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NOLS

Why choose NOLS?

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.

Reviews

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KJ
5/5
Yes, I recommend this program
Program:
NOLS Alaska

Great program

My daughter participated in this program in 2021. We bought the tuition insurance recommended by NOLS through AON. She unfortunately had an injury and needed evacuation. The evacuation was not too expensive as she did not need medical eval and flew out on a puppy helicopter. But 1/3 of her trip was cancelled. The AON insurance was a joke. I am still trying to get them to pay out the claim for her lost tuition . The policy was titled "Tuition reimbursment insurance" and AON had the audacity to say it does not cover tuition reimbursement, read the fine print! Unreal! DO NOT BUY AON insurance!
Here is the benefits listed on the policy and they will not pay!
Benefit Maximum Benefit Amount/Principal Sum
Part A – Travel Arrangement Protection
Trip Interruption .................................. 100% of Total Tuition
Travel Delay (up to $150 per day) ................................ $300
Baggage Delay ............................................................. $300
Part B – Travel Insurance Benefits
Accidental Death & Dismemberment ....................... $10,000
Emergency Medical Evacuation and
Repatriation of Remains…… ................................. $100,000

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Sarah
1/5
No, I don't recommend this program
Program:
NOLS Alaska

Means girls and not worth the cost

I’d like to leave this review as a reference for anyone considering going on the two week women’s Alaska course. I hope I can give you a better idea of what my experience was like, so you can make an informed decision about if this course would be a good fit.

I had a really negative experience on the two week women’s Alaska course during the summer of 2022 (7/24-8/6). If you decide to take a NOLS course and go by yourself, I’d personally recommend not paying more than a couple thousand dollars for a course, and not take a course that’s longer than a week - that way if it ends up being a bad experience you can cut your losses.

On the two week women’s Alaska course, there was an issue with mean girls, specifically bullying. In groups of women, bullying commonly takes the form of gossiping and excluding others from the group. The instructors on the course did nothing to address this, and at no point in time even talked with the group about what NOLS policy is towards bullying/harassment. Looking back now, that was really bizarre, especially considering we were all strangers and didn’t know each other - this topic really should have been addressed.

One person in the course decided to gossip and say mean things about me to others in the group. Two of the instructors in the group realized the drama that was happening, and instead of addressing the group and reminding everyone that NOLS has a no bullying/harassment policy - they decided to instead gossip about the drama as well. Right in front of me. These two instructors were in their early/mid 20s and I guess didn’t have the emotional intelligence to understand that when a person in the group is being excluded and gossiped about, what you should not do is add to the gossip. It felt like I was in a sick reality TV show. In my normal life, the gossip and exclusion wouldn’t have bothered me that much and I could have just walked away from the toxic behavior. But because we were in a remote wilderness environment, there was a tribal element added to the dynamics, and being accepted by the group was subconsciously associated with survival.

The person doing the bullying/harassment went by they/them pronouns. The instructors had more than one conversation with the group about making sure we all try to get this person’s pronouns correctly. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But what I do have a problem with is the fact that there were no conversations during the course about NOLS having a zero bullying/harassment policy. Something doesn’t seem right about that.

Also, if you are neurodivergent or on the spectrum in any way I would recommend you not go on a traditional NOLS backpacking course. My experience was that the traditional backpacking course curriculum was not suited for my neurodivergence at all. My quietness was seen as ineptitude during parts of the course curriculum, and I was shamed and humiliated for being who I am as a neurodivergent person. It felt like there was this toxic environment on the course where loudness and aggressive/bullying behavior was viewed as competency and confidence. That’s not appropriate at all.

Additionally, I’d like to call out inappropriate behavior that happened in an insular environment with no accountability - one of the instructors acted completely inappropriately. In addition to gossiping about me with another instructor, she publicly read out my private feedback form, not respecting any kind of confidentiality. I hope NOLS can remind instructors that feedback forms are private and need to be kept confidential.

