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
Losing the pounds on 06/29/2007 11:23:09 MDT Print View

Well, I just got back from a 5 day NOLS Professional training course in the BIG HOLE Mtns. in Idaho. This course was not intended to be particularly light weight, but as an instructor team we stressed this pretty heavily. Considering students used the standard 30 day backpacks, kitchen and sleep systems, we did pretty well. Lowest pack weight was 32# (mine) with water, food, sat and cell phone, paper work and first aid kit. The highest pack weight was 46# for a student who used his own extremely heavy expedition pack (it was ridiculous, must have weighted 10-11#!) most came in between 36-40#. All pack weights are with 2 liters water and 4-5 days of food (1.75 PPPPD for students 1.5 ppppd for Instructors).

We stressed carrying fewer layers than often taken on courses, reduced group gear considerably, and coached the students heavily on what to bring. Still, many brought extras (large multi tools, 2 t-shirts, and one fellow brought 3 pr. of shorts) We had a scale for students to weigh things on and they loved the challenge of going lighter. We had mild weather, but all students stated that they had everything they needed and no extras (from their perspective.)

We have about 3 weeks before the first light weight backpacking courses of the season head out. I will be working with NOLS Rocky Mountain and Mike C! to prep for these courses. We are going to run two w/ 25# or less packs and a resupply half way through, and two with 30# or less pack and no resupply - all are 12 field days.

Let the revolution commence!

Edited by ryan_hutchins on 06/29/2007 12:34:36 MDT.

Adam Rothermich
(aroth87) - F

Locale: Missouri Ozarks
Re: Losing the pounds on 06/29/2007 11:36:56 MDT Print View

Sounds great! Its good to hear you all were stressing lightweight and it looks like it worked pretty well. Still pretty heavy by most of our standards but a huge improvement over what I hear the packs used to weigh. The actual lightweight courses sound like they will be very good too.
Great job and keep up the good work!

Adam

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Losing the pounds on 06/29/2007 11:45:16 MDT Print View

NOLS is making more progress quicker than I expected.

Keep up the good work!!!!

Thank you for the update.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
First 2 lightweight courses of 2007 are back! on 08/06/2007 21:14:04 MDT Print View

Hey all,
I just got out of the field working one of the first two lightweight backpacking courses of the summer. The last two left for the mountains yesterday.

This will be just a quick update, stay tuned for a full write up in the near future.

The course I worked was a great success. We spent 12 days in the Absoroka mountains of Wyoming. We shortened our route mid course so ended up covering 78 miles over that time (details will be in the trip report) We had tons of rain - creeks were carving new channels and there were flash floods in some areas! Everyone was able to stay warm and dry for the most part despite that, and we saw a lot of great terrain and a lot of bear activity (grizz) though no bear sightings.

And I guess this is the important part - heaviest pack was mine (IIRCC) at 27.03 lbs - six days of food, fly fishing gear, institutional first aid kit (reduced it's weight), course paperwork (uugghh!), and personal gear.

Stay tuned for the full trip report!

Eric Noble
(ericnoble) - MLife

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: First 2 lightweight courses of 2007 are back! on 08/07/2007 09:46:49 MDT Print View

That's great news! I can't wait for the full report. I just finished a week long guided trip with the scouts and they added about 16 lbs of gear and food to my pack. My pack weight was about 27 lbs as well, but you were out twice as long. Mine was the lightest pack of the group.

David Laurie
(bushwalker) - F

Locale: NSW Australia
NOLS going light(er) ? on 08/15/2007 09:22:17 MDT Print View

I have some NOLS books in my personal library here, but I have never been able to take their gear lists, in those books, too seriously; (plenty good info' in other sections, just not their main suggested gear lists..), - basically because the pack would have weighed 20 - 30 lbs more than what I intended to carry, even when not planning to go (ultra)light.

Even back in the !970's, the target weight for a pack for a 3-4 day walk, down here in Australia among bushwalkers I knew at that time, was in the range of 30 -35 lb. ... And that was well before any of today's L/W and UL gear...

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 09/02/2007 19:47:55 MDT Print View

Quick Note about the Lightweight thing at NOLS.

I taught one of the 4 Light & Fast courses at NOLS this summer in the Wind River Range.

