NOLS or Outward Bound?
July 19, 2006 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I’d like to learn more about what to expect on a typical backpacking (or insert activity here) trip through organizations like NOLS or Outward Bound. I’m 30 years old and while I’m in pretty good shape I don’t have a lot of experience with long camping/backpacking/climbing trips. I’d like to join a short expedition to learn new skills and gain confidence I need to go out by myself. Besides, it just sounds fun.

1. Are these guided trips worth it? They’re pretty expensive (Outward Bound seems to be less expensive than NOLS).
2. Equipment: Should I buy or rent? Any pitfalls to avoid?
3. NOLS and Outward Bound are the only two groups I know about – are there any others worth checking into?

Any other information or anecdotes from personal experiences would be appreciated.
posted by ryanhealy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
One thing you should be clear about - these aren't exactly "guided trips". They're (with some exceptions) leadership building courses. Tough in the same way boot camp is meant to be - but without the guns! :) NOLS is primarily a skills oriented organization though - that might be where you'd have the best experience if you're looking for more of a trip/adventure. Outward Bound tends to put more emphasis on learning from peers/team work, etc.

I haven't had a chance to do a NOLS course yet, but I did do a OB course in 2001 and it was amazing - super tough, but life changing in some ways.

To answer your questions -

1. Depends... but I'm biased, so I'll say yes, absolutely!
2. Depends on the type of course. Tech gear will likely be provided, but you'll be much more comfortable in your own stuff (kinda like with ski boot rentals or bowling shoes) If you think you'll reuse it, buy it.
3. I believe there are others, but from what I've read these cater mostly to the teen audience.

One thing I'd suggest with choosing your trip - pick an ADULT trip. I was in my late 20's when I did mine, and although I signed up for an 18+ course, I was on a tiny boat for a couple weeks with 17-20 year olds... made it difficult to relate, and beleive me, teen drama is only amplified in the wilderness. Choose your course wisely!
posted by blaneyphoto at 4:38 PM on July 19, 2006

1.) Ditto blaneyphoto: These aren't "guided trips." Are they worth it? Yeah, I think so.

2.) Buy.

3.) Yes. [For kids. Personally recommended.]

It's not a "vacation" as most people define the word. Be prepared to work. Some of my experiences include lugging a canoe over a mountain, extinguishing a small forest fire, eating things I hated, and watching a kid learn the hard way that when you eat dehydrated food, it expands inside your stomach. When you get back, you're filthy and the only thing you want more than a shower and clean clothes is a pepperoni pizza or a bag of M&Ms or a similar comfort food.

Let me put it this way: I'd recommend the experience. Whether or not I would choose to repeat it...that's a different question.

If you have specific questions, post and I'll try to answer.
posted by cribcage at 4:54 PM on July 19, 2006

I am going to try to do a Jasper hike this year or next.
posted by clord at 5:11 PM on July 19, 2006

Lesson #1: Don't head off into the back country by yourself.

There are a number of companies that operate long river and canyon trips, too. Good mix of scenery, day hikes, river, camping and eating on the better trips of this kind.

Various hiking clubs in your state operate Adult hiking groups, and volunteer vacations, in which you do some group trail work. It's a great way to get involved in outdoor activities, while learning about new areas and trails from more experienced people.
posted by paulsc at 5:41 PM on July 19, 2006

You should look into Mazamas, a Portland-based mountain climbing group that leads organized hikes to the summit of tall peaks in the Northwest. They're only day trips, as far as I know, but you should be able to pick up technical skills through these guided climbs.

As for backpacking, it's just hiking plus camping. If I could figure it out how to do it when I was a weakling early --20-something with no friends interested in joining me on long treks through the woods, then you should be able to manage just fine as a 30-year-old man. Subscribe to Backpacker magazine, get a few books, surf the web. It's not that complicated.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:15 PM on July 19, 2006

Response by poster: Great responses so far. Very useful. Thanks very much.
posted by ryanhealy at 6:22 PM on July 19, 2006

I did a NOLS trip in the Indian Himalayas for a month. I can't comment of expense, since I was able to get a 'scholarship', but it did seem quite expensive, even by american standards.

My advice: if you do go on a longish trip, train in advance. I am quite slender in build, but had done extensive hiking etc, but this did not prepare me at all for the NOLS trip, mostly because we were trekking at high altitudes and needed to carry a lot of weight.

Equipment: it's your call, but if you think you will be using the equipment frequently, it might be better to buy. ALso, NOLS (maybe its only in India, I dunno) tends to sell off equipment at the end of the trip, so you might get a good deal on pretty good stuff.

Was it worth it? It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Due to the lack of training, and because I was unused to carrying so much weight, I ended up hurting my knee and had to take painkillers pretty much through out the trip. It was a year before i could go on similar trips again. But on the plus side, NOLS gave me access to some of the most beautiful places on the planet, so I reckon it was definitely worth it.

