOLS is non profit, they might not have the same business urgency to explore this area as quickly as possible. I understand that they do have a different educational mission and so may never go too far toward UL, at least not to keep pace with the majority of backpacker both Trad, UL and SUL.

It would not surprise me if BPL or some other established SUL entity starts a SUL school in the next few years....I know I'm looking at it.

-None of this is intended as a negative comment of NOLS or of their well trained staff. They 're just a differnt animal.

Adam Rothermich
(aroth87) - F

Locale: Missouri Ozarks
UL/SUL school on 04/11/2007 12:35:13 MDT Print View

I would love to be able to take a course on UL/SUL backpacking and get college credit for it! Doing something like NOLS, where I go out and do something that I love and get credit for it always appealed to me, but the price of NOLS and the fact that I already had a fair bit of experience hiking held me back. That and the big pack weights! I had always been under the impression that NOLS was more focused on teaching outdoor skills to people who had little to no experience. I've also seen some schools that have an Outdoor Pursuits program, like the Univ. of Oregon, and was quite disappointed when my school didn't have anything like that. I guess that's what I get for going to an engineering school (that's getting a name change next year if you hadn't heard).
The same kind of deal kept me from going to Philmont when I was in Scouts. It sounded like lots of fun to go out hiking for a week but some of the other aspects kept me out. Like walking just a few miles a day and camping at designated campgrounds. I did do Northern Tier, canoing the boundary waters, and loved it. There we camped where we wanted, covered as much mileage as we wanted and carried all of our supplies for the whole week with us. It just seemed like a more 'full wilderness experience' to me.


John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Nols on 04/11/2007 13:47:54 MDT Print View

Ron Bell, you or BPL should start that school. NOLS may not change unless they have more competition. Their current thinking seems out of date.

Edited by jshann on 04/11/2007 13:48:57 MDT.

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
SUL school on 04/11/2007 14:02:44 MDT Print View

Yes, I want to learn the venerable art of marmot garroting from Ron Bell (he knows that which I speak of). ;-)- Videos please!

In a slightly more serious vein---Yes, there's definitely room for a wilderness skills centered program in the UL or even the SUL vein. NOLS is very good at what they do, and I have always respected them highly. Whether there is a need to emulate or convert NOLS w/ a SUL emphasis is the question. Perhaps workshops or perhaps Sierra Club (or other groups w/ an outings focus) sponsored backpacks w/ a UL emphasis might be a more practical way to proceed. It's very hard to change established institutions.

Edited by kdesign on 04/11/2007 14:18:44 MDT.

Shawn Basil
(Bearpaw) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/11/2007 14:57:55 MDT Print View

Longevity of gear is a major issue. Students routinely manage to damage the old heavy MSR Dromedary bags. Despite repeatedly showing, explaining and modeling the care taken when putting on the fly of our NukTuks, we had two ripped open by the mast pole on one of my courses. A 30 denier silnylon fly or tarp would have evaporated with these students, and these were all college age, not high schoolers. Of course, starting with 8 pound Lowe Alpine packs that can be "adjusted" for over 8 inches of torso length is another immediate weight issue.

But kitchens are the ultimate weight hogs. Yes, students carry about 10 days at a time. The result is about 20 pounds of food per person per cook group. Now add two big pots, and a big Frybake pan. Now add a Whisperlite stove and 3-4 33 ounce bottles of fuel. Now add a gym bag that is at least 1/2 a pound just to hold the stuff because students who are new to bear baggin have a history of shredding nylon bags. Oh and don't forget the MONSTROUS 2 pound spice kit. (AT LEAST 2 pounds - plastic bottles of salt, pepper, garlic powder, hot sauce, soy sauce, oregano, chili powder, baking powder, yeast, dill, cumin, curry, oil, vinegar, etc). Being the biggest member of every expedition I was ever a part of, I consistently wound up with 35 pounds of "kitchen" on my back at the start of a ration period, with at 27 of it being food and spices.

Bulk ration food is a way for the school to save money, but there has to be a major overhaul. Currently students bag their own rations one pound at a time in the rations the first morning of their course. Perhaps they can start bagging freezer bag meals instead, which would be more economical. But the four pounds of flour per cook group per ration period will likely go by the way-side if a truly lightweight approach is followed. I can make a mean lasagna or mess of biscuits in the backcountry, but I have never even considered it on a personal solo trip.