Another thing to note if you are considering going on this course - remember that anything can happen. Halfway through the course one of the women fell down a crevasse and fell a long way. When it wasn’t clear what state this woman was in, one of the instructors went down to try and help the woman, ended up getting hurt herself, and needed to be evacuated. There wasn’t an open weather window right away so it took a couple days for the plane to come in and do the evacuation. Keep in mind that if you take this course and get hurt, NOLS won’t pay for your evacuation unless you are an instructor - so before you commit to going, make sure you have money budgeted out in addition to the cost of the course - because anything can happen in a remote location only accessible by bush plane - and you just never know.

I would also recommend bringing your own garmin, and budgeting extra money for one, if you do decide to go. There was a point on the course where no one in my hiking group for the day had a garmin when we actually needed it (because the only garmin was in one of the instructor’s packs which was left at the bottom of a crevasse after she fell). Rescue gear had to be flown in to get the pack, where the garmin was located, out of the bottom of the crevasse. So bring your own garmin just to be safe, and if the instructors/organization try to tell you that’s not allowed, I would seriously rethink going on this course.

Looking back on this experience, it was not worth the cost. I regret spending several thousands of dollars on this course. If you do decide to take a NOLS course, maybe bring a friend with you in case group/instructor dynamics aren’t healthy or helpful for you. Two of the older women on the course went together as friends, and even then at the end of the course, one of the older women started crying during the group feedback session when she was talking about how scary the route selection was for the course. Which makes sense since two people fell, and the one instructor had to be evacuated.

I wish NOLS could have also given the option to complete feedback forms online after the course was finished - that way I could have given feedback knowing it was confidential, when I had time to decompress, and felt safe to give candid feedback outside of the unsafe and unhealthy group dynamics on the course.

Cons
  • Unsafe route selection
  • Bullying behavior
  • Not worth the cost
Response from NOLS

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with NOLS. We take all feedback seriously and invite you to reach out to us so we may look into this further. We can be reached at (800) 710-6657. NOLS reviews reports and feedback after courses. We are committed to learning and providing high-quality training and experiences for all our students.

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Todd
2/5
No, I don't recommend this program

Would Not Recommend

My son did the 30 day mountaineering course outside of Lander Wyoming in July of 2023. He was hoping to receive serious training in climbing and mountaineering. He was massively disappointed in the trip for a variety of reasons.
1. Poor screening of participants: one of the girls struggled with the hiking, and had to be evacuated by the group. She was clearly not prepared and had no concept of the demands. The evac had serious implications on the course routing, and severely impacted the climbing curriculum for the rest of the group. A problem that could have easily been solved by some early screening activities.
2. While weather (and evacs) negatively impacted the trip, NOLS apparently uses caloric restriction as a tool… not exactly sure what the intent of that is, but my 145 lb 6 foot tall son lost 14 pounds on the trip and was constantly hungry… obviously difficult to feed a bunch of teenagers, but a third food drop should have been organized. Not healthy for a growing teenager to lose 10% body weight.
3. My sons goal was to focus on mountaineering skills. He received a lot of lectures on how land ownership is inherently wrong, toxic masculinity, and pronouns. It seems like NOLS has gravitated more to politics and not just climbing. Ironically there was no hesitation to let my son carry a 72 pound pack (above weight normalized load expectations) but then complained about toxic masculinity. Politics aside, disappointing that the content was not purely hiking/climbing oriented.
4. Pricing: The course changed price by something like $600 several months after we signed up… seemed somewhat disingenuous. Then we got a $10 bill for damage to a group tent rental due to wind damage. Silly nickel and diming.
Our son left NOLS, went to Switzerland and paid a guide $3500 for a week of climbing… Matterhorn, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. Learned 10x the mountaineering skills for half the price. For a $6k course this NOLS course offers little value. If you’re into hiking and casual camping and talk about politics, probably a good course. If you are looking for true backcountry skills, NOLS is not the place to go.

Pros
  • Did meet some good friends
Cons
  • More politics than climbing
Response from NOLS

Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with NOLS. We take all feedback seriously and invite you to reach out to us so we may look into this further. We can be reached at (800) 710-6657. We are committed to providing high-quality training and experiences for all our students.

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Maria
5/5
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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robert
1/5
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.

Programs

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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.
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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

Program
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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