The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is an outdoor education school dedicated to teaching environmental ethics, technical outdoor skills, wilderness medicine, risk management and judgment, and leadership on extended wilderness expeditions and in traditional classrooms.
Over 4,000 students attend expeditions around the world annually, ranging from week-long wilderness adventures to full academic year programs around the world. The week-long expeditions are especially popular for high school students and take place over summer and academic year breaks. The objective of NOLS is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment.
This review will provide a detailed analysis of this world-wide wilderness program, shedding light on its structure, eligibility criteria, costs, and more.
Additionally, this blog also contains a review of the program for high school students, and whether it is a worthwhile pre-college activity to participate in or not.
Who is eligible?
NOLS has wilderness expeditions for all age groups. This program offers expeditions that are exclusively for 14-15 year olds, 16-17 year olds, and older age groups (21+). NOLS also offers affinity courses that aim to bring together people who seek wilderness experiences and share community or kinship. Affinity courses include expeditions for women (21+), LGBTQ+ folks, girls (14-15), and people of color.
How is NOLS structured?
This program offers expeditions that range from seven-day programs to year-long programs. Each expedition involves exploring different trails across the country, typically in groups of ten. NOLS also offers wilderness medicine courses that typically run during the day, teach subjects like Wilderness First Aid and Wilderness First Responder, and provide you with a certificate upon completion.
Is NOLS prestigious?
Since its inception in 1965, NOLS has grown to become one of the largest outdoor education programs in the world. NOLS has trained more than 280,000 students, with participants from across the globe. Despite how admission into a NOLS course is not competitive and is mainly based on when applicants sign up to fill the courses, NOLS is a well-established program with centers in both Wyoming and Tanzania.
The cost of each expedition varies with duration. Weeklong programs are typically around $3000. 30-day expeditions are around $7,200 and semester-long (~3 months) programs are typically around $20,000.
NOLS offers limited need-based financial aid. Scholarships can range from a small portion to larger amounts of the course cost. It is very rare for a scholarship to exceed 50% of the listed tuition price.
Pros and Cons of The National Outdoor Leadership School
Established reputation: NOLS has a long-standing history and is recognized as a leader in outdoor education. The organization has a strong reputation for providing high-quality courses and programs. Through NOLS, you can participate in expeditions like Adirondack Backpacking and Canoeing, Wilderness Horsepacking, and Tanzania Wilderness Exploring. Additionally, you can participate in wilderness first aid and first responder training through their wilderness medicine program.
Experienced instructors: NOLS employs experienced and qualified instructors who have undergone rigorous training and possess expertise in outdoor skills, leadership, and risk management. Many instructors have extensive wilderness experience and professional certifications. Learn from Aaron Divine, a glacier mountaineering instructor for over 20 years, Aba Lara, a former military member for over 12 years, and Amy Shambarger, a wilderness emergency medicine technician with over 12 years of training.
Comprehensive curriculum: NOLS offers a wide range of courses covering various outdoor activities and leadership skills. Their curriculum typically emphasizes technical outdoor skills, environmental ethics, risk management, and leadership development.
Hands-on learning: NOLS courses provide hands-on experiential learning opportunities. Participants engage in practical skills training, group decision-making, and problem-solving exercises in real wilderness settings. A typical Adirondack backpacking and canoeing trip will entail all of these skills. For the canoeing portion, you’ll learn about paddling and loading a canoe and will explore lakes where you can see fish swimming on the bottom and beavers building dams. You’ll learn about the area’s ecology as you move from lakes and rivers to mountain ridges. During the backpacking portion, you’ll learn to navigate with a map and carry a backpack, exploring the Adirondacks’ ridges and peaks. You’ll learn about the area’s ecology as you move from lakes and rivers to mountain ridges. This immersive approach allows for active learning and skill development.
Alumni network and certifications: NOLS has a large and active alumni network, which can provide valuable connections and opportunities. Some notable alumni include Scott Kelly, American astronaut and engineer, Pete Athans, aka Mr. Everest, and Marc Randolph, co-founder of Netflix. NOLS alumni go on into a diverse field of careers but the leadership skills you gain from NOLS is an invaluable skill set that’s applicable to all fields. Additionally, certain NOLS courses offer certifications, such as Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Leave No Trace (LNT), which can enhance your outdoor skills and credentials.
High Cost: NOLS courses can be expensive, and the program fees may be a barrier for individuals with limited financial resources. In addition to the program fee, there may be additional expenses such as travel costs, gear rental, and personal equipment purchases.
Limited control over the itinerary: NOLS courses have predetermined itineraries and routes. While this provides structure and guidance, it also means that you have limited control over the specific locations, activities, and pace of the program. If you have specific preferences or desired destinations, this lack of flexibility may not align with your expectations.
Rigorous physical demands: Backpacking for a month can be physically demanding, especially if you are not accustomed to long hikes or carrying heavy loads. It requires endurance, strength, and stamina. The rigorous physical activity may cause fatigue, muscle soreness, and blisters.
High time commitment: NOLS courses typically require a significant time commitment, ranging from a few weeks to several months. This can be challenging for individuals with limited availability due to work, school, or other commitments.
Risk of injury: Outdoor activities always come with inherent risks. While wilderness programs prioritize safety, there is still a possibility of accidents or injuries, such as sprains, falls, or encounters with wildlife. Adequate preparation, knowledge of wilderness safety, and responsible behavior can mitigate these risks.
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a highly regarded organization known for its comprehensive outdoor education programs. Established over 50 years ago, this program has trained over 280,000 students to date and continues to train thousands of students each year. With experienced instructors and a strong emphasis on safety, NOLS offers a wide range of courses that focus on technical skills, leadership development, and environmental stewardship. Through hands-on experiential learning in real wilderness settings, participants gain practical skills, personal growth, and a deeper appreciation for the natural world. NOLS would be a solid option for students who demonstrate a strong passion for wilderness exploration and conservation.
While NOLS does come with a high price tag, it’s a great program and a worthwhile experience for those who are passionate about wilderness exploration. No previous experience is required but if you are looking for a more prestigious program geared towards leadership and is not as physically demanding, I would recommend looking into Boys/Girls nation.
While the program can be costly and require a significant time commitment, NOLS provides a valuable opportunity for individuals seeking to enhance their outdoor skills, develop leadership abilities, and forge connections with nature and like-minded individuals.
As someone who's gone through the college application process and is starting college at Harvard University this fall, I would not recommend this for those who are looking to bolster their college applications but are not passionate about wilderness exploration or conservation.
If you demonstrate a clear passion for conservation but not so much exploration, academically rigorous research programs like Research Science Institute and Rockefeller University’s Summer Science Research Program, opportunities where you can make an impact in conservation research, would be more effective options.
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are interested in pursuing environmental studies, ecology, and wilderness research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Jessica attends Harvard University where she studies Neuroscience and Computer Science as a Coca-Cola, Elks, and Albert Shankar Scholar. She is passionate about educational equity and hopes to one day combine this with her academic interests via social entrepreneurship. Outside of academics, she enjoys taking walks, listening to music, and running her jewelry business!
Image source: NOLS logo