NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that will help you step forward boldly as a leader.

We believe that anyone can be a leader; it's our role to provide the environment and training to help you discover your full potential. We do that in classrooms close to home and in remote wilderness areas around the world.

We're an organization with heart, expertise, and wildness, and these qualities help us support powerful, authentic experiences.

Our mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment. Our community—staff, students, trustees, and alumni—shares a commitment to the wilderness, education, leadership, safety, community, and excellence.


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Yes, I recommend this program

Changed My Life

If you are reading this, GO FOR IT! When I arrived in Lander, WY for the Spring Semester in the Rockies (SSR) course, I’d never even owned a backpack before—I was straight out of NYC, lived my entire life in NYC, and the only wilderness I knew, was Central Park. With the guidance and extreme patience and knowledge of the instructors, I learned to be completely comfortable, and even enjoy, living in the wilderness. Most of all, I learned to appreciate the power of the natural world, and become a steward. This experience set the path for the rest of my life. I went on to graduate college the next semester, and straight into (what would become) career as a civil servant in the national parks. Before taking this course, I didn’t know we had national parks. I always look back fondly on the memories and experiences I had with NOLS.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
Everything was unfamiliar! Wearing a backpack, camping, skis, sleeping in snow caves! hiking, climbing, caving, kayaking. It was ALL unfamiliar. Open mind is very important.
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No, I don't recommend this program

Insensitive bullying instructors

Though I love the outdoors, my young son with anxiety issues was bullied and humiliated by NOLS in the field until he was essentially forced out of the course after one month. The NOLS administrators swore to us they had trained, capable instructors in the field who could properly work with students with emotional issues. They lied. The lead instructor, a woman, was a bully who allowed our son to be harassed and humiliated, and then she and NOLS tried to cover up her abuses by shading the truth in their favor and never admitting to ANY faults. In the isolation of the field, there was no one our son could turn to for help and counsel when the lead instructor was the greatest source of his problem.
If you are seriously considering seeing your child to an outdoor course, why take a chance? I would strongly suggest taking NOLS off your list and looking at Outward Bound or an overseas service school instead; that is, if you want your child to have the best overall, and safe, experience.

What would you improve about this program?
Hire instructors who not only are knowledgeable of the field and protecting the environment, but also are truly capable of working with students of all types and demeanors once NOLS HQ has admitted them to the course. Bullying and Harassment, and coverups, should never be allowed. If NOLS and NOLS New Zealand would have owned up to their failures and taken proper accountability, I would probably not be so harsh in my review.
Response from NOLS

Thank you for taking the time to provide feedback on your adult son’s recent experience with NOLS. Your feedback provides the school and our instructors a learning opportunity. Respect and rapport are at the heart of all NOLS Expeditions. NOLS believes in fostering an inclusive course culture and our staff focuses on creating a positive learning environment for all of our students. Our instructors work extensively to support our students in the field and in rare circumstances, a student may find themselves unable to complete a course. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts on your son’s experience with NOLS.

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Yes, I recommend this program

Incredible Experience

If you're looking to be challenged, both physically and mentally, then this program is for you. I came into this trip without any prior hiking or backpacking experience and the instructors were very helpful in showing me the ropes and supporting me when I was struggling. I also really enjoyed the education part of the course. We had classes almost everyday on kiswalhili, the environment, or leadership, which were interesting and informative. We also had members of the Massai tribe hiking with us for most of the trip, so we really got an understanding about that culture. Making it to the summit of Kilimanjaro gave me such a feeling of accomplishment and was definitely worth all of the blood, sweat, and tears. If you're wanting to learn more about yourself, as well as be immersed in another culture, then I would highly recommend this program. I've made friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

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Yes, I recommend this program

The best trip of my life

The semester that I spent with NOLS was by far the most meaningful, impactful trip that I've ever taken in my entire life. The students and instructors were great fun, the lessons were interesting, and the landscape was unreal. One of my fondest memories from my semester was watching the full moon rise on a cloudless night, while sitting in my kayak in the middle of Nydia Bay, singing Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" in my head, meanwhile our "pod" was surrounded by hundreds of glowing moon jellyfish.

