NOLS – is ‘Leadership’ worth the expense?

I recently took a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Outdoor Education, Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. It was a 31 day course in which we were to learn outdoor skills, leadership & teamwork, environmental ethics and risk management among other things. On the last day of the course the branch manager asked us to rank our experience from a 1 to 10. I am sad to say, I gave it a 5. The course could have been amazing, and could have blown my mind. Alas, my course instructors were unable to fulfill and facilitate that learning for me. And I’m still a little bitter about it, one month later. After this time away from the experience, reflecting, I realized I learned a little about myself, but nowhere near what other experiences since have taught me. Maybe NOLS was a facilitator in this change, but it was going to happen without it regardless.

As far as the course went, we spent 20 days in the Cascade Mountains, and 10 days climbing at Smith Rock. I had never spent time in the cascades and mountaineering was new to me. Before the course I was excited to have this new skill set, and have new experiences. As soon as I got to base however, my excitement dwindled. I was under the impression that this was an ‘outdoor educator’ course, and that my course mates would be knowledgeable about the outdoors and outdoor lifestyle. My expectations were wrong, or at least off. It wasn’t that other students didn’t have a passion for the outdoors, most of them did. But their experience and interest in taking the OE course in particular seemed to stem from ‘it fit my schedule’ to ‘AmeriCorps paid for it, and I had to do something’. The drive to become an outdoor educator, at least the way I perceive the title was lacking in 70% of the students. This defiantly made the trip interesting with outdoor skill set ranging from those who had only gone backpacking once to those studying outdoor education.

I don’t want to say I hated NOLS. That’s far from the truth. I just felt like that one ‘kid’ in the group that nobody understood. I was wedged between the role of eager student, and reluctant teacher. Reluctant, because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I had a very hard time asking my instructors to teach me what I wanted to learn. We spent so much time learning the basics, that the ability for all of us to focus on more detail and awareness was impossible if not incredibly taxing. I helped teach knowledge I had and then was criticized by instructors for not taking over and showing off. I taught many of my co-students valuable knowledge, but because I was helping them perform instead of demonstrating high performance myself, my skills were noted as insufficient.

I found my course incredibly frustrating above all. I learned a bit about leadership, but the hard skills (at least in the climbing section) were not new to me. Perhaps it’s my fault for taking a course where I have experience, but if that were the case I would have expected the NOLS administration to direct me to another course. The reviews my instructor gave me during the course pointed out where I could improve in terms of attitude, but in no way told me what I was lacking in skill-set and leadership, or how to fulfill the NOLS learning standards sufficiently. As such my final review was poor, and the grade a shock. I felt that I had improved in all the sections I was told I was lacking, and yet, I still failed in many areas.

Overall I suppose I’m just disappointed. I tried to be outgoing, ask for feedback, and help teach others.  I took this course for graduate level credit from the University of Utah, and perhaps my mentality and expectations were beyond what was appropriate. I have outdoor awareness and skill, and I believe this knowledge was harmful in the way I was perceived by the instructors. I think my fellow students valued my input, and yet my teachers struggled to see what help I needed to become a better leader. And it’s all about leadership in the outdoors isn’t it?

Was it worth the money? That has yet to be seen. I took it for credit, so I’m still in the process of writing papers. The poor course grade is making me lean towards no. Was it worth the emotional stress? Probably not. I haven’t been this upset about something that I could have had more control over in years, if ever. Worth the leadership experience? Yes. I had the chance to teach others, and lead our group through unknown terrain. That’s something you don’t get the chance to do everyday. Would I do it again? Defiantly not. Would I recommend NOLS? Only to someone new to the outdoors and taking a course in a field where they had a completely blank slate.

I didn’t learn all I’d hoped for. I’m excited to continue my research for the graduate papers. I’m hoping that the connections I make and things learn through my research will make up for my less than mediocre NOLS course experience. I’m hoping with this article I can set most of it behind me. I’ve learned some things about myself, and the education system. If you’re looking for greatness, you have to find it yourself. Seek it from the realists and experts. And you must always come without any expectations.

About vanizzle17

Climber and Adventure Therapist.
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11 Responses to NOLS – is ‘Leadership’ worth the expense?

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’m probably going to take a NOLS course (Backpacking and Rock Climbing) in the fall of this year. I was going to take an Outdoor Educator Course, or even just a climbing course, but I can’t because I’m leading trips of my own and my schedule is wonky. I’ve been an OE for almost 6 years. I’ve climbed indoor a bunch and outdoor a couple times. I’m looking forward to learning climbing and orienteering skills…and whatever else I’ll learn on course. I was nervous about how I and my skill set will fit into my group. Your post is super helpful because I can’t seem to find a lot of reviews on the interwebs. Thanks again WMB

    • Andrew Blash says:

      You need to understand, they operate in their own world. They are not motivated by leadership but by cash flow. There are other companies that are better. Nols also has not a drop of respect or care for the US constitution or State Constitutions – -READ THEIR CONTRACT before you sign in with them