The other key is to change the marketing perspective somewhat. NOLS courses are outrageously expensive courses for priviledged youth (and a few scholarship kids) with little or no backcountry experience to learn solid fundamental wilderness skills. But a "light and fast" approach would be ideal for the 20-to-30-something professional who already enjoys backpacking and wants to lighten the load and increase the intensity of their treks, but can only get a couple of weeks of vacation time. This could be a core group if marketed correctly. Only time will tell if this proves to be the case.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Max. carrying weight based on your weight? on 04/11/2007 17:24:14 MDT Print View

> Roger started this off with the 25% carying weight of your total body weight. I've heard this number forever, but I've never been able to track down if it really has a basis in actual fact.
I would have to search through medical articles. It has to do with the strength of young bones and cartiledge. It applies especially to calculating safe loads for teenagers and younger chilfdren. I am assuming that the NOLS students are all young of course.
When you get to my age the 25% rule applies for quite different reasons! (Intelligence being one of them.)

> Does the number of days the load is being carried matter, the distance or hours per day matter?
Nope. Just the load on your bones and cartiledge. Obviously it is not a 'hard' limit, but I have found it works well.
One thing to note: the rule (or guideline) applies to people whose weight is in the 'normal' range. If you are 16 kg above that range, you should not automatically add 4 kg to your limit. Taking 4 kg off might be a smarter move.
See forthcoming 'Gear List for Four Months Walking' article, to be published fairly soon.

> How much does an infantryman carry today - less than they did 30 years ago but still a lot more than that 25% rule.
Very true. The trouble there is that there are different 'authorities' within the military, and each one is responsible for part of an infantryman's gear, but there is no-one in the hierachy who has the responsibility or authority to lay down the law about a limit overall. None of the individual authorities are willing to reduce their part of the load.
You see the SAS guys get out of a chopper with 80+ KILOs. What they don't tell you is that the first thing they do is to cache most of it, becasue they simply canNOT fight while carrying all that stuff.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Re: Max. carrying weight based on your weight? on 04/11/2007 18:33:29 MDT Print View

Forty pounds sound pretty reasonable, actually. However, for me anyway, I would immediately shave another two pounds by ditching the "fry/bake" pan!

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
NOLS instructor speaks on 04/11/2007 20:42:48 MDT Print View

Glad to see the discussion getting fired up here. I was the lead instructor of this seminar, and want to start by saying it was a great success in that everyone (NOLS/BPL/GoLite) all learned alot.

I think it's important to remember that there are two different things going on at the school.

1)Lightweight backpacking courses, which go out with w/ 25# packs max, and are (for now) 23+ y/o students.

2) the Rocky Mountain initiative (and other locations are embracing it too) to have no wilderness hiking course go out with a pack weighing more than 40#'s by summer 2008.

I Think that goal will happen by next summer. The school is committed, and changes have already been made to move us closer.

I'm going to go back and reply to some of the above observations and comments. I guess my biggest hope is that folks here understand that NOLS is aware that our packs are too heavy and we are working to change that.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/11/2007 20:50:19 MDT Print View

There are a lot of issue.
1) quantity of reccommended gear - yes we need to take less.
2)bomb proofness (and thus heavy) - yup that exists too. We need backpacks that will hold up to a minimum of 200 days of field time/year for example. Hopefully for 3+ years. If someone here can point us in the direction of a pack that will do this that weighs in the 2-3 # (or less) range please send me the info.
3)a liability reality that requires that we take many "what if" items.
4)a somewhat large organization that for better or worse can get caught up in our way of doing things, and then takes a bit of time to change direction.
5) a curriculum focus that goes beyond just hiking. I think this was disscussed in the podcast pretty well, but I already get that so I may be hearing it differently.

Hope that helps clarify a few of the challenges we face and are embracing.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: It's a religion on 04/11/2007 20:58:45 MDT Print View

I have to ask, are you being "far more questioning/accepting/inclusive" by using the above labels?
We are a founding partner in Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics, and I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone at NOLS who believes in having a "exploitative/dominating relationship with the environment."

NOLS is certainly ingrained in certain ways of doing things.
To suggest that we think others are "wrong" is, I understand your opinion, but speaking for myself, as an instructor, one of the biggest things I want students to leave with is an understanding that there ARE different ways to do things, and they need to figure out what works best for them.

Edited by ryan_hutchins on 04/11/2007 21:21:34 MDT.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Institutional Lightweight Backpacking, NOLS or otherwise on 04/11/2007 21:00:47 MDT Print View

You express the challenges very well. Feel free to contact me to talk about what we are doing that might work for you too. I would love to hear about the successes that you have had in going lighter, particularly in the durability of gear areas.