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

Senior NOLS instructors discuss the major hurdles to NOLS going light and propose solutions.

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by Carol Crooker | 2007-04-11 03:00:00-06

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NOLS is Ready to Go Light - 1
NOLS instructors and Backpacking Light staff enjoy dinner and sunset on a three-day lightweight backpacking seminar in Saguaro National Park, Arizona.


National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has an over 40 year tradition of "heavy weight" backpacking. Founded in 1965 by Outward Bound instructor, Paul Petzoldt, NOLS prides itself on being a leader in the outdoor education field. With lighter loads increasingly becoming the industry standard, NOLS launched its first "Light & Fast Backpacking" course out of Wyoming in fall 2006 in partnership with Backpacking Light and GoLite. 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. Pack weights include instructional material to support continuing education credits and an extensive kitchen to create the culinary masterpieces NOLS is known for.

The NOLS commitment to going lighter has been justified by the near immediate filling of four Light & Fast courses out of Wyoming for 2007.

In late March 2007, four Backpacking Light staff and a GoLite representative spent three days with ten NOLS instructors in a lightweight backpacking seminar hosted by NOLS Southwest. (NOLS Southwest has hopes to get approval for another lightweight course to be held out of Arizona in 2008.) At the start of the seminar the NOLS instructors were cautiously interested in lightening student (and instructor) pack weights but expressed reservations about gear durability, cost of switching to lighter gear, how/if lighter pack weights would still support the NOLS instructional goals and, very importantly, how delicious meals like fried pasta and cheese currently prepared in the nearly 2 pound "fry/bake" pan would fit into a lightweight culture.

In this podcast, I talk to NOLS instructors in the field and then back at NOLS Southwest after they've spent some time hiking with light packs about the hurdles for NOLS to go to lighter weight packs overall and to run a lightweight course. Ryan Hutchins-Cabibi, lead NOLS instructor for the seminar, talks about the overall issues. Scott Christy gets more indepth about gear durability, Lindsay Nohl (NOLS SW Assistant Director and NOLS instructor) addresses cost factors, Iris Saxer and Ashley Wise (NOLS SW Program Supervisor and NOLS instructor) discuss gear durability, and Stephen Brutger gets poetic about the importance of good food when you live in the field for a month with no zero days in town to satisfy your cravings.


"Podcast: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?," by Carol Crooker. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2007-04-11 03:00:00-06.


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Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?
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Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: Please post Northern Tier info and opinion in a new thread. on 03/31/2009 15:59:36 MDT Print View

Sorry -- I did note the NT postings and so added one.

It does seem desirable that replies be in the same thread as the original. What is the mechanism to get the (entire) divergent topic off into its own thread, so that the original is not hijacked?

-- Bob

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Re: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 16:16:54 MDT Print View

"Does that weight include food for 12-14 days? If so, wow! 14 days at 1.5#/day is 21 lbs all by itself."

Hi Bob,
That weight is with six days of food. We reration in the middle of the course. There has been a lot of discussion amongst those of us involved in the program about running a fully self supported trip for 12-14 days. With careful planning we estimate we could make it happen with packs weighing around 30# (assuming we start with 20# for 6 days!)

BTW we are using a 1.4 #/person/day (ppppd) ration using calorie dense foods based on the Mike C! (who is a NOLS instructor, and lightweight champion at the school) groovy biotic cooking recipies found here on BPL.

I pm'd you about the hijack, no worries.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
One other consideration about NOLS going light on 03/31/2009 16:31:12 MDT Print View

I do not know the current NOLS goal/philosophy, but back when Papa Paul started NOLS the goal was to prepare leaders for taking youth on outings -- everything from your local church group or Boy Scout group to Outward Bound instructors. That meant one consideration was teaching people to use food and equipment that youth groups, especially under-privileged ones, could afford.

That was one of the driving forces behind using NOLS tarps for tents. Also, wool was good -- not only was it warm, but one of the really good things about it was that you could put together warm clothing from the thrift shop. Etc.

If that is still a NOLS goal, then going lightweight needs to be thought of in that context. That automatically rules out pricey equipment. Which makes setting up light-weight more of a challenge.

So, someone, please enlighten me as to how much of Papa Paul's goal remains?