And - It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had at the school in 14 years of instructing. A wonderful experience, for me, my co-instructor (Lexy) and my students. A ton of fun, and a cool challenge all around.

There will be a trip report due out soon on this site. We (Ryah H. and the rest of our lightweight comrades at NOLS are all chiming in) are eager to tell what worked great (95%) and what still needs some fine tuning (5%)

Peace,
M!

matthew morriss
(shishcabob30) - F
NOLS mountaineering pack weights on 08/23/2008 08:19:06 MDT Print View

I stepped off from the Pacific Northwest Branch in Washington state in June for a mountaineering course, and I was carrying a 69 lb pack. One of the heaviest packs in the group for one of the lightest persons in the group. I also happened to have the smallest pack. I think a 40 lb limit would be great for backpacking courses; however, it wouldn't work so well on a mountaineering course. Because there is just so much gear you have to take to stay safe, we had to carry ropes, ice axes, pickets, flukes, books, webbing ect... so maybe mountaineering courses could do with a downsizing of other aspects such as food trying to find lighter food that doesn't cut back on daily calorie intake.

On our last and longest ration; food was by far heavier than anything else in the pack. My pack easily wheight 80 lbs the first day of that ration and which was just INSANE!.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: NOLS mountaineering pack weights on 08/23/2008 08:50:17 MDT Print View

Matthew,
A couple of questions-

What was the food/person/day weight?

What was the calories/day target?

Were dinners "add hot water" or "simmer 20 minutes" style?

June would imply "Summer Weights" for clothing and sleeping, at 15#, with a little care. Two pounds of food/person/day should meet a high caloric target, for 15# for a week. (And many on this site would argue that these number are too generous.)

Implying 50# of climbing gear?

Or is there a dutch oven in the mix?

robert hogrefe
(rhhrhh) - F
northern tier, be forewarned on 02/15/2009 18:07:52 MST Print View

I have really enjoyed all you info and expertise, it is indeed the best. If you ever want a real challenge, go and see what the BSA Northern Tier program still uses. Last summer we carted 60-70 lb "kettle" and "elephant" packs on portages, along with 70lb aluminum canoes, sometimes carrying both together. It is, I was told, a tradition thing at NT to do things like the pioneer/voyagers of long ago. Needless to say, many sprains, near misses on bad steps resulting in broken bones and very sore bones and muscles were the norm. As the only adult with our crew (NT provided an 18 yr old guide also), I was shocked at not only the safety issues but what it was teaching the boys. Literally every boy but one got sick to a varying degree with a cold, cough, or sore throat by the end of the 9 day trek. It was just too much exertion on top of many hours of paddling every day. The entire NT program needs an overhaul in terms of today's light and ultra light options for every aspect of the program. We have heard it said that NT is the most demanding of the BSA High Adventure camps, and the present design guarantees it will continue to be, but only to the detriment of the campers, young and old. It would be wonderful to see the advantages of going light and efficient realized at NT, they just might get more people to return and enjoy the wonderful environment up there. YIS, RHH.

Edit

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: northern tier, be forewarned on 02/16/2009 10:13:07 MST Print View

Quote RHH:
"they just might get more people to return and enjoy the wonderful environment up there."

And that's so important in this day and age of Nature Deficit Disorder and development of open space. Thanks for sharing this story.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: northern tier, be forewarned on 02/16/2009 12:35:52 MST Print View

Yeah, the Northern Tier crews travel heavy.

But to be fair you have to consider their clientele.

Youth (also inexperienced adults) can be every hard on gear. NT is already costly enough without adding $150 per head so that less durable canoes can be replaced annually. Spending a week constantly nagging kids to do what does not come naturally is another way to not get people to come back (been there ...) If I'd spent $2000 ... oops, sorry $2900! on a black/gold Bell Northwind there's no way it'd be used by anyone until they'd demonstrated that wet footed landings are their personal norm, not the exception.

There are other programs up there that tend to get repeat campers, often many time repeaters. There are more possibilities with that situation. The typical ethic is that you earn the right to use the better gear and go on more interesting outings thru your behavior and experience. The younger ones see that as something to aspire to, a sign of achievement.

