Ryan Jordan

NOLS & Ultralight: Part II

NOLS is conducting their first ever series of Light and Fast Backpacking Courses this summer:


We had the chance to meet the instructors and discuss gear and curriculum strategies for this course in Lander over the weekend. I went into the experience somewhat cautious, wondering what kind of obstacles within the NOLS institution we would be facing in an effort to bring lightweight philosophy into the NOLS architecture.

Imgp0586PHOTO: Issuing lightweight gear to NOLS instructors prior to a hiking trek in Wyoming’s Granite Range. Check it out: guys are looking at the gear, girls trying the clothes. Classic.

However, I left Lander very pleasantly surprised and hopeful. NOLS is very serious about not only bringing dedicated lightweight courses into their curriculum, like the one above, but also infecting the entire NOLS course program with lightweight philosophy. Many will ask the question, “will we still see 70 pound packs on NOLS courses in five years?” It’s too early to tell, but I do believe that the days of 70 pound packs at NOLS are numbered.

Imgp0619PHOTO: Ryan Jordan’s 3.0-ounce solo tarp, 3.0-ounce bivy sack, and 17.7-oz down quilt.

NOLS faces many challenges. I believe the least of them is an ideology of “more is better” that has been in their curriculum since day 1.

More practical challenges await them: it will take more time and practice for their instructors to become skilled in the use of ultralight gear in inclement conditions; the ultralight gear they select for their courses must withstand tremendous abuse, simply by the nature of their institutional setting; and NOLS is a nonprofit organization with a tight budget. They not only need gear that works, they need gear that is affordable.

What struck me most about our experience over the weekend was that NOLS is eager to change. They were not only receptive to our instruction, but they were thirsty for more – lots more. We are excited to be working with them.

Imgp0645PHOTO: NOLS instructor Mike Clelland! enjoying the freedom of an ultralight pack climbing off trail to the crest of a granite ridge.

One blog reader who commented on the last post expressed disappointment in my gear list, claiming that it was inappropriate for NOLS because it consisted mostly of prototypes. That’s exactly why I took the gear. It’s important for organizations like NOLS to see what is possible with a light pack and light gear, in spite of the fact that this gear may be wholly inappropriate for their purpose.

Such fringe ultralight demonstrations generate excitement, enthusiasm, and prove that amazing things can be accomplished with a kit that is far and away substandard to the kit they will need for an institutional setting. Bottom line: when we finished our camping experience and the NOLS instructors we were training watched us camp and hike with our “ultralight” gear, their response to the prospect of infecting NOLS culture with “lightweight” gear was simple: “Oh heck ya, we can do this!!”

Imgp0659PHOTO: NOLS instructors tried a variety of ultralight gear this weekend, including packs, shelters, and clothing from GoLite, and cooking systems from Vargo Outdoors and BackpackingLight.com.

Further, we are trying to impart a desire for absolute excellence and competence in the NOLS instructor base. The NOLS instructor that is competent at teaching lightweight backpacking will be the NOLS instructor that completely understands the limitations of ultralight gear. The best NOLS instructors will be the ones that are able to confidently impart a lightweight curriculum to their students because they will have taken ultralight gear to the edge, and experienced its failure themselves. To that end, my kit was an entirely appropriate one to show a NOLS instructor, in spite of the fact that it is an entirely inappropriate kit for a NOLS student.

Lightweight backpacking will bring a lot to NOLS, as it might bring to any outdoor educator: an increase in simplicity that deepens wilderness engagement; a shift of emphasis away from reliance on gear to reliance on self, team, and skills; and the freedom that unleashes student potential to include incredible physical accomplishments beyond just carrying a heavy pack (i.e., high mileages, peak enchainments, more opportunities for structured activities), and incredible learning opportunities arising from more sensitive neuron pathways that give rise to more intense learning under less physical and mental stress.

Imgp0662PHOTO: Debriefing at NOLS Rocky Mountain, planning the gear list requirements for NOLS Light and Fast Backpacking course this summer.

I am deeply impressed and humbled by NOLS’ desire for real institutional change, and am confident in their ability to execute what may become one of the finest lightweight backpacking curriculums available anywhere.

For some of their comments on the weekend, from a demonstration given to the NOLS staff at their headquarters office, view their blog here: