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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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Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Nols on 04/11/2007 21:16:56 MDT Print View

There are other lightweight course providers around. BPL even offers courses. I am not sure if those programs have the infrastructure that NOLS has in place, and thus the potential reach.
We were certainly suprised by the enrollment of these courses - sometimes we offer a new course type and it doesn't enroll at all. As far as business urgency goes, I think Ron has a good point.
We aren't trying to make money here (the Lightweight courses is more expensive than others because students are outfitted with an entire lightweight kit that they take home at the end of the course) and the most important thing is that it supports the mission of the school.
I think -and this is my hope and opinion- the school will continue to lighten up in all course areas, will it take some time -yup. We may never go truly UL or SUL, but we will, as my friend Scott says "go less heavy". And we will try to support the growth of lightweight backpacking by teaching the best courses we can and trying to stay current on the skills being used. That is why we have partnered with BPL and GoLite.

This is a big step for the school. Maybe we are a bit behind in this movement, but getting 600+ instructors and 600+ support staff in 17 locations around the world to change direction takes some time and careful consideration.

I would love to hear ideas that you all have to make the transition easier/faster. What have your experiences been with gear durability? Tips and tricks for really good cooking? What are the most important things for new lightweight backpackers to learn?

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
Ryan, 8000 mile pack;4lbs on 04/11/2007 21:37:29 MDT Print View

It is interesting to watch NOLS adapt its gear, because I watched first hand as the US Army did the same thing; sacrificing a bit of bombproof-ness(no pun intended) for lighter weight; although with the end result that soldiers carry a larger NUMBER of lighter-weight items. But I digress..

You asked about a pack that could survive 600+ field days and weighs 2-3 lbs. The closest PROVEN pack to come close is probably the Granite Gear Nimbus Meridian which lasted 8,000+ miles as used by Justin Lichter. It is a 60 liter pack weighing about 3.5 lbs. It has several different shoulder/waist belt combinations in narrow/wide, and regular/long, and the strap mounts adjust with a screwdriver for width and height 18-21 inches (regular frame) so your students can quickly dial in the size they want. Belt and lid can be stripped off to make a light-weight summit pack, and it has an extension collar for those high volume trail head days.

This might be an applicable pack for the 40lb limit starting in 2008. As per the podcast you could phase them in for the UL class first; and I bet GG would give you a smokin deal to be the "pack used by NOLS on their UL course".

Review here:

The OEM site with Justin's three season 13 lb packing list is here:

granite gear nimbus meridian after 8000 miles

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
Re: Nols on 04/11/2007 21:47:04 MDT Print View

As one of the BPL staff who participated in this workshop, I'll share a few thoughts.

1. I was impressed with the sincerity of the wilderness ethic among the NOLS staff and their enthusiasm to take on this challenge. I had no previous exposure to NOLS or its programs.

2. As discussed in the podcast, it will take some creativity to reach the 40 pound goal, but it certainly can be done. It may require some significant changes, but I think most of the core values and flavor of a NOLS course can be retained, and still make huge reductions in pack weight.

3. I bet NOLS will see immediate benefits - happier students, fewer injuries and blisters. And that will only fuel the desire to move this transition more quickly.

4. We discussed items carried on NOLS classes. There seems to have been little awareness of weight in the past, so many things were simply carried because that's the way it's always been done. A lot of weight reduction can be had simply with more awareness - reduced spice racks, smaller pharmacy, lighter sleeping bags (still durable), integrated sleeping/clothing systems, etc. Lots of the things we take for granted at BPL, but which are not mainstream.

I look forward to seeing how things evolve at NOLS - and I hope I get a chance to work with them again.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Ryan, 8000 mile pack;4lbs on 04/11/2007 22:18:22 MDT Print View

Thanks Brett,
I will check out this pack some more. A few years back we field tested a lot of prototype custom GG packs with mixed success re: durability. I myself found them to be very comfortable and the weight reduction over the older "NOLS Green Giant 8# potato sack" was stellar. I did blow out a shoulder strap after the third 30 day course that summer, but it wasn't anything my "anything but light" speedy stitcher couldn't fix!

I've always liked Granite Gear Stuff, and it would be nice to get back around the drawing board with them and see what we come up with (being an instructor, I'm not in a position to make that happen, but I can talk with the folks that can)

We are currently testing a prototype ~2# pack from a manufactuer that we hope will work well, we'll see.

