Ever since I became a NOLS instructor, I’ve been interested in the school’s Lightweight Backpacking Prime courses. Lightweight backpacking is a very small part of NOLS’s course catalog, and very different from any other NOLS backpacking course for a myriad of reasons. Rather than a full trip report here, I’ll try to give a general overview of the course, and what you might expect if you plan on signing up for it. My gear list is also provided at the bottom of this post.

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

Overview map of our course route for the 12 days

A standard NOLS summer backpacking course consists of three instructors and 10-12 students, aged 16 to 23, on an approximately 30-day course. Students resupply food and fuel in the field twice (either meeting a truck at a trailhead, or a horse-packing group on the trail), so they carry between 7 and 13 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. Packs, at the beginning of each ration period, generally weigh between 40 and 50 pounds. The courses put a strong emphasis on cooking elaborate meals from scratch, traveling and navigating off trail, and leadership in a wilderness setting that can be translated very well to a frontcountry setting.

The Lightweight Backpacking course consisted of two instructors and between 6 and 8 students, aged 23 and up (my particular course had six students, aged about 45 to 60). We spent 12 days in the field, with one resupply on day 6, so we carried about 5 and 7 days worth of food at the beginning of each ration period. We only weighed packs just before getting on the bus, so I didn’t get base weights for the students. Almost all of them started with full packs weighing about 30 pounds, so my guess is that base weights were between 15 and 20 pounds.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Timico Lake in the Wind River Range, on a long, semi-off-trail section of the NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Before you get all grumpy and say “30 pounds isn’t lightweight backpacking!”, let me remind you that this is a LIGHTWEIGHT (not ultralight) backpacking course for beginners, and that for many of the students, adding a few pounds to their base weight was a conscious decision made with the instructors’ input– A 50 year-old first-time backpacker doesn’t need to prove anything by taking a sub-10 pound base weight. Also, this isn’t a course for teaching people how to through-hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, where you can easily get into town for resupply and gear replacement every four or five days. We were pretty deep in the wilderness for a solid 12 days, with no detours into town.

Where most NOLS courses consist of students who are still finding their ways in life, the older student age on this course made for a very different emphasis in course teaching. The leadership curriculum wasn’t first and foremost, since most (though not all) of our students were already well-established in their careers and had signed up for the course specifically to gain confidence in wilderness travel rather than to lead groups. Cooking was also a much smaller part of this course, since we used pre-made just-add-water meals rather than a set of basic ingredients to feed ourselves (NOLS has a set of recipes for making these meals, rather than using Mountain House or similar fare). We spent much more time teaching navigation by map and compass, and how to use general lightweight gear, than any of the classes I’ve gotten used to teaching on prior NOLS courses.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year's NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

Wind River Peak, as seen from the second day of this year’s NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course.

With the shorter course length, I feel it would have been difficult to get through any more of the leadership classes in much depth compared to a 30-day course, but that may have just been the circumstances of my particular course. In my opinion, the greatest value of NOLS is as a leadership school first, and an outdoor skills school second, so the specific type of skills you go to NOLS to learn are probably less important than the length of course you take, although I know most students probably don’t sign up for courses thinking that.

Here’s my gear list from the course, so you can get an idea of what might work. This is definitely not the exact gear list that everybody should use, but it worked for me. If our weather conditions had been much more harsh, I might have wanted a little more rain protection and insulation, but for the summer conditions in the Wind River Range, this did very well for me.

Clothing Worn

  • Outdoor Research wide-brimmed hat
  • Chilis sunglasses
  • Railriders Adventure shirt
  • Columbia athletic shorts
  • Patagonia Capilene boxers
  • Darn Tough 1/4 cushion socks
  • New Balance Leadville sneakers with Dirty Girl Gaiters

Packing (19.6 oz)

  • Gossamer Gear Kumo* (16.8 oz)
  • ZPacks small dry bag (0.6 oz)
  • Trash compactor bag pack liner (2.2 oz)

Sleep System (27.8 oz)

  • Stateless Society down quilt** (18.2 oz)
  • Gossamer Gear Airbeam short sleeping pad (7.4 oz)
  • Klymit Pillow X (2.2 oz)

