I just finished my first summer of being a backpacking instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), working two two-week courses in the Palisades Range and the Wyoming Range, both on the Idaho/Wyoming border. Both courses were Adventure courses (for students aged 14-15 years), and they both opened my eyes quite a bit about the school.
NOLS has a reputation for teaching ultra-heavy backpacking, and perpetuating the idea that heavy packs are the only way to hike. While there is some truth to the reputation, there’s a lot more to how NOLS teaches backpacking, and the school does pay attention to weight. But there are many more factors than weight and hiking distance that influence what goes into a NOLS student’s pack.
How heavy are the packs?
For both of my courses, I used my ULA Circuit pack, and one of my co-instructors used a 2nd generation Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The students generally use large packs, which weigh between 4 and 6 pounds empty, but the total weights of their packs were between 30 and 37 pounds at the start of the course. That includes about 11 pounds of food and a few pounds of fuel in each pack, so base weights were probably around 20 pounds. Hardly back-breaking.
What is NOLS’s attitude toward lightweight backpacking?
As far as I can tell, NOLS doesn’t have an institutional opinion on pack weights, other than that they shouldn’t exceed 40% of the student’s body weight. Individual instructors have opinions on lightweight backpacking, for sure, but there seem to be more and more who are interested in carrying less. The main reasons for carrying more weight are that there is a lot of camp time rather than moving time on a course, and that certain course locations and seasons require more equipment for safety reasons (my instructor course in 2012 was very snowy, so we packed more fuel, insulation, and cold-weather gear). Summer courses in the Rockies, or spring and fall in the southwest, see little rain or frigid temperatures, so they are able to carry less equipment.
Why doesn’t NOLS use lightweight packs and tents?
NOLS sends hundreds of students into the wilderness each year on backpacking courses (not to mention mountaineering, paddling, climbing, and other course types), many of whom have no prior experience in the outdoors. Courses are either two or four weeks long, with no trips into town to replace broken gear. Resupply happens on trail, but only food and fuel are sent in. Backpacks and tents need to be sturdy enough to survive the stresses of novice hikers (14 year-olds in this case— not an age group known for taking good care of their possessions) for that time period. We sewed several tears in equipment and replaced several zippers in the field, both common fixes for NOLS backpacking equipment. Between courses, we patched many more holes in tents and fixed more rips in backpacks. Since most students rent packs from NOLS, those packs need to stand up to years of heavy use before retirement. As durable as my lightweight packs have been over the years, they wouldn’t hold up to the level of use NOLS packs see for very long.
Why doesn’t NOLS use lighter stoves?
One of the most universal classes at NOLS is cooking. Not freezer-bag cooking, or one-pot-meal cooking, but serious camp cooking. Pizza, cinnamon rolls, cobblers, fudge, and lasagna are just a few of the complex meals that get cooked on a whisperlite stove on NOLS courses. Alcohol stoves wouldn’t cut it, and canister stoves would generate tons of trash to haul out of the field. Whisperlites are easy to fix in the field, and they’re versatile. I doubt NOLS will go with anything else for backpacking anytime soon.
Will the school ever truly go lightweight?
I talked about this often with my co-instructor. For now, NOLS summer packs are “light enough” in that they don’t totally crush the students (at least when the instructors are into lightweight packing enough to teach the students not to bring ten pairs of socks, three fleeces, and so on). Gear will get lighter because of the industry trend, but the big equipment that students get from NOLS (packs, sleeping bags, tents, cookware, etc.) won’t get lighter until the school can be certain of getting many years of hard use out of each item before retiring it. Any school needs to make money to survive, and buying packs that would only last a season or two would basically be throwing money away.
What about NOLS lightweight courses?
NOLS actually offers lightweight backpacking courses, but there are few compared with the number of standard hiking courses, and they are restricted to students 23 years and older. I’m hoping to work on one of these courses next year, so hopefully I’ll have some more to report on them next year.