National Outdoor Leadership School

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The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), is a non-profit outdoor education school based in the United States dedicated to teaching environmental ethics, technical outdoor skills, safety and judgment, and leadership on extended wilderness expeditions. The NOLS mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. NOLS runs courses on six continents, and has courses for almost all wilderness environments and for almost any age group. Skills taught on NOLS courses include backpacking, canoeing, whitewater kayaking, packrafting, caving, rock climbing, fly fishing, horse-packing, sea kayaking, mountaineering, rafting, sailing, skiing, and snowboarding. NOLS has trained more than 120,000 students. Academic credit is available for all courses, through either the University of Utah, the University of Wyoming or Central Wyoming College. NOLS also has direct credit agreements with many colleges and universities. NOLS is headquartered in Lander, Wyoming.


Early years[edit]

NOLS was founded in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, a world-famous mountaineer and a member of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, with the backing of three affluent Lander residents (Ed Breece, legislator and Petzoldt's brother-in-law; Jack Nicholas, legislator; and William Ericson, physician).[1] Breece, Nicholas, and Ericson formed the nucleus of the early board of trustees. Petzoldt was also an early Outward Bound Chief Instructor, and he wanted to establish a school which promoted concentrating on refining outdoor leadership skills.[2]

The first facility opened in 1965 at Sinks Canyon, Wyoming. June 8, 1965 marks the date of the founding and the first trip beginning at the trailhead of Hidden Valley ranch where 100 male students went into the Wind River Range. In the beginning NOLS struggled with finances to provide necessities for outdoor trips so developed the “uniform” made of Salvation Army donations.[2] In 1971 the administrative offices were moved to Lander, Wyoming, where NOLS is still based today. NOLS also has facilities in Alaska, Washington, Arizona, New York, Idaho, Chile, Mexico, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Yukon Territory, Tanzania, Scandinavia, and India.

"30 Days to Survival"[edit]

The school began to grow in the early years and in 1966, women were allowed to enroll. In 1967, The Adventure Courses began for young boys aged thirteen to fifteen.

NOLS grew enormously during the 1970s, due to the publicity gained by an appearance on NBC's Alcoa Hour. The episode, titled "30 Days to Survival", followed a NOLS course through the Wind River Range.[2] The school's focus became more ecological; conservation and preservation began to rank with leadership training in terms of emphasis. As a result of the airing, the school’s enrollment grew from 250 students in 1969 to over 750 in 1970. Also, the Life magazine article, “Last Mountain Man? Not If He Can Help It”, featured the school and Paul Petzoldt for his commitment to the school in December 1969. The growth continued; by the end of 1976, NOLS had 40 instructors and from 1976 to 1977, had enrolled 1,523 students.[2]

1980s and 1990s[edit]

During the 1980s, NOLS continued to evolve. NOLS partnered with the University of Utah to offer college credit for courses, and helped create the U.S. Leave No Trace program. In 1989, NOLS adopted an outcome-based education model. In 1999, NOLS acquired the Wilderness Medicine Institute, one of the nation's foremost trainers of wilderness medicine. Also in 1999, NOLS began training US astronauts in leadership, supporting a new division called "NOLS Professional Training" which served institutional clients with custom programs.


Leave No Trace[edit]

LNT is a national program which started in the 1960s as an idea by the USDA Forest Service. Through the decades, research-based low impact camping techniques were developed at both NOLS and the USFS, and then in the early 1990s NOLS and the Forest Service partnered to form LNT, later adding the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. NOLS spent roughly a million dollars helping develop an educational system based on principles rather than rules, ecological researchers who focused on recreational impact, and an LNT outreach office, all based out of Lander. In 1994 LNT administration was passed on to the new Leave No Trace Center for Outdoors Ethics, another non-profit organization.[3] NOLS continues to be a founding partner in LNT.

The Principles of Leave No Trace concern social and environmental impacts which have led to ecological degradation. The program serves as an education tool to provide insight into behavior practices for people camping in the backcountry. The principles include “1. Plan ahead and prepare. 2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. 3. Dispose of waste properly. 4. Leave what you find. 5. Minimize campfire impacts. 6. Respect wildlife. 7. Be considerate of other visitors.”[4]

One arguable criticism of LNT is that the very idea that humans can leave "no" trace implies that humans are just visitors to the environment rather than part of it. A more ecocentric view is that humans are part of the environment and just need to live sustainably as members of the biosphere.

Wilderness Medicine Institute[edit]

Founded by Buck Tilton and Melissa Gray in Pitkin, Colorado in 1990, the Wilderness Medicine Institute was later purchased by NOLS in 1999.[5] Now known as the NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute (WMI), it is one of the leading wilderness medicine organizations in both the United States and internationally. The school maintained its headquarters in Colorado until the summer of 2002, at which point the offices and administrative staff moved to Lander, WY and into the newly finished NOLS international headquarters. In January 2007, WMI entered into a partnership with Landmark Learning of Cullowhee, NC in order to provide the WMI courses in the American southeast. WMI provides Wilderness First Aid (WFA), Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA), Wilderness First Responder (WFR), Wilderness Upgrade for Medical Professionals (WUMP), Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT), Wilderness Medicine Practices and Protocols (WMPP), and Wilderness First Responder Recertification courses. WMI also provides custom courses, courses for medical students and physicians, and combination courses in conjunction with NOLS Professional Training. WMI runs approximately 800 courses each year throughout the world. It is the largest provider of pre-hospital wilderness medicine training in the world.


