wind river range

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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.


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.

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.

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.