I really appreciate your sharing things like this, it is a huge help in making this happen.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Nols on 04/11/2007 22:23:29 MDT Print View

Hey Don!
It was good to see you at the Film fest.
In the last two days I have given clinics to two courses on going lighter. One was to an Instructor Course which will be training new instructors, and the other to a month long Gila backpacking course. The Instructor course students seemed extremely excited about it as many are former grads and had the experience of carrying a heavy pack w/ NOLS in the past! The Backpacking students seemed interested as well. I'll see what their pack weights are when they head out.

Everitt Gordon
(Everitt) - MLife

Locale: North of San Francisco
Nols going lite? on 04/11/2007 22:49:32 MDT Print View

Years ago I took a Nols course. My pack was over a hundred pounds, and we were skiing. I remember frying canned bacon on a stove that kept catching on fire by the fuel cap. A fat
girl got frostbight taking a pee, another guy blew out his knee, a woman broke her arm... It was an adventure and I've been having adventures ever since, just lighter ones!

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Nols going lite? on 04/11/2007 23:09:30 MDT Print View

Not sure how many years ago that was, but I am happy to say that things have changed a lot since then. We are pulling sleds and carrying way lighter packs, have plastic tele boots and shaped skis - and the bacon isn't in cans anymore!

Hope you can still use some of what you learned out there today.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/12/2007 02:47:10 MDT Print View

Hi Ryan

> 3)a liability reality that requires that we take many "what if" items.

I wonder ... what would happen if you left nearly ALL the 'what if' items behind, and took a good mobile phone instead?
The very high probability is that you would not miss any of the 'what if' items, and because people would lighter packs they would be less likely to have an accident anyhow. In the event of a serious accident you would never be that far from help anyhow: my understanding is that there just are not that many really roadless areas anyhow. If the accident is severe - a broken leg for instance, SAR chopper is THE way to go.
Just a thought.

Einstein X
(EinsteinX) - F

Locale: The Netherlands
Re: Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/12/2007 03:57:18 MDT Print View

>>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.........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). <<

What strikes me is that it seems every student is carrying two big pots and a frying pan, each student is carrying a whisperlite and each student is carrying 2 pounds worth of spices???

I have no idea of group sizes in these course but i think that it's perfectly possible to share these two pots and one frying pan with at least 5 people. In fact, I think it's entirely possible to carry one cook set for an entire group.

Than the spices; I have many spices at home, but all of these together don't even come to 2# and they last for weeks. Can't you go without spices for ten days? Even if you can't make sth like an allspice kinda mix than you need say 5, maybe ten grams per day? Thats about 2 to 3 ounce per person for a ten day trip. I just can't get around Nols student needing 2# of spices. Seems to me these courses teach "take-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" ethics.

I think most weight savings can be done by sharing gear. One HUGE bombproof tarp can house ten students and will be much lighter than 5 four-season, two-person tents. Although if the course includes some high alpine camping a four-season tent is a good thing to have.

So I think sharing gear is a good think Nols can do to lighten up.


Shawn Basil
(Bearpaw) - F

Locale: Southeast
Re: Re: Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/12/2007 06:59:36 MDT Print View

">>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.........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). <<

What strikes me is that it seems every student is carrying two big pots and a frying pan, each student is carrying a whisperlite and each student is carrying 2 pounds worth of spices???"

You might notice that I mentioned per COOK GROUP. The food is per person but the kitchen is per GROUP. There are usually students in a typical cook group. But the fact is that the bigger students often wind up carrying most of the kitchen for their group.

Instructors are worse off because there are usually just 2 or 3 in an instructor team, with the same gear as their students plus HUGE overdone first aid kits in tupperware, ground-air radio, cell phone, books for instructional planning, map sets, markers and mylar for classes, and massive field repair kit.

As for spices, they are heavily overdone, no doubt. As long as baking remains a part of the curriculum, kits will be heavy. I have to questions whether frybake pans really are two pounds (I would have guessed maybe one pound) but they are a requirement for baking. I would actually take the frybake and leave the heavy clunky pots if it were my call.

Any chance of a fundamental shift in the "Gulch" (food issue area) of going to freezer bag style meals? It would be a fundamental shift, but it would go a long way to lightening up.

