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.

Introduction

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.


Citation

"Podcast: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?," by Carol Crooker. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/podcast_031807_NOLS_lightweight_hurdles.html, 2007-04-11 03:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?


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Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 21:00:20 MST Print View

Chris can you expand on your argument?

It would be hard for anyone to compare NOLS and BPL without having taken a course with both, and since I haven't I can only rely on information from those that I know who have taught for both.

Like you, I have a relationship with BPL, and I respect what Ryan is doing greatly. I sincerely hope that his school thrives as competition will keep us all fresh.

I'd love to hear more about your opinion on the matter.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/09/2010 22:22:30 MST Print View

Ryan,
Thanks for the numbers. They are impressive.

Perhaps there is hope after all.

What a wonderful thought of folks learning how to connect with the outdoors, while leaving the kitchen sink at home.

Nice job.

Jim Colten
(jcolten)

Locale: MN
Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/10/2010 05:25:00 MST Print View

@Ryan: Encouraging news

@Chris: no doubt that BPL leads the industry if packweight is the prime criteria. But running 4 instructor courses in the past year (8-12 lb base weights) far exceeds the volume of BPL's instuctor training output (zero WTS3 in the past year).

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Re: Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/10/2010 06:02:29 MST Print View

Well, for one, BPL was recruited by NOLS to help develop their outdoor program. That says a lot by itself.

The WTS in 2009 ran courses from 3-14 days including instruction on packrafting, lightweight backpacking, and a more specific course based around thru-hiking. There are also courses developed but not being currently run around long distance packrafting and lightweight winter travel. I believe NOLS still runs 2 courses, one in the Rockies and one in the Southwest both with instruction only on lightweight backpacking.

I don't have first hand experience with a NOLS course because, IMO, the leadership-based courses require one to carry far too much weight. The lightweight courses don't offer the leadership component so most of us that are already experienced with lightweight techniques wouldn't get much out of it.

It is true that the WTS has only run 2 instructor training courses where NOLS has run far more. I would argue the reasoning behind that is the WT3 course is far more challenging and thus there hasn't been a lot of interest shown. Of course, I can't say that for certain. I believe the NOLS course is based on teaching existing instructors how to lighten their load. The WT3 course is based on ensuring you are prepared to successfully lead a group expedition in to extreme conditions. The goals are entirely different.

I also don't have the curriculum for both in front of me so I can't say for certain which is more developed. Going off what I do know, I believe the WTS courses offer far more variety in regards to equipment. I'm pretty sure the NOLS courses heavily push GoLite. Feel free to correct me on any of this since I'm going mostly off memory and that can be a bit fuzzy the older I get.

I suppose you could spin the statement in either direction.

Edited by simplespirit on 02/10/2010 06:13:04 MST.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Re: Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/10/2010 14:32:28 MST Print View

Thanks Chris,
It's great to hear an outside perspective of the NOLS Lightweight program.

I'd like to respond to your thoughts here, just to clarify some things, I by no means want this to turn into an argument, as I am a supporter of BPL and of what Ryan is trying to do.

A few thoughts...
Your comments in "quotes"


"Well, for one, BPL was recruited by NOLS to help develop their outdoor program. That says a lot by itself."

True, BPL was recruited to help NOLS get the program started, and that was extremely helpful to the school. NOLS has continued to ask BPL to be involved and BPL has stated that "you [NOLS] don't need us any more, you know what you are doing." There has also been a lot of cross pollination from NOLS to BPL, which has contributed significantly to the development of WTS. NOLS instructor Mike C! ran the WTS school last year. Some of the language on the WTS web page is directly pulled from NOLS, which is great.

"The WTS in 2009 ran courses from 3-14 days including instruction on packrafting, lightweight backpacking, and a more specific course based around thru-hiking. There are also courses developed but not being currently run around long distance packrafting and lightweight winter travel. I believe NOLS still runs 2 courses, one in the Rockies and one in the Southwest both with instruction only on lightweight backpacking."

All the NOLS LW courses are 14 days (13 in the field). NOLS is based on expedition learning, and over the last 45 years we have found this length to be effective for both honing skills and practicing leadership. Though we believe longer is ultimately better, this is the length we have decided on for the LW program (for now).

I'm excited to hear that BPL is developing new courses to be run in the future. NOLS is as well. We have a packrafting course being developed (30 day) and myself and others are trying to internally promote a 30 day unsupported packraft and lightweight backpacking course for outdoor educators. NOLS runs lightweight courses in the rocky mountains and the Southwest. we run between 2-4 courses in the summer out of the rockies, and we ran 2 courses out of the SW this January, so that's 6 courses if enrollment is doing well which it seems to do with these courses.
NOLS is a bigger organization than BPL, and as such, it sometimes takes us longer to make sure all our ducks are in a row. Permits, qualified staff, Insurance, equipment and scouting appropriate course areas all take time. In this case, BPL may be more nimble and able to make things happen faster. I'm not sure faster is always better though.