Clothing Carried (22.2 oz)

  • Spare socks (Darn Tough 1/4 Cushion) (2.2 oz)
  • Montbell Tachyon Wind Pants (2.9 oz)
  • Westcomb eVent rain jacket (9.2 oz)
  • Montbell UL Thermawrap jacket (7.9 oz)

Toiletries & Such (10.1 oz)

  • Swiss Army Knife classic (0.7 oz)
  • Sunscreen (4.0 oz)
  • Guthook’s bidet (0.8 oz)
  • Lip Balm (0.3 oz)
  • Travel toothbrush (0.7 oz)
  • Dental floss (0.4 oz)
  • Pill bottle with 6 days medications (0.8 oz)
  • Hand sanitizer (2.0 oz)
  • QiWiz Potty Trowel (0.4 oz)

Water Carrying (3.1 oz)

  • Dropper bottle for Aqua Mira (0.2 oz)
  • Bolthouse Farms 1L bottle (1.5 oz)
  • Platypus 1L bottle (1.4 oz)

Accessories (13.2 oz)

  • Petzl e+Lite headlamp (1.0 oz)
  • 2 sets spare e+Lite batteries (0.5 oz)
  • Amazon Kindle Paperwhite w/ trash case (6.6 oz)
  • Pen (0.2 oz)
  • Notebook (3.1 oz)
  • Bug headnet (1.0 oz)
  • Lighter (0.4 oz)
  • Sea-to-Summit long-handled spoon (0.4 oz)

NOLS-Supplied Group Gear (66.5 oz)

  • USGS Topo map set (11.3 oz)
  • Compass (1.7 oz)
  • Bear Spray (14.2 oz)
  • Tarptent Squall 2 (39.3 oz)

NOLS Instructor-specific gear (32.3 oz)

  • First Aid Kit (12.5 oz)
  • Epi Kit (2.9 oz)
  • Garmin Gecko GPS (3.2 oz)
  • Satellite Phone in soda-bottle case (13.7 oz)

Total Base Weight***: 12 pounds, 1.9 ounces.

*The Kumo was definitely a little small for this trip, and in the future I’d go for a Gorilla. The students carried several different packs, including Osprey Exos 48, Granite Gear Crown AC, Hyperlight Mountain Gear Southwest 3400, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and Gossamer Gear Gorilla.

**This is essentially a home-made quilt that is equivalent to Enlightened Equipment’s down quilts with a 30 degree rating.

***You may notice that certain items are conspicuously missing, like stove, cook pot, toothpaste, etc. The course was split into several 2-person tent- and cook-groups, so we shared as much as possible. The Caldera Cone stove, toothpaste, cook pot, and so on for my group were carried by my co-instructor in order to even out the weight carried.

After finishing the NOLS course in the Wind River Range, I went right back out into the mountains for a short trip with a college friend to climb a peak we had passed by on the course. Wind River Peak, at 13,192 feet, is the highest peak in the southern portion of the Wind River Range, and was a prominent landmark for the first several days of the NOLS course as we walk below it. And as the topo map shows, the ascent to the summit is amazingly straightforward from the northeast along a feature I heard referred to as “The Ramp.” I’m sure you can guess what that is by the map snippet below.

WindRiverPeak

It was a straightforward hike, but certainly not an easy one, especially as we brought our packs up and over the peak, dropping down the south side of the mountain to Tayo Lake. The descent was also fairly simple, if time-consuming due to picking our way across boulder fields for a few miles. We were rewarded at the end of the descent with the icy waters of Tayo Lake, and a freshly-maintained trail heading down to the valley. A volunteer crew from the Sierra Club was on a work trip for the week, which certainly helped speed up the end of the day for us.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking here, since as I write this I’m still getting adjusted to life at home after all that time in the mountains. From the summit, there are plenty of views across much of the range, and I could see plenty of places I know I’ll have to visit again later.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Only a day after arriving in Colorado, coming from sea level, I was up above 9000 feet and wouldn’t come back down to a reasonable elevation for the next five days. Hiker Box, whom I’d hiked with in New Hampshire in our snowy 2014-2015 winter, had moved to Boulder after hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year, and I had let him come up with all the hiking plans for the week that we would spend backpacking. We would enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest and spend five days bouncing between peaks. I had no idea what to expect, having spent very little time off-trail climbing 14,000 foot peaks.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