Don Wilson
(don) - MLife

Locale: Koyukuk River, Alaska
NOLS frybake on 04/12/2007 08:42:09 MDT Print View

At the semianr, after so much discussion about the frybake, we were curious about it's actual weight - so we weighed one when we got back to the NOLS southwest facility. I believe it came in at 1 pound 14 ounces, including the lid.

It certainly seems possible with a little thought and experimentation to design a pan that could do all of what a current frybake does, and maybe cut the weight to 1 pound. There's a challenge for someone.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: NOLS frybake on 04/12/2007 09:30:18 MDT Print View

Can I ask why in god's green earth anyone NEEDS a fry pan in this day and age? I know the stuff fryed/cooked in it does taste good...but does anyone really NEED it?
Same on carrying 4 lbs of flour! :-O

Now granted, I am a UL backpacker, and I cut corners whenever I can, but for me, food was one of the biggest areas to cut weight in. And one of the easiest areas. Maybe I don't get home baked goodies, but I won't die from that either ;-) It isn't hard to use freeze dried or dehydrated meats, TVP, vegetables, pasta, rice, etc for a wide range of recipes/meals and still cut in half. I guess what has me thinking is this: NOLS is well known for it's gourmet meals (nothing wrong with that!) but to go truly light, you need to do some sacrificing. In most cases you won't be able to take the eating style and translate it to UL backpacking down the road. Most UL'ers I have encountered have similar kitchens to me: stove,fuel, cup, spoon or spork and a UL pan to boil water in. That is it. Food is spiced up with very light spices and olive oil. You can do spices and still be UL, just no wheels o' spices in the pack. Instead use craft sized ziploc bags.

I cannot think of carrying 40 lbs these days. The thought of 60 lbs causes my back to scream. Maybe if I was 23 again I could ;-)

But hey, thats my view ;-)

Brett .
(Brett1234) - F

Locale: CA
Sarah re:NOLS guides are hardmen on 04/12/2007 09:38:14 MDT Print View

Maybe seeing one of these beauties will change your mind..

It's shown here with climbing gear. When you are already carrying 30 lbs or so of climbing gear on top of a 20 lb winter base load, I'll bet the pot does not seem so significant.. but, yeah, I'm with you, I would not want to carry one.
These pans are for hardmen who carry canvas packs, hemp rope, and canned bacon; not cuben fiber, dyneema, and powdered protien-infused soy late.
And I'll bet they make some great meals.

Edited by Brett1234 on 04/12/2007 09:46:37 MDT.

Carol Crooker
(cmcrooker) - MLife

Locale: Desert Southwest, USA
Re: Re: NOLS frybake on 04/12/2007 09:59:16 MDT Print View

The thing to keep in mind is that NOLS is an institution with a long tradition of a specific type of cooking. They are proud of how good they eat in the field. Gourmet eating is part of the signature NOLS experience. Change needs to be gradual for it to happen. I think LW cooking methods like Sarah and the rest of us espouse will (and already did) go over well in the Lightweight Course. But, for across the board changes in the regular backpacking courses to be accepted, the gourmet experience needs to be preserved. It's just a matter of figuring out how to retain most of the "flavor" with lighter gear and food.

The NOLS instructors in the seminar were all senior instructors. They are steeped in the NOLS tradition of good eating but were very eager to figure out how to lighten packs once they felt how good 15 lb packs feel on the trail.

I can't emphasize enough how impressed I was with these guys and gals. They aren't weekend or week-long warriors like most of us. Many live in the backcountry 6 months of the year and live out of their cars in between trips. Consider that they are responsible for the safety of a group of young, beginner backpackers and that they do most of their travel off-trail, and you'll understand why the instructors who make it to senior status are incredibly self reliant and are creative problem solvers. After meeting these 10 instructors, I have absolutely no doubt that NOLS can figure out how to cut 60 lb packs to 40 lbs.

Peter Headland
(pheadland) - MLife
Re: Re: It's a religion on 04/12/2007 10:09:34 MDT Print View

>I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone at NOLS who believes in having a "exploitative/dominating relationship with the environment."

When you take a large group out into the wilderness, loaded with "just-in-case" gear, everyone knowing that if anything bad happens help is a satellite phone call away, cooking meals that are better than many students eat at home, you are not embracing the wilderness, you are dominating it, whatever your intentions. This is the American pioneer culture which is at the root of traditional backpacking. Contrast the NOLS wilderness experience with how Kalahari bushmen or Australian aboriginals used to live and you will see what I mean.

