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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.