After a breakfast at the tiny town of Crestone, we started up Crestone Creek, outrunning clouds of mosquitoes despite our heavier-than-usual packs. Five days worth of food in Gossamer Gear Kumo may be a little much. Hiker Box probably had the better idea with a slightly larger Gorilla. Sometimes a little extra volume to the pack and a solid frame isn’t such a bad thing. Anyway, we peaked out in the afternoon at 13,000 feet on Venable Peak, then dropped down to 11,500 in the Venable Peaks basin. Remember, this was now less than 48 hours after I’d woken up in my bed about 40 feet above sea level. Luckily, charging up and down the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the past several months helped keep my lungs spry.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Day two was our crusher day, charging up four more 13k peaks (Commanche, Horn, Fluted, and Adams). All of this was off trail, climbing steeply and clambering over boulders like any self-respecting New England hiker. As we reached the saddle between Fluted and Adams, a menacing-looking cloud front moved over, and we huddled in the saddle for an hour as it passed uneventfully. That was a little different from my usual experience. Then it was on to Mt Adams, the highest peak of the day at just under 14,000 feet, and requiring several short 4th class climbs. At least one of those caused us to name the hiking route, “The Dirty Pants Route” for a very scary bit of climbing.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

This was where a smarter person might have taken a rest day for the third day, but instead we turned the dial up, climbing Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, and Obstruction peaks (two above 14,000 feet). The last part of the day was a long traverse toward another 14er, but the two of us were so exhausted by the constant rock-scrambling for the past two days that we decided to bail on Humboldt and just head down toward South Colony Lakes, a pair of beautiful mountain lakes at the bottom of the basin below Humboldt Peak. This area was more crowded than other places we’d been so far, probably because of an easy hike to a 14er and another less easy 14er’s primary route coming up from the valley. A freezing dip in the water, and then an early bedtime for a long day.

Scrambling to the top.

Scrambling to the top.

The next morning we cruised up Humboldt Peak with empty packs, then back down to where we began the day, and then back up the other side of the valley toward Broken Hand Peak. The path we followed to a pass between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak was pretty popular, but every single person going that was was heading for the taller Crestone Needle. We opted for the pretty peak of Broken Hand, and got to hang out with some goats to boot. What a difference a few hundred feet makes when you’re that high already– the peak is just as gorgeous, but not a soul had been there in who knows how long.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

We finished the day down at Cottonwood Lake, a pristine and seemingly unvisited lake below Crestone Needle, where we waited out our first thunderstorm of the trip with a legion of marmots. There I discovered just how much marmots actually like human urine– you know how they say not to pee on vegetation because critters will tear up the plants to get at the salt? Turns out that’s true! They really like it.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Day 5 was supposed to be a quick walk out, although the abandoned and overgrown trail made the first few miles a slow bushwhack through dense willows. Once on trail, we had to rush to outrun the mosquitoes again. I’m pretty resilient when it comes to biting insects, but as we got closer to the trailhead, they seemed to understand that they would soon lose a large source of blood, and attacked with gusto. Hiker Box estimated he killed well over a thousand of them in the few hours of walking down the hill.

Aww, nice marmot. They may be cute, but they're relentless when chasing your food bags.

Aww, nice marmot.
They may be cute, but they’re relentless when chasing your food bags.

By the time we ended the day back in Boulder, I had had an eye opening experience with this trip. There are a heck of a lot of mountains to play around in in Colorado, and if you stay away from the popular list of 14,000 foot peaks, you can go days without seeing a single person. Hiker Box and I already decided we’ll need to do more like this.

