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.

That's where we're going...

That’s where we’re going…

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.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

River crossings with a NOLS course.

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.

Last week I went to Tucson for a short seminar with NOLS, to learn about the school’s lightweight backpacking curriculum. NOLS has a structured system for training instructors for different types of wilderness expeditions– after the initial instructor course, instructors can later take seminars through the school (for dirt cheap, which is nice) to be certified as leaders for other types of courses. This seminar certified me to work on NOLS’s lightweight backpacking courses, which, hopefully, I can do next year or later on.

Walking into the saguaros. Nice to see so many light packs on one trip!

If you think that uttering the words “NOLS” and “lightweight” in the same sentence sounds strange, you probably aren’t alone. NOLS and other outdoor schools have reputations as proponents of extra-heavy backpacking, which is mostly fair. Since 2007, though, NOLS has had some relation with lightweight backpacking, although with a few caveats. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Looking to the valley south of Tucson.

First, the seminar– which consisted mostly of a backpacking trip in Saguaro National Park. Aside from the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail, I’m pretty much a stranger to the desert, so this was a shock to my system. Late October in Arizona is pretty pleasant as far as desert conditions go, but a desert is still a desert. The NOLS Southwest Branch (in Tucson, running trips into the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, and nearby areas) doesn’t even operate in the middle of the summer, which I’m pretty sure is partly because of the hot conditions.

Hiding from the sun during a water break.

We hit the trail in Saguaro National Park on the second day of the seminar, everybody carrying two to five liters of water, two and a half days’ worth of food, and packs less than 18 pounds all included. Nearly three-quarters of the group had never hiked ultralight before, so it was exciting to see the reactions to the packs that, full, weighed less than many NOLS packs at the end of ration periods. The group moved quickly without even really trying.

A chilly morning, improvising some insulation.

Starting on the southern end of the park’s eastern division, we walked toward the Arizona Trail, which cuts through the park. Day one was entirely on trail, heading toward an established campground within the park. Day two was mostly off trail, making our way up a canyon to Mica Mountain. After camping high up on the mountain, day three was a fast hike on trails to the northern border of the park for a short ride back to the NOLS Southwest Branch and a quick cleanup to finish off the course.

Wandering up a canyon into higher elevations.

While we spent a good amount of time hiking, and finding our route within the canyon on day two, the real focus of the seminar was on the NOLS lightweight curriculum. Since NOLS runs only a handful of lightweight-specific courses, this meant discussions about those LW courses, but also about lightening standard backpacking courses in some ways. The latter is more complicated than it sounds, not because NOLS is against the idea of going light, but because the focus of the school isn’t about technical skills and just backpacking. There’s a lot of course material that goes into the field with groups, and some of the heaviest is not very optional– complex cooking is a big part of a NOLS course, and that just can’t be done in the same way on an alcohol stove. (On my previous courses, we made brownies, fudge, pizza, calzones, lasagna, cake, cinnamon rolls, pancakes, quesadillas, and many other things that just wouldn’t make sense on an alcohol stove).

Moving faster while hiking means more time for long breaks!

As far as the lightweight-specific courses, though, there’s still a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on. One of the most complex parts of the lightweight course (and all NOLS courses, really) is risk management. Especially in off-trail travel, things on a lightweight course move at a faster pace, so it’s easier to find a hiking group spreading out or getting into tight situations. Lightweight gear doesn’t take the same kind of beating as the heavier things that most NOLS courses carry, which presents another possible risk. Managing risks in the backcountry is one of a NOLS instructor’s most important jobs, as well as teaching students how to do the same. The lighter pack doesn’t get rid of many of the risks inherent in backpacking, it just changes them around a bit.

Cooking breakfast on the trail means meals with a view.

