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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


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


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


"Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative," by Ron Craighead and Nicole Chilton. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-05-13 00:04:00-06.


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Podcast: NOLS and the 40 Pound Initiative
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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.