  2. kathryn chandler says:

    kathryn chandler.
    My daughter and I attended the 14 day lightweight backpacking course last September. We left on day 6. I have previously completed Outward bound courses and a BOSS 14 day primitive field course in the past. Not easy but amazing. NOLS was a great disappointment. First off there was 15 of us! I learned later that if one more had signed on, we would have broken into 2 groups which is much more intimate and productive.
    The food they had us pack at base camp was a mess of animal cookies, cliff bars, snickers bars and goldfish. Great for kindergarten, terrible for adults covering 5 to 10 miles a day. My daughter became so constipated by this “food” that we were eventually evacuated out due to the possibility of her becoming septic. There was not a vegetable in sight and the leaders didn’t seem too interested in helping me identify anything in nature that might help her. Their “med kit’ only contained some pep. gismo tablets! From what I gather, constipation is a regular problem on these courses. Another girl in our group had to leave for the same reason. I, on the other hand left with my daughter AND with a case of poison oak that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Pregnizone shots anyone? For some reason on night four we were made to set up our camp and kitchen station on a massive field of this crap. I called attention to this but the guide did nothing about it. We could have very easily changed spots since it was still light out. The evening meals are bags of quick grains with massive spice added to it. Chunks of cheese and little jugs of… oil? All in all it was a disaster. I should have known something was askew when I first noticed that two of the three guides were (sorry guys but) on the chunky side. Maybe I was spoiled by my BOSS survival course guides who had us literally live off nature while hiking through it. Maybe I expected too much here. But I do not recommend this company to anyone. Regardless of the fact that it is probably one of the most expensive ones out there. By the way, Greg our third leader was a different breed. He was in tune with us and with nature and totally on the ball. They need more of him! Outward Bound is awesome. BOSS is awesome. NOLS never again.

  3. Melissa Goldsmith says:

    Is there a ‘course’ or backpacking adventure company that you do recommend for adults outside of NOLS?

    • kathryn chandler says:

      I think outdoor bound has some great mixed courses involving backpacking and BOSS was incredible if you are truly up to the challenge. Definitely do your BOSS research.

  4. Cody says:

    Will BOSS credits apply to some good college credits that I don’t have to jump through hoops to get them to transfer? Also, as a young military man, can I use my GI Bill to be able to take courses?

  5. Jake says:

    Definitely is spelled definitely, not defiantly, they are two different words

  6. Patty Fasbender says:

    I applied for a position with NOLS as a Wilderness Medical instructor – (with a masters in education and a paramedic license,) I was told that I was hired on with approx. 20 others and we were to be trained for 10 days at their location at my expense. At the end of the 10 days several were told that they weren’t a “Good fit”, others offered employment but at 50% rate of compensation that was offered to us in the accepting email. I found some of their instructors to be arrogant, conceited and quite obnoxious in their training techniques (we are the world leader in outdoor skills) but actual outdoor knowledge, they were lacking) Not what I expected at all – walked away and will never endorse.

  7. Andrew Blash says:

    Salus populi suprema (est) lex

    In this review, I can assess NOLS from a point of a man who has taken, classes since 1986 in this field, and more training via kayaking schools, mountain survival schools and other trainings – including the university. Though I have enjoyed several of their classes I found this:

    The first problem with NOLS is that they may have a class with 50 people and two instructors.

    The Second is that they mix people in their advanced classes with people who have no prior training

    The third problem is they have no oversight in the form a 3rd person: it hard to say how they allow this but it comes down to money and time.

    Solutions are: for a class of 50, they need a 3rd person. This as well helps in American Society which is a low context society, which is ( as we can see in the news) is akin to skullduggery The American Red Cross understands this and other outfits.

    Next Solution, is they never mix experienced people with those with none. It slows the class down.

    Next, they need an instructor that has acumen, life experience and some kind of background in cultural studies, psychology and sociology- something near this.

    Other Outfits do this

    1) You read the manual a before you come to the class
    2) You watch a video
    3)They will place people based on their prior experience
    4) They will have 3 people in a class of 50
    5) They will address the people in the class as those who paid and not people they feel are allowed in
    6) They well seek truth and wellbeing for the class and prove this by the steps above.

    It is important to review the class background, the instructors and number of people in a the class. Just don’t take a class with name attached to it in the US it is Caveat emptor

    NOLS is money making outfit. You need to understand they are business and seek their ends. They have a rather unhealthy, as usual, bureaucratic structure, who has a leadership that can be found in these words.

    “Whether the mask is labeled fascism, democracy, or dictatorship of the proletariat, our great adversary remains the apparatus–the bureaucracy, the police, the military ( Business). Not the one facing us across the frontier of the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers’ enemy, but the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this apparatus and to trample underfoot, in its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.”
    Simone Weil

    The leadership has no moral here: Mellisa Grey is example, no courage, no spirit – just a entity that has no meaning or baring an apparatchik.

  8. Cody Johnson says:

    I have an interest in learning outdoor skills, and combining that with my masters in social work. Would all of you have any recommendations about whether it would be worth taking courses to eventually lead to wilderness therapy programs? Or do you think it would be a waste, as I would learn while I just worked in the field?


  9. sophiemntr says:

    When you “teach” the class a skill, is that something you learn during the trip or something you knew previously? I don’t like teaching, so that is my only concern. (And that I suck at maps and directions)

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