Here’s some food for thought, too– lightweight courses have no fewer injuries than heavier backpacking courses. NOLS keeps track of trends on its courses, especially those related to injuries and medical incidents, so this isn’t just a perception of those courses. Apparently, there are several possible reasons for the higher than expected injury rate on lightweight courses. The two that seem most plausible are that the lightweight courses have an older student population (minimum age is 18, while most NOLS backpacking courses are 16 and older), and that the students with lighter packs tend to push themselves harder than those with heavier packs

On the way out, back into lower elevations and lots of grassy desert.

Since NOLS runs relatively few lightweight backpacking courses, the secondary focus of the seminar was probably the more important part– lightening standard courses to the point where packs are only moderately heavy. Apparently, this is where NOLS has been making more progress in the past several years. Rather than switching to Golite packs and alcohol stoves, the idea is to minimize weight were it can be saved, and drop pack weights from, say, 55 pounds down to a more manageable 35 or 40 pounds (that’s with food and water, not base weight). Apparently the mentality among many instructors at the school has swayed toward the moderate weights for backpacking courses, cutting down on weight with lighter packs (dropping from the 7 pound expedition packs to 3 or 4 pounds), lighter insulation (puffy jackets rather than fleece), less clothing (you don’t need many changes of clothes in the backcountry), and odds and ends (stuff sacks, water bottles, packaging, and so on).

The best part of this change in attitude, to me, is that it emphasizes one of NOLS’s major curriculum pieces– sustainability and conservation. My favorite way to teach these concepts is just to look at a pack’s contents and say, “what do you need, and what is a luxury?” When you have to carry everything on a backpacking trip, the luxuries can quickly become quite the opposite, and you learn just why having too many possessions can be a literal and figurative burden.

Greetings from somewhere in between! The month-long instructor course I took at the National Outdoor Leadership School has concluded, and I’m about to move on to the next piece of this summer. Before I tell you about what’s next, though, I’d like to give a little report on the NOLS course.

The end of May in Wyoming. And I was expecting flowers and sunshine!
NOLS is an outdoor school whose primary focus is leadership skills (as the name implies). Our instructors stressed this point, since NOLS sometimes has a reputation as a hard-skills school. Hard skills don’t take long to learn, they explained. The ability to successfully lead a group in the backcountry, or even in other settings, is a much finer skill– much more difficult. The purpose of most NOLS courses is to develop that ability (mastering it takes a lifetime), and the purpose of this particular course is to train instructors for NOLS.

The classroom in camp. Class time was concise, with more emphasis placed on practice.
After meeting my fellow instructor candidates in Lander, Wyoming, at NOLS’s international headquarters, we had a day and a half of orientation to get acquainted with the school’s mission, history, and how courses generally start. The group consisted of twelve students from all over the US as well as a few from Australia and Kenya. Our three instructors had hundreds of weeks of experience in the field between them, and were highly recommended by others we met in town. Soon enough, we were thrown into the field to begin the meat of the training.

Camp at 10,000 feet.
We arrived at the trailhead late in the afternoon amid a wet snowstorm. It was late spring in the Wind River Mountains, and it had been a very dry winter according to the locals, but for those of us from different climates it seemed plenty snowy. The Aussies, who hadn’t seen falling snow more than once or twice in the past, were as excitable as young kids in the new conditions. “Now I know how people feel when they visit Australia and see a kangaroo for the first time,” one of them said. The novelty wasn’t all fun, though– these kind of conditions could easily happen on a student course, and, as instructors, we would need to facilitate a group of students (some of whom may have never hiked or camped in snow) to adapt to the environment.

Fly fishing! We didn’t catch much, but I’m hoping to get more practice at some point.
By the third day we had climbed to 10,000 feet in elevation, and we didn’t get below 9,000 feet for the next thirty days, aside from a day-hike to a trailhead to meet a resupply team. This was a very different experience from my usual backpacking excursions– packs were heavier (mine ranged between 35 and 65 pounds depending on group gear and food, although in future courses I can lighten that considerably), daily miles were shorter (for various reasons, including that we were off trail for all but one or two days), time between resupplies was longer (9, 11, and 12 days, which is a lot of food), and the food we cooked was a lot more elaborate (yeast breads, lasagnas, fudge, brownies, cakes, and so on). There were classes on fly fishing, geology, snow travel, group development and dynamics, weather patterns, and much more.