Disclaimer: I've only observed NT crews from a safe distance, never as a participant. Being located in MN, our scout troop has access to people and gear that make it possible to outfit and lead our own BWCAW trips.

A N
(claruswi) - F
Re: northern tier, be forewarned on 03/01/2009 01:22:58 MST Print View

Robert, here appears to be a significant disconnect. You complain about large "elephant"(Duluth) packs. This is personal equipment that your crew choose to take that has to be divided up somehow.

For the "kettle" pack, about the heaviest item with the large pot. About 4lbs could be saved by using a lighter and less durable pot that Northern Tier has to replace twice a summer-- a cost that of course is passed on to you. The two stoves are Peak 1st and you could save maybe 4 pounds by bringing your own. Most of the equipment is already light weight (trail oven, etc). It's just a matter that you are taking gear for nine people.

As for canoe weight, 70 pounds is rather standard for any durable model provided by an outfitter. However, you had the option with Northern Tier to rent Kevlar canoes at a below market rate. Kevlar canoes are lighter but still range from 45 to 55 pounds. These are very delicate and cost between $2,500 to $3,000 each. These canoes have to be replaced very often. If everyone was issued a Kevlar canoe your trip cost would be more than double what you paid.

As for the exertion and paddling you mentioned, remember you get to choose the route. There is nothing preventing you from adjusting the route after you head out to make it less demanding.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
northern tier program on 03/01/2009 09:11:33 MST Print View

great points on the northern tier challenges in going lighter. Many seem to be the same as NOLS has and does face. Maybe this thread should become a place to share ideas about institutional lightweight, or should we start a new one focused on that?

Jeremy Cleaveland
(jeremy11) - F

Locale: Exploring San Juan talus
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 13:08:46 MDT Print View

How is NOLS currently doing with there quest? Did they achieve, or approach the 40 lb Initiative?
Have they decided on what packs and shelters to use for standard backpacking trips?
A new gear list would be very interesting

Joe Clement
(skinewmexico) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light?" on 03/31/2009 13:16:15 MDT Print View

> We have heard it said that NT is the most demanding of the BSA High Adventure camps, and the present design guarantees it will continue to be, but only to the detriment of the campers, young and old.

I've known a lot of guys who went on the BSA NT canoe trip, and didn't have any of those problems. I'm not saying BSA doesn't need to lighten up, but most of the problem you described are due to the difference in boys from 25 years ago, and today. You just don't learn toughness playing video games.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 14:15:30 MDT Print View

"How is NOLS currently doing with there quest? Did they achieve, or approach the 40 lb Initiative?
Have they decided on what packs and shelters to use for standard backpacking trips?
A new gear list would be very interesting"

Great question Jeremy.
I wrote an article that I believe was published in the last print issue of BPL reflecting where the school was as of summer 2008. I am unsure if it was actually published or not. Regardless, quite a bit has happened since the article was written.

Just to recap for those who don't want to read all 5 pages of this thread, we have been talking about two separate things here.

1. the NOLS lightweight backpacking program which is designed to teach lightweight backpacking skills and goes out with packs weighing no more than 25 lbs. for 12-14 days.

2. The "40 lb initiative" which was a somewhat arbitrary goal weight for all hiking packs at the school.

To answer your question specifically, things are going well.
NOLS Rocky Mountain has consistently been sending courses out with 45 lb average pack weight. A bit higher than our goal weight, but a huge achievement none the less, considering where we began. This has been done using primarily the gear we already have on hand and just working harder with our students and staff to be conscientious of their choices.
Here at NOLS Southwest, we are seeing the same results. We are currently right around 45 lbs using standard gear. Neither of the these locations is including lightweight courses in this average btw.
NOLS SW is looking at gear options to reduce pack weights further. We have had plans to phase in new sleeping bags, but were unable to get them from the vendor, so we will try again in the fall. Our next order of packs will be GoLite Odyssey's, taking another 1-2 pounds off the weight of our packs alone. We have started selling puff pants as an alternative to fleece. Our puff rental and sales program has been hugely successful. Both decreasing pack weights and in student satisfaction. We continue to look at cookware that is both light and durable.

We are about to run an Instructors course that will be run half traditional backpacking skills and half lightweight. And out lightweight staff training seminar continues to be hugely popular and we have refined it quite a bit from it's inception.