What would you improve about this program?
Already perfect the way it is
Yes, I recommend this program
NOLS India

Fall Semester In India 2016

My NOLS experience was nothing short of phenomenal. My favorite part of every day was waking up in the mornings. It might seem strange, but I can explain. There is something magical about waking up in the Himilayas. It's a place none of my friends or family have been, it's a place that from my comfortable life in Kansas City, Missouri, seemed so far away and out of reach. To wake up there every single morning was amazing. I woke up under a shelter of trees, I woke up covered in sand from the beach, I woke up to the rushing water in the Kali river, I woke up after a comfy nights rest in a generous villager's house, I woke up in my stinky sleeping bag in a tent with 3 other stinky people and every second of it was perfect. To top it off, I woke up with a sense of purpose. Every. Single. Day. Every day I had a goal that was realistic and that I was proud to accomplish before I went to bed at night. I was challenged physically and walked distances I didn't know I could. I helped local families in their fields, took part in their livelihood. I helped them. I helped them, but they helped me more. They helped me in a way that is hard to put into words. I set SMART goals and actually follow through, I see people differently than I did before - gently and with positive intent, and I have a confidence and craving for adventure that can't be tamed.

What would you improve about this program?


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Sarah Engstrom

Sarah was born under a wandering star. She grew up in Wyoming, studied Russian at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and is now in graduate school for Outdoor and Environmental Education in Alaska. She has traveled all over the world, and loves to watercolor and play board games.

Why did you pick this program?

I grew up in Wyoming, the birthplace of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I knew from a very young age that I wanted a NOLS adventure, but the timing never worked out until 2013. I had just finished a year working at an environmental learning center in Minnesota, and I wanted to explore outdoor education more in depth.

The Semester for the Outdoor Educator not only offered the NOLS experience I had heard about my whole life, but it was further professional development in my career as an educator.

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

I think I was very well prepared by NOLS for their experience. I might have planned to rent more of my gear for the trek from their store, but I also wanted to try out my personal supplies.

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

I am capable. I can lead, and build shelter, and THRIVE in adverse situations.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Dare to fail gloriously. Everyone owes it to themselves to experience new cultures and places, because doing so forces you to examine what you know, and what you believe.

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

All NOLS courses are removed from civilization, because that is their whole premise. I Loved that aspect. Even when it meant long stretches without contacting the people I love. The course itself was grueling, I have never worked so hard in my life. I would do it again tomorrow if I could.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

Part of my course was rock climbing. I don't have a problem with heights usually, but something about this sport terrifies me. I was determined that if I learned more about it from experts I might find a way to love it. Every day, I forced myself to climb at least one pitch. I belayed anyone who needed it. I learned knots and how to build anchors.

On the last day of the climbing section, I went on a multi-pitch climb. I was so scared that I almost threw up, but I did it! I still don't love rock climbing, but I know I can do it.

What made this experience unique and special?

My expedition group is amazing. They all came from such diverse backgrounds and experiences. I still talk to them all the time.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

The last night of our winter camping portion We skied 10 miles in the moonlight to our pickup point. We watched the sunrise over Togwatee pass, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Focus on the now. Leave your phone off. Try something new every chance you get.

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?

I thought going in that I wanted to be a NOLS instructor. I don't think I do anymore. It was so magical to be a participant, I am glad that I can treasure that feeling, without the added stress of managing it for others. I discovered what kind of person I am, and how she needs the outdoors in her life, without it BEING her life.

You know what made every single part of my NOLS trip better?

Bringing chocolate. And baby wipes.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

John Bussey

Job Title
Hiking Instructor and Program Director
John is a NOLS hiking instructor and the program director at YMCA Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wisconsin. He grew up in the Middle East and spent the year in between high school and college working with youth and climbing in South America. He believes he would almost certainly have a boring job behind a desk somewhere if not for that year in between high school and college.

What position do you hold at NOLS and why do you like working there?

I’m a hiking course leader; I love fly-fishing in the Wind River Range. Honestly, there is not much better in the world.

How does your organization differ from other ones in the industry?

The best thing that NOLS has going for it is it’s staffing model. By offering a course a year to those who are able to work, NOLS keeps its most experienced staff in the organization and assures that instructors are fresh every time they head into the field. Seriously, the staff who teach NOLS courses are the best in the world and are excited to be doing what they’re doing.

What is one common misconception about taking a gap year?

A major misconception is that gap years set you back in some way. This is absolutely untrue. It allows you space to actually think about what college will do for you. I had so many friends in college who were unfocused and ended up wasting time figuring out what they wanted to get out of school. Gap years virtually assure that you don’t waste time.

Professional Associations

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