"I don't have first hand experience with a NOLS course because, IMO, the leadership-based courses require one to carry far too much weight."

Your not required to carry anything more than you need to be safe and comfortable and to be able to support the expedition. On my scale, leadership weighs exactly 0.0 oz.

"The lightweight courses don't offer the leadership component so most of us that are already experienced with lightweight techniques wouldn't get much out of it."

I'm not sure where this information has come from, but it is not true at all. The NOLS lightweight courses offer the same leadership curriculum as our standard courses, albeit in a compressed time frame and with less time to practice the skills (based on course length). The two lightweight courses that just ran in the southwest spoke at length in the student debriefs about the quality and depth of the leadership curriculum and the ability of instructors to effectively deliver it. This aspect of the NOLS curriculum was a highlight for all 20 students.
I will concede that as an experienced LW backpacker, you may not get a ton out of the LW skills, you will though get leadership education and your basic outdoor skills will improve.

"It is true that the WTS has only run 2 instructor training courses where NOLS has run far more. I would argue the reasoning behind that is the WT3 course is far more challenging and thus there hasn't been a lot of interest shown. Of course, I can't say that for certain."

The WT3 may be more challenging than our instructor seminar, but The NOLS Instructor course is extremely challenging. Prior to applying, candidates must have documented experience leading extended (ten days+) wilderness trips, teaching experience and personal wilderness travel experience, in addition to solid wilderness skills such as map reading, off trail navigation and superb camping skills. If accepted, you must arrive to your course with a minimum of a WFR, and then the first day of your course you must take and pass a first aid test as well. After 35 days of training you are assessed and ranked, and then either recommended or not for work. Only after you work your first field course (usually 30 days) are you officially a NOLS instructor. So that's 60 days of training, plus an 80 hr (10 day) WFR, plus countless weeks and months in the mountains before you even get on an IC. Heck, I have a B.S. in experiential education.

"I believe the NOLS course is based on teaching existing instructors how to lighten their load. The WT3 course is based on ensuring you are prepared to successfully lead a group expedition in to extreme conditions. The goals are entirely different."

This is true. We don't think we need to retrain our instructors how to "lead group expeditions into extreme conditions" because they are professionals in the field (see above) and do this as their job all the time. We do need to help them learn how to lower pack weights, consider the differences in curriculum (mostly resources) and risk management on lightweight courses. We also try to hold our trainings during a time when there is a high probability for challenging conditions. With all due respect, to suggest that BPL staff are better trained is, as you might say, a bit of a stretch.

"I also don't have the curriculum for both in front of me so I can't say for certain which is more developed. Going off what I do know, I believe the WTS courses offer far more variety in regards to equipment. I'm pretty sure the NOLS courses heavily push GoLite. Feel free to correct me on any of this since I'm going mostly off memory and that can be a bit fuzzy the older I get."

NOLS does recommend Golite equipment because they have actively supported and stayed involved in our lightweight program, and in general we have found GoLite gear to be a good balance of weight Vs. durability, though they are experiencing some weight creep. If you go to our website and look at the equipment list for the lightweight courses, you will see that we also recommend other companies, including BPL/BMW.
NOLS uses Caldera Cones, though we also bring esbits and Anti gravity gear .4 oz pop can stoves. We use a variety of shelters, though this is an area that we could reduce our weights further.
I don't think though that either NOLS or BPL would say that their curriculum is based off the equipment they use, rather it is based on the skills needed to safely and efficiently travel in the lightweight style.

Again I hope this clarifies the NOLS program a bit. Although I have spent countless hours talking to NOLS Instructors who work for BPL about the BPL program, I will leave it to them to chime in w/ their experience b/t the two. I prefer not to assume I know the details of a program I have not worked for. In the end, I think both NOLS and BPL are great programs offering similar yet still unique educational opportunities. There are things you will get out of a NOLS course that you won't get from BPL and vice versa I am sure.

Chris W
(simplespirit) - MLife

Locale: WNC
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Read about the latest NOLS instructor lightweight seminar on 02/10/2010 15:32:07 MST Print View

That definitely helps clarify some things. I got all of my information from your student welcome packets and website.

In regards to course count, I was only including those where content might vary which is why I listed 2. IMO, multiple instances of the same course is still a single course.

Your not required to carry anything more than you need to be safe and comfortable and to be able to support the expedition. On my scale, leadership weighs exactly 0.0 oz.

One look at the pack list for a standard NOLS course says otherwise. Ex. "If you bring an internal frame pack, it will be examined by your instructors to determine its suitability for your course and route. It must have a volume
of 5500 to 6100 cubic inches."