10 Reasons Why You Should Take A NOLS Course

You can’t learn this stuff in school.

By: Corinne White
February 1, 2016

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Don’t get me wrong...school is super important and I’ve learned a ton from traditional classroom education, but it just doesn’t compare to the experiential education I’ve gained through my NOLS courses. From navigation to cooking to mental toughness, you’ll develop skills that will stick with you for a lifetime. Not to mention, all of this takes place in some of the most beautiful locations on the planet and is sandwiched between hiking, swimming, climbing...you name it. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? It is! If you aren’t already convinced to sign up for your NOLS course now, here are 10 more reasons that should seal the deal.

Backpack Winchester Mountain | Photo: Beau Ramsey | Find a NOLS course in the Pacific Northwest.

1. You’ll learn about human nature (and maybe make a few lifelong friends).

Yes, backpacking is a cool way to see amazing views and get in shape. But the main reason I’m so passionate about it is because, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, it strips away the BS. What does that mean? Throw a bunch of strangers together at, say, a nice restaurant in an urban center and tell them to get to know each other. People will small talk about their jobs, where they’re from, and maybe a little bit about their love lives. You’ll leave the restaurant and likely forget about everyone you met after a few hours. Throw a bunch of strangers together and make them trek through the wilderness? You will get to know those people—their innermost fears, desires, and dreams—better than you might know your close friends back home. You’ll know their vulnerabilities and their strengths. It’s incredible how quickly people's guards are forced to come down when you’re out in the field.

2. You’ll learn how to read a map.

With all the fancy GPS systems out there, it’s easy for even an avid backpacker to be wholly dependent on a machine in the backcountry. GPS systems are awesome, but it’s also a bit scary philosophically that we can’t think for ourselves anymore, and it will be actually scary when your GPS breaks down next time you’re in the field. NOLS teaches map-reading, and they’ll make sure you’re listening by assigning “LODs,” or Leaders of the Day, who are in charge of leading your group to your next campsite—all by using your own map skills.

Backpack to Death Canyon | Photo: Kathleen Morton | Find a NOLS course in Teton Valley.

3. You’ll have a true digital detox.

I would not consider myself an anxious person (in fact, most describe me as “chill”) but on NOLS, I learned that I have some anxiety I wasn’t even aware of, and that’s the anxiety that is intrinsic to today’s plugged in, post-every-picture world. On your NOLS trip, you put everything digital—phones, iPods, GPS—into a plastic container that is locked up in Lander (or wherever your trip leaves from) for the entirety of your course. Leaving the digital world is a shock to the system. On the first day, you’ll think: I can’t believe I don’t know what my family or significant other is doing right now. On the second day, you’ll think: I can’t believe I’m seeing this amazing view and can’t Instagram it. On the third day, you’ll think: I feel so relaxed and clear-headed right now that I never want to own a smart phone again. For an Instagram addict like myself, being on NOLS taught me how much being on your phone or other screens all the time affects your mind.

4. You’ll master the art of backcountry cooking.

You don’t backpack to eat fine cuisine, but the NOLS menu and cookbook is definitely the finest backcountry cuisine you’ll ever have (both sweet and savory). Goodbye, freeze-dried meals and Annie’s mac and cheese, hello to innovative and filling meals. Your NOLS instructors will surprise you with how much you can really make over a tiny flame and single pan.

Climb Divide Mountain | Photo: Jacob W. Frank | Find a NOLS course in Alaska.

5. You’ll learn how to really pack a backpack.

On departure day, you may find yourself fighting the urge to cry as your NOLS instructor says you can’t bring your 4 pound copy of the new Joyce Carol Oates book. Don’t cry. It will all be okay. NOLS knows how to pack a backpack for long expeditions and, especially with some of their new lightweight courses, their knowledge is only getting better.

6. You’ll hike off-trail.

Ah, the vast majority of us are so spoiled hiking on all of our tidily maintained trails. On most NOLS trips, you’re off-trail for at least some of your trip. Hiking off trail forces you to practice your navigation skills and takes you to seriously amazing undiscovered spots.

Backpack Torres Del Paine’s “O” Circuit | Photo: Ian Glass | Find a NOLS course in Patagonia.

7. You’ll increase your mental toughness.

It’s pouring cold rain, you’re huddled in lightning position, and it’s already starting to get dark out when you haven’t even reached your campsite. Not every moment of NOLS is sunny vistas and leisurely trekking—and that’s a good thing. Being outside for 30 days with a grueling hiking schedule can really test people. You might be cursing yourself that you ever signed up for NOLS during that rainstorm, but you’ll be a much more resilient and strong person when you get back from the field.

8. You’ll get college credit, or at least something cool to put on your resume.

Most NOLS courses offer college credit for students. All NOLS students get thoughtful evaluations and grades at the conclusion of the course. And if you’re past student age, put it on your resume. It’s an interesting outlet to talk about your passion for the outdoors, leadership skills, and work ethic.

Rock Climbing Indian Creek | Photo: Lindsay Danials | Find a NOLS course in the Southwest.

9. You’ll get the opportunity to travel to some amazing places.

NOLS is headquartered in Lander, Wyoming, a small gem of a town. Its first and signature course, Wind River Wilderness, still takes off from there. But it also has courses in the Pacific Northwest, Southwest, New Zealand, India, Mexico, Australia, and more. This is a global organization with a dizzying number of courses in places you’ve always wanted to check off your bucket list. Plus, you will get to know that area so much more intimately than you would with some boring tour guide.

10. You’ll learn the true value of being outside.

NOLS offers shorter courses, but I recommend doing a 30 day or longer trek. Why? The longer you’re out in the field, the more you learn about yourself, others, and the outdoors. Sure, you may hike and camp a lot with family or friends, and that’s great. But NOLS is an intensive, immersive outdoor experience. After 30 or more days in the field, you’ll be more confident in yourself as an outdoorsperson—and as a human being.

Backpack to Boulder Lake | Photo: Crystal Brindle | Find a NOLS course in New Zealand.

Cover photo: Jacob W. Frank

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Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.