Leadership education is the hallmark of NOLS curriculum. NOLS uses four roles and seven skills as a framework to define ideal leadership characteristics. The curriculum's goal is to push students to use leadership skills and teamwork to rise up to challenges faced while on remote, backcountry excursions. The four roles of leadership are: designated leadership, active followership, peer leadership, and self leadership. The seven skills of leadership are: expedition behavior, vision and action, communication, judgement and decision-making, self-awareness, tolerance for adversity, and competence. Expedition behavior refers to having an positive attitude, a respect for others, and an awareness about the needs of other group members, and a willingness to place group needs above individual ones. NOLS teaches that it is only through good expedition behavior that groups can successfully collaborate to achieve goals that would be impossible for an individual to achieve on his or her own. All NOLS courses rely on expedition behavior as the underlying basis for successful cooperation. Competence is the mastering of wilderness skills and potential for personal growth and to gain more knowledge. Communication involves effectively communicating interpersonally and with the group on both verbal and nonverbal levels. Judgment and decision-making involve making decisions that benefit the group, given unique circumstances, both externally and internally to the group. Tolerance for adversity and uncertainty refers to being flexible to various challenges, and being able to respond in a calm, concise, effective manner. Leadership should keep the positive attitude and work through the issues in a responsible manner. Self-awareness is defined as the skill to realize, interpret, and respond to one's own personal needs, as well as recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and compensating for them accordingly. This skill is imperative in the backcountry because it empowers the individual to take responsibility for his or her health. Taking care of their safety and health is important to being able to function properly and making strong decisions. Vision and action refers to having the initiative to lead a group and seeing the possibilities for moving the group toward a goal.[6][7]

Outdoor Skills[edit]

The opportunities on the courses involves improving skills under activities such as backpacking, canoeing, caving, climbing, fly-fishing, horsepacking, mountaineering, rafting, river kayaking, sailing, sea kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, etc. Students gain insight into equipment such as how to choose the best for the elements and about caring for the equipment. Students learn about the proper foods for the physical activity and strain on their bodies. Proper hygiene is essential for prevention of illnesses. Learning the proper camping techniques with Leave No Trace principles show how to live simplistically. Depending on the location, keeping warm becomes important to prevent sickness and allow comfort.[7] Most importantly, skills development provides a critical medium for the rest of the NOLS core curriculum, providing reality-based feedback to learners and engaging them in activities they usually care about.

Environmental studies[edit]

Throughout the courses students lean about the "leave no trace" principles and practice such skills. Students gain insight into the history of their location by reading about and discussing the plants, animals, geology, etc. of their surroundings. Students delve into the environmental issues around the area and humans' environmental ethics regarding the topics.[7]

Risk management[edit]

Risk management is a part of the curriculum, and plays a large role in how the school approaches new course areas and course types. In the field, risk management revolves around health and creating steps to prevent injury and handle risky situations. Students learn about proper foot care and body temperature regulation. Judgment and group decision making is taught through experience leading daily travel and through targeted classes on the subject. Classes include a framework for classifying objective and subjective risks encountered in the wilderness with an emphasis on making well thought out decisions. Emergency procedures are presented in case a student or staff is injured or lost.[7]

Additionally NOLS, along with Outward Bound USA and the SCA, sponsors the Wilderness Risk Management Conference.

NOLS Headquarters, Lander, Wyoming

NOLS and other organizations[edit]

NHSS and NOLS[edit]

NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars) and the NOLS teamed together to encourage members of NSHSS to pursue leadership development. NOLS is the premier teacher of outdoor skills and leadership, offering courses in the world's most spectacular wilderness settings. NSHSS members receive an automatic $150 partial scholarship for NOLS summer courses as well as a program application fee waiver in recognition of the academic and leadership contributions they already make at their schools and in their communities.[8]

University of Utah and NOLS[edit]

NOLS partners with the University of Utah's College of Health in order for NOLS students to receive college credit through the University of Utah.[9] NOLS and the U/UT also have a research partnership, with most journal articles posted at .

Notable alumni[edit]


  1. ^ Stremba, Robert and Bisson, Christian A (2009). "Teaching Adventure Education Theory: Best Practices". Human Kinetics. 
  2. ^ a b c d Wood, Henry. "NOLS History". National Outdoor Leadership School. Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  3. ^ "Leave No Trace Overview". Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  4. ^ Confer, John J. "Magazines as Wilderness Information Sources: Assessing Users’ General Wilderness Knowledge and Specific Leave No Trace Knowledge" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  5. ^ "NOLS Timeline". 
  6. ^ Gookin, John. "Chapter Eight: Teaching Leadership." NOLS Wilderness Educator Notebook. 10th ed. N.p.: National Outdoor Leadership School, 2006. N. pag. Print.
  7. ^ a b c d "NOLS: The Skill School". National Outdoor Leadership School. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  8. ^ "NATIONAL OUTDOOR LEADERSHIP SCHOOL". The National Society of High School Scholars. 
  9. ^ "National Outdoor Leadership School and the U". University of Utah.