NOLS: The Best Education is Sometimes Found Outside the Classroom

In 1965, when the Wilderness Act was one year old and American’s were craving real outdoor experience, a mountaineer named Paul Petzoldt had a dream. Out of this dream came NOLS – the National Outdoor Leadership School.

40 years after it was founded, NOLS has become a well-known organization, famous for turning out leaders like Tori McClure, the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the first woman to ski to the South Pole, and John Grunsfeld, NASA’s chief scientist.

The goal of NOLS is to teach others about the environment and how to care for it, and to train future leaders. The leadership aspect is a very important part of the NOLS program. “Setting goals, planning, efficiency and teamwork. Whether you’re climbing Denali or embarking on a new business venture, these are the skills that will get you to the top. Planning, preparing, performing… it’s a formula that applies not only to the wilderness, but to the expedition of life” states the NOLS website.

Students of the National Outdoor Leadership School learn four specific kinds of leadership: Designated Leadership, Active Followership, Peer Leadership, and Self-Leadership. Each member of the team fills a variety of the leadership roles at different times during the trip.

Designated leaders take responsibility for the group, guiding the group toward goals and determining how the group achieves its goals. Active followers support and follow the leader, and participate in group decision making by giving input. Peer leaders work together and support each other in achieving group goals, and they make sure that things that need to be done get done. Self-Leadership means that each person takes care of him/herself so they are in a condition to take care of the group, and they are responsible for taking personal initiative.

A NOLS trip is basically aimed at making you become an outdoor leader. During the course of the trip, students take classes on leadership skills that consist of discussions, lectures and skits, all based on learning about the land you are in. There are lots of science classes and leadership classes. Students do projects every section, researched from the portable research library that they carry with them.

NOLS students also learn specific leadership skills: Expedition Behavior, Competence, Communication, Judgment and Decision-Making, Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty, Self-Awareness, and Vision and Action. These particular skills have been picked out and specified by NOLS because they are skills that will help you get along in life, not just on a nature expedition. A lot is learned on NOLS trips, and a lot is experienced, but there is also a social aspect to the trip. Students are all around the same age, and they undergo and experience a lot together, and lifelong bonds are formed.

Charlie Ware, a sophomore at UVM who attended NOLS during the fall 2004 semester, says, “There was an interesting mix of people. I was thinking it would be a lot of hipped-out kids, but half the kids were glad that Bush won. There were basically a lot of rich white kids who thought it would be a good time. It was cool though, there were interesting group dynamics. No matter what the kids are like, you grow so close to them that you would do anything for them.”

Students from all over America go on NOLS trips to learn these leadership skills and spend time in nature. Every NOLS course is approved for credit, though not all credits are accepted depending on the college. Some possible credits include Natural Resources, Biology, Environmental Science and Environmental Studies, and Physical Education. The University of Vermont accepts credits from NOLS, but not all of them. Ware received seven physical education credits and two natural resources credits, but UVM did not accept several Biology and Environmental Studies credits he received because they did not match with currently offered classes.

Ware went on the southwestern trip, where he did three weeks of backpacking, two and a half weeks of caving, two and a half weeks of canoeing, and two and a half weeks of rock-climbing. The last week was an independent student travel session, where smaller groups of students backpack without instructors. NOLS trips go to many places other than the Southwest. Other places to go for NOLS are Alaska, Australia, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Pacific Northwestern, Patagonia, Rocky Mountain, Teton Valley, and Yukon.

Different locations offer different skills, depending on what the terrain is like and what water sources are available. The various skill trips to choose from are: mountaineering, rock climbing, water related (river skills, river kayaking skills, sea kayaking skills, sailing skills, rafting skills), horsepacking, skiing/snowboarding, backpacking, and wilderness medicine. Students can not do NOLS through UVM, since NOLS is not a program but is its own school. Students must take a leave of absence from UVM when they do NOLS.

OLS is a traveling experience as well as a school, and yet a semester with NOLS is less expensive than a semester at UVM, though not by much. The semester trip is generally $10,000 plus equipment, and most equipment can be rented. For students thinking about traveling, the main question is how NOLS compares to the traditional study abroad trip. There are big differences, the main one being the outdoors experience that NOLS provides versus the college environment of Study Abroad.

NOLS is probably more practical for biology and environmental science and studies majors, since the credits will go towards their major, but Ware recommend the trip to anyone, no matter what their major. He says, “I would highly recommend it as a travel experience against study abroad. Living outdoors that way is an experience that everyone should have at sometime in their life. It gives you a new perspective on things.”

To apply for NOLS, or just to get more information, check out or call 1-800-710-NOLS.