Oh, what a month! After spending so much of this summer day-hiking in the White Mountains and mostly dealing with app updates, I had a month of total immersion in the wilderness to set my mind straight again. There will be more to tell about the three backpacking trips in some later blog posts. The first was a week in the Sangre de Cristo Range of Colorado with my friend, Hiker Box. The second was teaching for a NOLS Lightweight Backpacking course in the Wind River Range along the Continental Divide Trail and Wind River High Route. The third was a “short” trip over Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake and Wind River Peak in the Wind River Range

Third Deep Creek Lake and Wind River Peak in the Wind River Range

It’s been a while since I’ve covered much distance and spent much time in mountains or wilderness areas that are totally new to me, so these three backpacking trips were especially refreshing. In the last few years, I’ve been so focused on expanding the Guthook’s Guides business that I felt I’d lost the joy that I used to find in exploring wild places. Most of the hiking I’ve done in the past year has been day-hikes in the White Mountains in order to fill out the New England Hiker app, which brought my hiking into dangerous territory– treating it as work instead of play. This summer and spring, in particular, I was frantically pushing through miles and miles of mediocre trails at the edges of the Whites just to cover miles.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

So as soon as I found myself above 10,000 feet for five straight days in the Sangre de Cristo Range and then for almost two weeks in the Winds, with no plan to use my GPS or recording trails for an app, I felt an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders. It wasn’t the elevation, that’s for sure, and not the depth of wilderness out there, but the fact that I could finally leave work behind and treat hiking solely as exploration and recreation again. Somehow, I’d let the fun slip away, to be replaced by work and stress.

It’s not news that taking your work home with you is a recipe for stress and overworking yourself, and that smartphones and ubiquitous Internet have blurred the divide between work and play. I realize I’ve let my work in the hiking world tip the balance of hiking too much to the work side. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I somehow forgot to take joy in being out in the mountains, but I’m just glad I’ve found that again.

Last year, I adopted a section of trail with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to become a volunteer trail maintainer. Since then, I’ve been to my trail three times to clear fallen trees, trim brush, clean water bars, and clean trash from campsites. These are all things that I could have done on my own without officially becoming a volunteer maintainer, but making it official is the best way to keep an immense trail like the Appalachian Trail in good shape. Here’s why.

TrailMaintenance

My section of trail is about 8 miles long, and each of my trips to maintain it has taken 1 to 3 days. When I’ve finished my work trip, I send a work report to the district overseer– the sections of trail that MATC maintains are broken into districts throughout the state, each with an overseer. Each overseer coordinates a handful of volunteers who do trail maintenance on a given section of trail. If no volunteer is responsible for a section of trail, as was the case before I volunteered, the overseer either takes it upon himself to do the trail maintenance, or tries to find more volunteers.

So when I took over my section of trail, that freed up the district overseer from having to make extra trips to my section, and he can now focus on making sure other sections are maintained properly. Even better, if I or another maintainer run into something we can’t fix with the tools we have, as was the case for many maintainers after 2015’s harsh New England winter, he can coordinate groups of volunteers to tackle the problems together.

You’ll notice I’m talking about volunteers, not paid trail crews. The fact of the Appalachian Trail is that the vast majority of trail maintenance is done by unpaid volunteers. Paid trail crews usually take on major work that requires technical skills, like building stone stairways, relocating large sections of trail, or building shelters (although volunteers often do much of the heavy work for those, too). The most common stuff that you might complain about while hiking through an overgrown or muddy section of trail– that’s volunteer work.

Volunteering comes with an obligation to visit your section of trail two, three, or four times a year in order to maintain it, and that’s also important. While tossing fallen branches off a trail that you’re hiking on is helpful, one can’t rely on casual hikers to stop and clear all the blow downs. It’s important to have one or more people who are responsible for a trail, who commit to those multiple trips each year.

I often hear through-hikers or people who appreciate them asking how they can “give back to the trail”, but few responses ever focus on what is absolutely one of the most important things you can do to help hikers. Volunteer to maintain a trail. If you can commit to three trips to the trail each year (which I know isn’t something everyone can do– that’s the reason I only started last year), look into volunteering. It’s not just something to do on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail– National Forests and National Parks often rely on volunteer trail maintainers also. Here are a few big ones:

Appalachian Trail (get in touch with your local chapter)
Pacific Crest Trail
Appalachian Mountain Club (NH, NJ, ME)
For National Parks, find the “Friends of…” website for the park (many National Parks have official Friends organizations that help raise funds and maintain trails)