Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative

NOLS Rocky Mountain discusses the process and progress of the 40-Pound Initiative, a branch effort to reduce student pack weights to 40 pounds or less for all Wind River courses.

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by Ron Craighead and Nicole Chilton | 2008-05-13 00:04:00-06

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Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative

PODCAST SPONSOR

This Podcast is sponsored by Big Agnes, makers of award-winning sleeping bags, pads and tents, offering innovative lightweight solutions for backpacking. Named after a peak in The Mt Zirkel Wilderness, Big Agnes is a small company located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Spend a night with Big Agnes and you'll never want to sleep inside again. Visit us at BigAgnes.com.

Overview

Going light is one thing when you are on a personal trip with your friends, but when teaching backpacking to a whole new group of students under a lightweight context? It is not as easy a task as you would think. Safety, education, gear quality, and accommodating for a lot of “first times” makes lightening up for students a completely different situation than when lightening the pack of experienced backpackers on personal trips.

The Rocky Mountain Branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wyoming has been working toward a goal of having all the packs on their Wind River Wilderness courses be forty pounds or less by June 15, 2008. The plan, which has been termed the 40 Pound Initiative, has been a collaborative effort with program supervisors, administrators, manufactures, and students and instructors alike.

From packs to first aid kits, sleep systems to food, NOLS has been cutting and dropping ounces and grams for the past two years, getting closer to the forty pound mark with each trip that heads into the Wind River Range. However, it has not exactly been an easy transition. Like every new endeavor, there has been a trial and error period for the new practices and the new gear. Lighter first aid kits went out, but they did not hold up as well as their older, heavier counterparts. Spice kits were reduced, but the feedback from students was a hefty request for more, not less. New packs and coats were field-tested by both students and instructors, and as the hardware lightened up, so did some of the concepts. How big of a library should instructors carry? Should personal items in camp be discouraged?

In addition to working out the kinks with gear and lightweight philosophies, convincing some of the instructors about the new practices of going lighter with students was also a bit of a challenge at first. Quiet rumblings of student safety, effective teaching methods, and even tradition were brought up. Skepticism over how well lightweight gear - which can also be delicate - could stand up to students was also brought into question…but with more and more courses successfully completing trips with lighter packs, most of those concerns have since died down.

To get an idea of the process and the progress going on with the 40 Pound Initiative at NOLS, Backpacking Light spoke with NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute Curriculum Director Tod Schimelfenig. NOLS Risk Management Director Drew Leemon and NOLS Instructor Jamie Hunt also contributed to this article.

A special thanks to Jeanne O’Brien and Lara McCluskey of NOLS for their additional information and guidance on this podcast.

Photo by Ryan Hutchins-Cabibi


Citation

"Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative," by Ron Craighead and Nicole Chilton. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/podcast_nols_40_pound_initiative.html, 2008-05-13 00:04:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative


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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/13/2008 22:35:31 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative

nanook ofthenorth
(nanookofthenorth) - MLife
how long? on 05/14/2008 16:37:58 MDT Print View

Can you add the length to each podcast you guys post?
In general, it would be nice to know how long they are before I play them

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
Re: Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/15/2008 20:42:59 MDT Print View

Deleted

Edited by awsorensen on 05/20/2008 10:52:10 MDT.

Christopher Holden
(back2basics) - F - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/15/2008 21:36:57 MDT Print View

Is this not going up on iTunes? Mine doesn't see it... or am I just impatient?

Rich Steixner
(cameraboy) - F
Spice kit? on 05/16/2008 08:32:51 MDT Print View

What is a "spice kit?"

It CAN'T be what I think it is.

Daniel Goldenberg
(dag4643) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwet
Re: Spice kit? on 05/16/2008 08:55:01 MDT Print View

From the articles I've read I believe they like to do some pretty good backcountry cooking. I'm fairly certain a spice kit refers to a kit of containers to hold cooking spices like salt, pepper, cinnamon, various seasonings, etc.Spice rack

Ryan Stoughton
(TxTengu) - F

Locale: Seattle
iTunes on 05/16/2008 09:57:05 MDT Print View

I don't see the podcast in my iTunes feed either.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Spice kit? on 05/16/2008 10:19:41 MDT Print View

Brilliant Daniel, especially if those caps and carrier are titanium :-) I suspect it'll slide right into an Ursack.

FWIW I always carry a "spice bag" with little containers of favorites: basil, tarragon, red pepper, garlic cloves, etc. Relatively small and light, and a huge boost to certain otherwise bland meals.

Appetite's always a puzzle at altitude, especially after a hard day. Sometimes it takes some persuasion to get myself to eat, and bland food never helps.

Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
iTunes on 05/16/2008 11:49:25 MDT Print View

Hey all - this is my first podcast upload, so I'll see if I missed something about adding it to the iTunes feed.

Thanks!
Addie

Sheila Baynes
(sheilabaynes) - F

Locale: Alaska
NOLS spice kit on 05/16/2008 13:24:04 MDT Print View

I work for NOLS. I am not intimately familiar with their "fast and Light" courses, but perhaps I can answer some questions.

One of the things that makes NOLS unique is their approach to teaching backcountry cooking. On a standard NOLS course, students learn baking and how to cook creative and nutritious meals using a "pantry style" system of rations. The spice kit is important to this system and is very popular with staff and students. A standard course carries a spice kit varying by staff preference, but including staples such as salt and pepper and often also containing such items as yeast, baking powder, curry, cumin, cinnamon, vanilla, soy sauce, and cayenne pepper.

Some staff spend a majority of their lives in the field and appreciate variety and creativity in their meals. The spice kit helps a lot with this.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/16/2008 14:42:10 MDT Print View

Originally posted by Aaron Sorensen
"The bad thing is that they insist that you do a certain weight.
I would (literally) have to bring the kitchen sink to make there weight."

Taking ten deep breaths....

Aaron, have you ever called NOLS to sign up for a course? Did someone there tell you that your pack had to weigh a certain amount? If so I would love to know who. Comments like this do not really help the school move forward in lowering pack weights, something I think we can all agree is good for everyone.

A lot of people are working real hard to make lighter packs a reality at NOLS. BPL has been interested enough to help us try and change the perceptions that you continue to propagate.

I'm glad folks here can have a good laugh at others expense. The spice kit picture is pretty darned funny, and I realize there is always some truth to sarcasm. There is also always an unseen reality behind why things are the way they are. If you all choose to mock and tease rather than have an educated conversation about what this all means for outdoor education and outdoor recreation in general, I think that is sad.

FWIW, Shiela presents an excellent explanation on why spice kits have been hefty.

Sorry if I sound a little irked, I'm spending my day closing down NOLS SW for the summer season and have been dodging swarms of africanized bees and rouge rattlesnakes.

Take care, travel light.

Daniel Goldenberg
(dag4643) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwet
Re: Re: Re: Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/16/2008 15:02:57 MDT Print View

Ryan, Sheila

I'm the one that posted the spice kit picture, I hope it didn't offend, as it was not meant to. I apologize if it did. I carry a spice kit myself, though much smaller and with less variety than the one in the picture since I'm only cooking for myself and perhaps one other person. I agree you need variety in cooking and I'm sure the resultant meals are much appreciated.

Cheers

Dan

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
NOLS 40 pound initiative. on 05/16/2008 15:40:03 MDT Print View

Nope, no offense - as I said it was funny and I see the truth to it. Just want folks to know we are taking this process seriously. For the last four years, it has been a big focus of my job at NOLS, I guess maybe I am too attached right now, I should go for a hike and do some walking meditation to release my attachment.

Edited by ryan_hutchins on 05/16/2008 15:44:42 MDT.

Dave T
(DaveT) - F
NOLS on 05/16/2008 15:45:05 MDT Print View

I guess it's always important to remember that we are just one portion of the world of backpackers out there. we are the nutty fringe. i know i'm the only one of my friends who would consider hiking 15, let alone 30, miles in a day. and when they hike in a 5L bag of wine to the basecamp 4 miles in from the trailhead at that cool swimming lake, it's hard to argue with that approach. if someone wanted to bake a vanilla cake from their big spice bag for me at camp, i'd be happy.

it's good to see NOLS working on lightening up. it only makes sense. change in big organizations takes time. boy scouts, NOLS, etc. personally i'd think that a 30 pound (or 20) for summertime backpacking would be easy to reach, but that's me.

in general, i'd say keep up the good work. we are all trying to get to the same goal - knowledgeable folks out having a good time in the wild.

for example, off the NOLS page, check out:
http://www.nols.edu/courses/pdf/southwest/lwb_el.pdf
the gear recommendations sound pretty much like any UL/SUL suggestions coming from posts off BPL.

Edited by DaveT on 05/16/2008 15:52:20 MDT.

Sheila Baynes
(sheilabaynes) - F

Locale: Alaska
photo on 05/16/2008 16:19:14 MDT Print View

Daniel - No, I was not offended by your photo either. I laughed (and then laughed again at your avatar). Ryan does have a great point though, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Before mocking or condemning something, it's worth educating oneself. It's important to understand NOLS pack weights in the context of the school's mission (and the very fact that it is that, a SCHOOL), its history, and the efforts that are being made by folks like Ryan (thanks Ryan!).

