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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