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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.