Second day of being stuck on Hoth (12,000 feet elevation, high winds, snow… glorious).
The first snowstorm cleared by the third day, but there was no shortage of adversity for our group. For the first week, several of the group suffered from a cold that was making the rounds. About halfway through the course, just after we had crossed the Continental Divide, one of the students suffered a severe ankle sprain while coming down a long boulder field. The next three nights tested everyone’s resolve and skills, as a blizzard rolled in and pinned us at a completely exposed 12,000 foot campsite. White-out conditions and 40-50 mile per hour winds made life very difficult (there’s a long story in there, but you can use your imagination). Later in the course, melting snow made for exciting river fords and thick clouds of mosquitoes. Amazingly, until the 32nd day we saw only one person not affiliated with our group. That means our small group of fifteen was an almost completely insular community.

Spring finally begins at lower elevations. Off trail navigation is so much easier out west!
I can’t do a fully detailed trip report for the month in the wilderness, so some pictures and the overview will have to do. If you’d like to know more about the school, I’d highly encourage a visit to their website– and if you’re a student thinking of taking a course I’d be happy to talk more. The course I took while in college was the single best life-changing experience I’ve had (yes, much more important than the Appalachian Trail hike), and this instructor course was nothing but positive.

River crossing during spring melt was all about wet feet.

While every instructor candidate on our course was approved to work for NOLS (the course is described as a 30 day job interview), not all of us were placed on courses for this summer. I returned to New England a few days after the course ended, with the possibility of working some NOLS courses later in the summer and/or next summer. Not to worry, though. I have some exciting plans for the rest of the season, and I’ll let you know about those soon. I’m sure you can guess what they are.

Arriving early means more time for naps.

I remember last year at about this time, I was about to head off on a road trip with lots of hiking and living out of my car, just before leaving home to work at a summer camp, and then moving to a new town immediately after that. The hectic schedule of big changes meant I had to look at my possessions in April, decide what I needed now, what I would need at the summer camp, and what I would need when I moved– and decide which of each I could take with me for any individual section of the summer.

Trying to get everything I need into a tight package.

The past few weeks, I’ve been doing the same thing. In a few hours I leave for Hong Kong with Yvonne. Two days after we return to the States, I’ll fly to Wyoming for my NOLS course. I’m not certain how long I’ll be in Wyoming, but when I get back from there, I’ll spend some amount of time back in New England, then fly out to Michigan for my brother’s wedding. Either before or after that, I’ll try to hike the Long Trail. Yvonne and I found someone to sublet our apartment for the entire summer, so I’ll be effectively a vagabond for the summer again.

So how do I pack for this weird, open-ended summer schedule? I guess I just have to wing it.

I loaded my car with my ultralight backpacking gear and trail maps, figuring I won’t use those until I get back from NOLS (I’ll be doing heavy backpacking out there), and gave it to my folks for the summer. Bye bye for now, lightweight hiking gear!

Next, I loaded a suitcase with mostly just clothing for Hong Kong, and a duffel with gear I’ll bring to NOLS. The duffel will stay at Yvonne’s parents’ house while we’re in Hong Kong, so that when I return from Asia, all I have to do is transfer some clothes from the suitcase to the duffel, and fly out to Wyoming (after a two day layover in Boston. Hello jet lag).

If everything works out according to plan, whenever I return from NOLS, I’ll find my way back to my parents’ place, and pick up my car (with the UL backpacking gear). From there, I’ll make some quick preparations to either hike the Long Trail, or do a lot of hiking in the Whites.

I’ll be on the plane soon. See you at the end of the summer! (or maybe earlier…)