-- MV

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Decision making Vs. Equipment on 03/31/2009 17:21:05 MDT Print View

Paul Petzoldts goals are very much at the forefront of what we do at the school today.

Keep in mind that there are a total of 5 lightweight specific courses every year out of hundreds of courses that we run. Arguably, the leadership skills are the same in leading a group in the wilderness regardless of the gear, so lightweight course or not, our graduates should be able to lead people in the mountains with all types of equipment.

The one piece that may (or may not, I only met Paul once) have changed since Paul started the school is a much clearer focus on leadership. We have developed a clear and powerful leadership curriculum that builds on what Paul was doing back then. Don't get me wrong, Paul clearly taught leadership, we have just refined that curriculum to be clearer - and to extend beyond just wilderness leadership. Transference is a very critical focus for us now.

I do think that there is great value in being able to work with what you have, in regards to under privileged populations in particular, but in all cases as well.

My experience is that it is a myth that light weight gear is more expensive than traditional backpacking gear. Sure it is more expensive than thrift store buys, and you certainly can go backpacking by going to thrift store and outfitting yourself in army surplus woolies. but if you are buying backpacking specific gear new anyway, lightweight gear is typically less expensive (excluding some niche and cottage industry companies). Durability can be brought up as a challenge for these programs certainly, though in many cases that is improving as well. But maybe lightweight isn't the right choice for some programs. It certainly isn't for every NOLS course. There is something to be said for the learning that comes through physical challenge, and a heavy pack insures that challenge!

Regardless, lightweight backpacking, despite attempts to market and sell the latest and greatest gear buy manufactures is more about making good decisions. Judgment and decision making is one of the most important skills a leader can have.

An example of the impact of decision making Vs. Equipment is the last Instructor training seminar we ran for the lightweight program. For various reasons, the economy being one, we could not provide participants with a full "kit" of lightweight gear to use for the seminar. We made due with the equipment that people already had and were still able to go out with SUL packs on a three day trip. It just took making better decisions about what to bring and being informed of the conditions we would encounter. The only thing that Instructors had that was different from what they would use on a 30 day course was the pack. This was incredibly powerful for these instructors as it really helped to illustrate that they can decrease their (and more importantly their students) pack weights by simply making better decisions about what to bring.

The core competencies are all the same though. Care of the equipment (whatever that may be), Care of self, care of the environment.

There is a lot more to our skills and leadership curriculum than that, but for me it sums it up pretty well.

Jeremy Cleaveland
(jeremy11) - F

Locale: Exploring San Juan talus
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 17:45:00 MDT Print View

Thanks for the informative replies. I am Gear Manager for a Wilderness Program in CO, and am looking to gradually replace our backpacks (and other gear) with lighter, better stuff.

We were looking at the Osprey Program Packs, but how does the Golite Oddessy compare in terms of durability, in the abusive context of a camp program?

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 18:17:20 MDT Print View

We have found that the Golite Odyssey holds up very well. We ran some of the Osprey packs for a while, and we don't any more, for what that's worth. Various reasons, I don't have all the details. In General I am a huge fan of Osprey packs though. One thing that we have come to realize is that our super durable gear can have too long of a life. We have a lot of Older packs that still have some life left but that we have retired and we have had trouble even giving them away. We are currently evaluating our rotation for equipment to make sure we retire stuff before it's useful life is over so we maintain some resale-ability and it is still new enough to be relevant in the market (not obsolete).

We are confident that the Golite packs will hold up well for us, we have been testing them for about 3 years now, and I know a bunch of instructors that have them personally. I'll be borrowing one from a friend to work an instructors course in couple days, and his has 2 solid years of full time field work on it. Another friend just mentioned that they do take a bit more care than a burlier pack, but that she loves it and the increased care is minimal forthe function and weight savings.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: Decision making Vs. Equipment on 03/31/2009 19:04:54 MDT Print View

Agreed that leading the trip, personal skills on the trip, and outfitting the trip to begin with, are separate skills.

On the outfitting side, original NOLS went as far as to actually issue some thrift store stuff -- for example the long sweaters (the body of one sweater sewn to the bottom of another sweater). I do not know how much was NOLS' own finances and how much was a teaching point. At a minimum, they did take advantage of it as a teaching point, though.