NOLS Alaska is running some lightweight sections on combo courses this summer, and i will be trying to make the sell to the staff at our PNW location while I am up there in June.

We continue to learn, apply and refine the programs, both lightweight and traditional to better serve our students.

Feel free to ask any other questions. I am excited that folks are still interested in what we are doing at NOLS!

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: northern tier, be forewarned on 03/31/2009 15:20:46 MDT Print View

"It is, I was told, a tradition thing at NT to do things like the pioneer/voyagers of long ago."

On the face of it, that sounds good. I would be interested in hearing more about just exactly what that means, though. I am shocked by the bad aspects you cite -- I am very sorry to hear that you had such a negative experience.

One of my fondest memories is the summer (late '1960's?) I spent leading canoe trips in the Temagami area of Ontario for a camp. I had the same 13-14 year old boys all summer. We started with shorter trips and worked up to a 2-week trip by the end. The boys were good to travel with from the beginning. By the middle of the summer, they were a true joy to travel with.

Very traditional North Woods traveling -- canvas-and-wood canoes, wanigan boxes, wood fires, fire irons, iron frying pans, canvas dining fly, 2-person canvas wall tents, duffel bags (not packs), tump lines, etc. All loads, including the canoes, were carried on tump lines (that took some getting used to). Most suppers, between bread, dessert, and main dish I cooked 2 of the 3 in reflector ovens.

Portages ranged from well used to the occasional one where I went over first with my axe, limbing it enough for the boys to portage the canoes. Some were smooth, some pretty rough. For this age group, we did portages as "one-and-a-half's".

Unlike your experience, we had no sickness or injury that I can recall. The boys enjoyed it enough that many of them came back to the camp year after year; the older boys often graduated to such things as one and two month trips canoeing down to James Bay (being a returning camper was prerequisite for these longer tougher trips).

As to too much exertion -- I set up longer trips than the other counselors (a bit less than twice as long). I decided I must be doing OK on exertion when one night around the campfire, part way through the summer, the boys asked me "why the kids in the other sections did not get bored -- they never seemed to do very much".

In short, my experience is the exact opposite of yours. I am all in favor of tripping light -- that's what I would do myself at this point. But that summer of traditional tripping was an experience not to be missed -- and as far as I could tell the boys felt the same way. (FWIW: the camp is still in business, run by the same family, and still very traditional.)

Not sure what the difference was. Could be the boys 40 years later?

Could it also be the leadership? What was your own training for this? Did you have training and/or experience with traditional north woods ways of canoeing before taking the trip out? (As a spot check, what stroke were those in the stern paddling? Please don't tell me it was a J-stroke.)

Or were you just depending on your 18-year old guide? (I gather that you were.) What was his level of skill and training?

I had an equivalent with me -- he was good, but still had things to learn. Example: one night we pulled into our campsite late, after a long rainy day. He, unbeknownst to me, put the kids to bed without supper, telling them that since we could not start a fire, there would be no supper! (I thought they were just staying in their tents out of the rain.) I built the fire and cooked supper. When I discovered the situation, I made him go around and tell each one (waking them if need be) that there was hot supper. Coming to supper was optional, but the had to know that hot supper was available. I don't recall numbers any more, but most/all of them showed up for supper.

-- MV

Edited by blean on 03/31/2009 15:23:50 MDT.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F - M

Locale: Somewhere out there
Please post Northern Tier info and opinion in a new thread. on 03/31/2009 15:34:01 MDT Print View

Can I please request that comments relating to the Northern tier program which is not part of NOLS be moved to another thread. The hijacking of this thread could lead to confusion, and is not contributing to the information regarding NOLS lightweight program.

I understand that the BPL forum software is limited and that many people are clicking on a single post in the new posts section, but I implore folks to please take a moment to look at an entire thread before responding to a single off topic post and continuing the hijack.

Robert Blean
(blean) - MLife

Locale: San Jose -- too far from Sierras
Re: Re: Is National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Ready to Go Light? on 03/31/2009 15:54:27 MDT Print View

"1. the NOLS lightweight backpacking program which is designed to teach lightweight backpacking skills and goes out with packs weighing no more than 25 lbs. for 12-14 days."

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

-- MV