Michael Donovan
(mpdonovan) - F
New Nols on 05/16/2008 18:33:21 MDT Print View

As a LWB I also have caught myself scoffing at the base weights of our more conventional brethren. But I have also noticed that many of us go out for two or three days with a sub 5 base weight and then call ourselves hardcore for the pleasure of it. I have never taken a NOLS course (and would love to do so in another life) but I know they get into the back of beyond in a responsible and professional fashion for extended periods of time. I say congratulations to NOLS for a little self-assessment and thank goodness for a little spice in life.

Edited by mpdonovan on 05/16/2008 19:01:24 MDT.

Rich Steixner
(cameraboy) - F
spice kit on 05/16/2008 20:05:56 MDT Print View

I guess it goes to show that there are so many degrees and approaches to this cool hobby of ours. Myself, I like every facet: I like to hike in short distances and spend most of the day lounging and swimming and eating....and I also like to start out with a 13lb pack and do miles and miles. And everything in between. I had never heard of anyone seriously being upset about leaving a "spice kit" behind, and to be honest with you, the very terms "spice kit" make me chuckle, especially when it's considered a necessary piece of gear, like water treatment, sleeping system, shelter, spice kit.

Oh well, to each their own. Personally, I don't think my back can handle more than 4 or 5 miles with 40 lbs, and I'm only 34. Then again, I don't think I've ever even hefted a 40 lb pack....but then again, I don't stay out for more than a few days.

Always something new to try.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: NOLS spice kit on 05/17/2008 04:13:23 MDT Print View

Spice Kit

Confession time: I often carry this spice kit on a LONG walk. There is enough there for up to two weeks easily.
Front row: plastic bag of tomato powder: powerful stuff which really adds flavour
Middle row: garlic, garan masala, mint, bay leaves
Back row: Salt, pepper, curry, mixed herbs

Bottles: 8 mL or 1/4 oz, Nalgene laboratory bottles. On average they weigh (full) 9 grams each. But you could use very small ziplocks for less weight.

OK, laugh. You just won't get invited for dinner. :-)

Cheers

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: NOLS spice kit on 05/17/2008 10:13:12 MDT Print View

Roger, that looks just like what we bring at NOLS for about 2 weeks (then we get a resupply). The rations departments have started using real small ziplock type bags to reduce some weight. On lightweight courses we bring salt and pepper and either premixed sauces or dry powdered sauces packets.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
Re: NOLS spice kit on 05/17/2008 19:51:06 MDT Print View

Can I just say it? Salt is NOT a spice. If you need to salt yer food instead carry a bunch of herbs. Better taste and better health :-) salt is only needed in baking ;-)

Anyhoo, I cannot say much. I carry this:
GSI Pepper Mill

There isn't anything like fresh ground pepper.

Though you won't catch me often with a 40 lb pack.

Kerry Rodgers
(klrodgers) - MLife

Locale: North Texas
Re: iTunes on 05/19/2008 19:02:44 MDT Print View

Did you find out anything? I still don't see it in iTunes. --kerry.

Aaron Sorensen
(awsorensen) - MLife

Locale: South of Forester Pass
Re: Re: Re: Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative on 05/20/2008 10:38:02 MDT Print View

Hey Ryan,

I am sorry for the statement.
I could have swore that when I read this last year it was a minimal requirement and not the maximum to bring.

*** 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.***

Keep up the good work...

Mike Clelland
(mikeclelland) - MLife

Locale: The Tetons (via Idaho)
NOLS packweights on 05/28/2008 18:21:51 MDT Print View

I work as an instructor for NOLS.

Remember - Most NOLS courses are 30 days long in very real wilderness terrain. Light pack-weights and weekend camping is a pretty easy combo.

And - we are a school and we teach some advanced backcountry skills, and one of those skills is cooking. So - a spice kit is essential. We eat really well out there, and a full belly can be an wonderful and comforting experience after a long day. Our students make pizza with yeast dough and it's delicious!

That said, lot's has changed over the last decade in the outdoor world and the the gear and techniques available. NOLS can go lighter - and we ARE going lighter.

But, we can't subtract anything from our mission, and we take the student experience very seriously!

Peace from the NOLS branch way up in Alaska,
Mike C!

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
podcast: NOLS and the 40 pound initiative on 06/03/2008 13:28:43 MDT Print View

NOLS SW will be sending courses out w/ 40 pound packs in the fall and spring (our operating season) to continue the trend of lightening up. Of course we will also continue to encourage folks to go lighter. We have purchased a ton (figuratively) of new lighter gear to make this happen. I leave tomorrow for Alaska to go do some scouting with Mike C! can't wait to get up there. Sounds like AK is excited to jump on the 'ole band wagon too! Making change - one NOLS location at a time.