"if you are buying backpacking specific gear new anyway" -- agree with your point, but the problem is the premise -- the idea was to teach ways to avoid buying backpacking specific gear new. To some extent, this was suggesting places like thrift stores. To some extent it was talking about getting a bit creative with the thrift store stuff, such as the long sweater, or sewing a reinforcing patch on the seat of wool pants.

The food was in the same vein -- their teaching point was that you could have good food from the grocery store -- no need to go to specialty backpacking food.

In the original NOLS spirit, it would be fun to have a thread on who can come up with the *cheapest* lightweight or ultralight pack.

-- MV

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Decision making Vs. Equipment on 03/31/2009 21:40:57 MDT Print View

Excellent points.

I think the gear piece was more a factor of NOLS finances.
Paul actually got himself in some trouble designing, building and then selling gear to the school.
It taught a valuable lesson for sure, but I would bet that those lessons were more a function of need than desire.

Outdoor Education has come along way since those days. It is a career now, Instructors are Professionals, many making a decent living and a career doing this. Many of us have a B.S. M.S. or even Phd in Experiential education. The expectations from parents and students is not to come to an established international program and be outfitted with thrift store gear. Is this good or bad? I don't know, but it is the way of things.

As my mom always told me: "change is inevitable, growth is optional, choose wisely."

Food fortunately has stayed similar to the old days.

I like the "cheapest lightweight kit" kit idea.........

Game on!

Jeremy Cleaveland
(jeremy11) - F

Locale: Exploring San Juan talus
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 04/01/2009 11:56:34 MDT Print View

Ryan, thanks for the info. I'll look into them some more.
Very true about gear lasting too long. We have been rotating our mountain bikes out yearly, and want to move that direction with more gear.

What is the upcoming choice in shelter for NOLS? Still tarps, perhaps, but what model? I personally love tarps, and hate zippers, but some here prefer pyramids (we currently have aging Kivas) which are much better than traditional tents.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
shelters on 04/01/2009 12:09:20 MDT Print View

Our shelter choice depends on course area and course type. For wilderness hiking, we have moved primarily to pyramid style shelters (BD megalight). Mountaineering courses use mountaineering tents of some persuasion depending on the location. Tarps are mostly used at base camps now.

I agree Tarps are awesome, and the art of "tarpology" is being lost in the outdoor community. Etowah gear makes some nice ultralight tarps that you should check out if you go that direction. They say that OB has used them with great success. Our primary reason for going to a 'mid style shelter has been managing fears of eposure to west nile virus. The upside is that the 'mids, even with a bug net liner are lighter than the NOLS Thelma Fly.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Stove fuel consumption and reduction research on 04/06/2009 20:00:49 MDT Print View

Check out new research from the NOLS research department. Since most courses at NOLS use whisperlight stoves, this is pretty exciting for the school. NOLS PNW is already sending pot parka out on courses, NOLS RM will begin this summer from what I hear, and NOLS SW will likely follow suit when we return in the fall.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Hitting the hills on 04/09/2009 23:39:29 MDT Print View

Leaving tomorrow to work a NOLS SW Instructors course. We will be running this course w/ 8 days of traditional style backpacking, shooting for 40 pound packs, and then switch gear at a re-ration and go lightweight, 20-25 lbs for 9 more days. We'll see how it goes, it's our first time trying it. We'll be in the Gila Wilderness in NM. Trip report to follow...

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Hitting the hills on 04/10/2009 04:22:42 MDT Print View

Interesting course idea. I hope you can report some on your student's before/after impressions.

Ryan Linn

Locale: Maine!
Re: Hitting the hills on 04/10/2009 07:29:18 MDT Print View

I would also be very interested in hearing how that goes. I've been thinking of doing an instructor course since racking up a bunch of americorps education awards, but I've been spoiled for the past couple years with light packs. At the end of the NOLS course I took several years ago, we did a week with 65-70 lbs packs... I don't think I could do that anymore.
Happy trails!

