In January of 2013, sitting in a WFR recertification course in Lander, I decided on a whim to apply for an Instructor Course with the National Outdoor Leadership School. Although I had a solid outdoor resume under my belt at that time, my experience doing ‘extreme adventure’ activities was still rather low. But I figured I had nothing to lose, I’d apply and see what they said. Much to my surprise, a few months later, I received an acceptance packet and a scholarship to cover half the tuition. I was already heading into a big life transition that summer, but I knew this was not the type of opportunity you turn down. I walked away from a great job on no guarantee I could come back when the course was over, to spend a month hiking in the Wind Rivers and climbing in Wyoming. That’s a story for another time, though.
I spent a few summers after working summer courses while I was in graduate school, and I am so grateful for the people and experiences I came across during these courses. Even brief summer courses with NOLS are unique largely because of the extended time spent in the backcountry. Although I had been on numerous personal and work-related backpacking trips, I had never spent more than a week or so consecutively in the backcountry because of the need to restock and refuel. A human is limited to only carrying so much in their backpack. But on a classic NOLS backpacking course, you have the resources to go out and STAY out for 30 days straight, with rerations packed in to meet you rather than your group having to leave the backcountry to replace food and fuel.
It’s hard to capture the difference this makes in so many ways. It changes the feeling of remoteness, the sense of adventure, self-sufficiency, disconnection from our technology-reliant world, connection with nature and the small group of expeditioners who make up your course. Believe me when I say it is not easy. Leaving those you love behind to spend a month in the woods with a group of strangers can feel extremely isolating at times. 30 days of zero contact was probably the hardest part of working these courses for me. If the weather sucks or a piece of gear fails, you have to push through and figure out how to fix it. Minor injuries are addressed, managed, and monitored. But those challenges create incredible opportunities for growth. At the end of a course, looking back having pushed through the adversity really does build character. Having completed my own Instructor Course and then worked courses, each time I return feeling more capable as an outdoorswoman but more importantly as a person in general. The challenges of daily work and life become more palatable when you remember you’ve willingly left the comforts of home to journey – physically and emotionally – in beautiful places.
Many people spend months on the trail if they choose to complete a thru-hike, or a major expedition. In most of these instances, as they are self-sustained, they must depart the arms of the wilderness to reenter society dirty and smelly to restock and refuel. Only the lucky few can say they went out and stayed out for a whole month; no showers, no phone calls, no internet or electricity. Just what you can carry in your backpack (arguably too much, NOLS packs are infamously heavy), wild-eyed optimism, and a sense of adventure.