Rappelling down a cliff in the Arizona desert, kayaking through the Baja Sea, or skiing through the snow-blanketed mountains of the Teton Valley sounds like the makings of an exotic getaway. For the students of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), it’s a normal day in the classroom.
“Individuals learn life skills in a way they don’t learn in other places,” says Pip Coe, the alumni development director at NOLS. “The common theme I hear from alumni is that these skills they used [during NOLS courses], they use in their everyday life and work life.”
In 1965, one year after Congress passed the Wilderness Act, mountaineer Paul Petzoldt founded NOLS at Sinks Canyon near Lander, Wyoming. About 100 male students pioneered the first wilderness courses. These early explorers donned surplus army clothing and traversed the Wind River Range.
NOLS expanded to include women students in 1966 and began offering instructor courses in the 1970s. Its headquarters are still located in Lander, but expedition sites now span throughout the western United States and the world. More than 200,000 students have graduated from the program.
These students aren’t necessarily athletic, college-aged adults with extensive outdoor experience. NOLS does have an increasingly popular Gap Year Semester program, but the youngest course is designed for 14 and 15 year olds. Other participants range into their 50s and 60s. An enthusiasm for learning–in addition to good physical and emotional health–is the most crucial component.
“The student demographics are really all over the map,” Coe says. “In the backcountry, everybody’s on an even playing field. You’re out there together.”
No matter if a course lasts two weeks or an entire semester, NOLS focuses on teaching seven skills: expedition behavior; competence; communication; judgement and decision making; tolerance for adversity and uncertainty; self-awareness; and vision and action.
“You’re learning the hard skills necessary for the outdoors, but also all those other skills that are highly transferrable,” Coe says. For instance, she describes good expedition behavior as being a team player and doing more than you need to, which are qualities applicable within any career.
Coe herself has decades of experience in the outdoor industry, particularly as a raft guide and canoe and kayak instructor. She began working with NOLS in 1992 as an instructor for river-based expeditions.
“On trips, we [the instructors] teach individuals the basic skills. As they become more proficient in those skills, we turn the leadership over to our students,” she says.
A backpacking and canoeing expedition might start in the Yukon territory with students learning how to paddle. Then the group will pack all of its equipment and travel for 30 days, oftentimes without seeing anyone else the entire time.
Coe says the United States is fortunate in that it provides access to great public lands. One of the questions for the future is whether people will still have access to those same lands.
Another challenge? “The up-and-coming demographic has always been plugged into smartphones. They’ve been plugged into family… friends, parents,” Coe says. “It’s really valuable to get away from technology some of the time.”
Expeditions do carry emergency communication devices, but remote destinations usually don’t have cellphone reception. Coe recalls one alum describing the NOLS experience as a “great smartphone detox.”
NOLS awards more than $1 million in scholarship aid to applicants. It has received grant funding from the Dylan Todd Simonds Foundation, and maintains partnerships with generous alumni, outdoor associations and retailers.
“Moving forward, we’re going to continue ensuring we have value to a wide range of demographics, both in the United States and internationally,” Coe says.
From the wilderness expert to the novice camper, from Alaska to Patagonia, the mission of NOLS remains the same: teach leadership through hands-on experience in the classroom of the great outdoors.
“In, say, a mountaineering course, the goal might be to climb a mountain,” Coe says. “It’s really not about finishing that [particular] goal, but about how you get there.”