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
back from the hills... on 04/29/2009 23:30:27 MDT Print View

Well, I got back from teaching the hiking section of the NOLS SW Instructors course (IC) yesterday. Students are now out at Cochise Stronghold for their climb camp. We did an eight day ration in traditional style, with a focus on reducing our initial pack weights, followed by a nine day ration using lightweight food and cook systems and further lowering our pack weights. Initial pack weights ranged from a low 38# (I came in at 39#) to a high of 47#. We used a standard NOLS ration of 1.75pppd (pounds per person per day) in the first ration with a traditional NOLS kitchen including the Banks frybake and MSR whisperlite stove. Our shelters were Black Diamond Mega-lights. Tent/cook groups of 3. At NOLS SW, we are making the transition to Ti pots (2L MSR Titan) for 3 person cook groups. We have replaced the standard 6" channel lock pliers used for pot grips with a much much lighter 4" channel locks that weigh significantly less but can still lift a full 2L pot securely.
We spent considerable time prior to heading into the field weighing our gear and coaching the IC students on making smart gear choices to lower their pack weights.

In the second, 9 day ration, we swapped out our traditional cook and food system for Trail Designs Caldera Cone kitchens and a ration designed for these alcohol stoves. The lightweight ration came in at 1.4pppd. Students and staff traded their traditional packs for Golite Jams or Quests with the frame sheet pulled out. We further refined our layering and sleep systems to reduce our base weights. Pack weights at the beginning of this ration came in weighing from ~30-37#'s. Of note is the fact that students were not using much, if any specialized gear beyond the cook system and a switch to trail runners for most. Our shelters remained the same, but we went to 4 person tent groups with 2 person cook groups. Because we had an odd number, I cooked solo using a bush buddy stove.

Above 30# the Jam is reaching it's load carrying capacity, and for the first few days, I wasn't sure students were too excited about the lightweight switch. They liked the efficiency of the cook system, but the packs were a bit "trying" on the shoulders those first three days.
After the packs reached a reasonable carrying weight, Students were very excited about the system.

We practiced lightweight techniques including quickstarts, while still covering the NOLS 4-7-1 leadership curriculum and a lot of natural history curriculum as well as a full LNT Masters certification.

At the end of the hiking section, Students commented on how the lightweight system had changed their perspective on backpacking. In 17 days we covered at least 110 miles both on but mostly off trail in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. We traveled through 3rd and 4th class terrain and even swam through canyon potholes in a snow storm. Wether was mostly sunny, though we traveled through snow at 10,000' and saw wet snow and moderate winds as well.

Overall this trial of running a combo traditional/lightweight IC was a huge success. We are excited to get these instructors working courses to share what they learned on their IC about lightweight systems. Currently, NOLS SW is the only NOLS location running an IC in this fashion. Based on the success of this test, we will likely make some small tweaks and continue with it in the future.

Although the lightweight program at NOLS remains a niche, steady and definitive progress continues to be made in reducing pack weights school wide, and expanding the use of lightweight skills.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
2 LW courses in the field on 01/14/2010 12:17:37 MST Print View

We ran 2 LW courses this summer out of the Rocky Mountain location, NOLS Southwest has 2 more lightweight courses running right now, woohoo! Running another instructor seminar first week of February, and we will be running the Instructor course as a split again this year (see above post).

3 day pack on the '09 NOLS seminar

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 16:09:44 MST Print View

Great Seminar with awesome folks. NOLS continues to lead the industry in lightweight backpacking skills education through excellent instructor development and training, experienced instructors and the most in depth risk management in outdoor education.Santa Theresea Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, AZ

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: .
Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 16:16:55 MST Print View

I would argue that BPL's own school leads the industry in skills education related to lightweight back country travel but I suppose that's a subjective statement to make.

Edited by simplespirit on 02/09/2010 16:34:39 MST.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 16:30:51 MST Print View

What are typical base weights (skin out)?
What is the typical food weight, per-person-per-day?
Last, where are these courses being held?

I'm curious how NOLS 'lightweight' translates to the field.


Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 20:16:53 MST Print View

Base weight and skin out weights are calculated differently. And at NOLS we are focusing on base weights of 8-12 pounds. Obviously this does not include consumables or clothing worn.

Typical food weight is working out to 1.4 ppppd.

Courses are held in the rockies of Wyoming (Absorokas, Winds, Big Horns) in the summer, and in southern Arizona in January, typically in the Galiouros mountains.