I think it is an unavoidable part of what NOLS does/its clientele to have a methodology that is adhered to fairly strictly and put across firmly as the "right way" to do stuff. That may not be how the instructor views the world, but I believe it is what the students hear.

Just visit the NOLS web site and read all the puff about the methodology, how NOLS is the best in teaching wilderness skills, etc. Personally, I'd kill to have one of the BPL gurus take me out on a SUL trip; but you'd have to pay me to go on a NOLS course. If I went out with a BPL guru, I would expect that person to share what they know, not teach me what to do (which is what NOLS has to do, given the clientele it serves).

Shane Perry
(Rymnel) - F
Re: Re: Ryan, 8000 mile pack;4lbs on 04/12/2007 10:09:40 MDT Print View


It would seem to me that if I'm paying 3k+ for a 10 day course I wouldn't be averse to paying another 800 dollars for a new pack, quilt, and tarp. Why does durability have to be an issue? Cut a deal with some manufacturers to buy these items in bulk and send your students home with some real UL gear. Doesn't that make more sense? That shifts a significant financial obligation to the student and you could probably lower your customer costs and end up with a similar net profit per student with only a slight increase from the customers perspective. That would eliminate gear maintenance costs, storage costs, gear longevity concerns, etc. I guess this is an obvious question, why hasn't NOLS done something like this already?


Edited by Rymnel on 04/12/2007 10:12:32 MDT.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: Sarah re:NOLS guides are hardmen on 04/12/2007 10:18:24 MDT Print View

Brett, I am a card carrying member of the Wussy Whiners. My level of whining goes up with every 5 lbs of pack weight. ;-)
Yesterday on the trail, my friend Steve and I had a long discussion over whether or not we would carry walking crampons this summer on our next PCT adventure. We argue about every ounce, and try to justify not taking stuff.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 04/12/2007 10:39:53 MDT Print View

One of the main purposes of NOLS is to teach students the art of being a guide, yes? As a guide it will often be your responsibility to carry extra cooking equipment and such luxuries as a spice rack because that's why people hire guides usually.

Granted, NOLS is most certainly able to reduce their gear weights required by students but it won't be at the cost of some spices or their bulk food system. I think refinements in this area would be extremely helpful to them however.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Re: Shawn, NOLS gear? on 04/12/2007 11:38:51 MDT Print View

Hi Roger,
To clarify, the what if items are: 1 (rather extensive) first aid kit/ Instructor. We usually hike in small groups and meet up at camp, this allows each group to travel w/ a WFR/WEMT trained Instructor w/ a first aid kit.
1 Sat phone and or 1 cell phone depending on the area that the course is in. Many of our course areas do NOT get cell reception, and a sat phone is necessary.

"In the event of a serious accident you would never be that far far from help anyhow: my understanding is that there just are not that many really roadless areas anyhow"

That's actually not true. We operate in some of the largest federally designated wilderness areas in the US and some of the most remote areas in the world (we just started an Amazon program). The turn around time between calling out for help and having a chopper land can still be up to eight hours, and certainly over 2, which is the definition of extended care wilderness medicine. We use choppers for injuries that threaten life or limb. it is unlikely that you will die from a broken leg, and there are other ways that one could be evaced for such an injury, though a chopper might be used.

Other what ifs, probably add up to more clothes than we need.

Paul Luther
(eredluin) - M

Locale: Northeast
Re: Re: Institutional Lightweight Backpacking, NOLS or otherwise on 04/12/2007 11:48:14 MDT Print View

Hi everyone, As a NOLS alumnus, Mountaineering in the Cascades 1983, I have mixed emotions about my experience. On the positive side I experienced a wonderful area, had good weather (for the Cascades), had a pretty good group of people (11 total), good instructors (especially Mal Miller),I could go without soap for 31 days!,and learned some outdoor skills that are with me to this day.

On the negative side I did more camping/hiking than climbing and the packs were a burden. we hiked in Koflach Ultras, used Kelty external frame packs, and slept in BIG synthetic bags. Group teams (3 people) divided-up the Otimus 111B, a Eureka Sentinal 3 person tent, spice kit, climbing gear, etc. There was more, but I don't remember what. Oops, forgot the pressure cooker.

24 years later I do 5+ days with a total pack weight of sub 18lbs, and I'm always on the lookout for ways to "lighten up" more.

Lets face it, we SUL/UL hikers are still a minority, but the gospel is getting around. Are you listening NOLS?