NOLS does place a lot of emphasis on leadership skills, which I personally found annoying, and it didnt help that the four leaders of this particular epedition developed, how shall I put it, 'creative differences' which didnt help matters much.
posted by dhruva at 6:45 PM on July 19, 2006

I did Outward Bound as a teenager, many years ago, and enjoyed it very much.

1. I don't know anything about hiking or backpacking or outdoor survival, so the guided trip was worth it to me. The guides taught us a lot.

2. I don't remember needing that much equipment; everything I got I bought from Adventure 16 and, while expensive, I don't think it broke the bank or anything. Outward Bound's list was pretty specific and I just bought everything right there.

Let me put it this way: I'd recommend the experience. Whether or not I would choose to repeat it...that's a different question.

That pretty much sums up my feelings. I'm really glad I did it and it was a pretty formative experience in my life and I'm proud that I completed such a challenge. I'd encourage you to do it. Unfortunately, I can't speak to how the packages targeted towards adults are, but, I did have a great time those many years ago. Golly, on mine we hiked a freakin' glacier. And then slid back down. How cool is that?
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 6:54 PM on July 19, 2006

I completed a NOLS course in the in the early 90's up in the Cascade mountains in WA state. At the time, I had next to no outdoor camping experience.

I think it was worth every penny I paid. It really takes you outside of your comfort zone at times. And it can really suck at times as well (ie. hiking ALL DAY uphill in a heavy rain downpour or hiking with blisters on your feet) . But the scenery was awesome, the skills I learned proved to be beneficial later in life, and the feeling of being able to accomplish such a challenge made this experience something that helped shape me to become the person I am now. Do it.
posted by cwarmy at 8:36 PM on July 19, 2006

I've never been to one of those courses, learned mostly by doing, and reading Backpacker. I don't see any reason not to head out on your own. Start with some overnight trips close to the trailhead while you get your gear dialed in, then move on from there.

As far as equipment, nothing wrong with renting while you figure out what you want, esp. if they will give you the rental price towards a purchase as Sport Chalet used to do. When you do buy, remember that happiness while backpacking is inversely proportional to the weight you are carrying. Weight is the number one consideration of any item you are considering, and you really don't need half as much stuff as you think.

The one exception to this rule is food. Don't bother with freeze-dried. It costs too much and tastes like crap. It most throw an item in as emergency rations because it is light, but in general bring real stuff.

Another big tip is that duct tape is way better than moleskin for blister prevention, and a hell of a lot cheaper. Put it on at the first sign of a hotspot, even if you just set out on the trail, don't wait.
posted by Manjusri at 10:00 PM on July 19, 2006

If I had to learn backpacking over I would skip the traditional method for modern ultra light techniques
posted by hortense at 11:17 PM on July 19, 2006

I would reccomend NOLS over outward bound as outward bound is more geared towards building personal strength, outward is also known as kind of boot camp for wayward youth. I went on Outward Bound (1 Month San Juan Rockies - Colorado) and loved it, and I would say it was 50% people that loved it and wanted to be there and 50% kids who their parents sent them there to shape up.

I am contemplating NOLS in the future as it is more skills-oriented and caters to an older, much enthusiastic audience.

Definitely pick an adult course if you are 30. Angsty teenagers can really spoil the outdoors.
posted by sophist at 1:27 AM on July 20, 2006

NOLS is cool, Outward Bound blows, especially if you're not an angsty teen at heart.

If you think NOLS lays it on thick at all with the leadership-skills stuff, dear lord Outward Bound is so much worse. Most other places you'll find will be local deals that don't do any of the "lets work together" stuff, but you'll want some of that if you don't know at least some of the people beforehand.

They'll tell you what stuff to bring (mostly clothing and shoes), and provide the rest (backpacks, shelter, food) and do all of the logistics work.
posted by blasdelf at 1:58 AM on July 20, 2006

I've been (kind of) an Outward Bound leader, they contracted to the company where I was a whitewater paddling instructor for the paddling portion of their North Carolina trips. Even adult OB trips are geared toward personal growth much more than to skills growth. Of course you'll learn skills, because you have to, but there's a heavy emphasis on emotions. Even if that sounds like it's for you, I have to say that the adult trips I lead for them (they were mostly rich kids and hoods in the woods trips) were pretty pathetic. The adults had all of the fear and insecurity with none of the gutsy attitude of the kids, and they were encouraged to indulge those emotions.

NOLS, on the other hand, is significantly more respected as a skills based/skills teaching outdoor program. The people I've known who were NOLS instructors knew their shit. Go ahead and take a course.
posted by OmieWise at 6:03 AM on July 20, 2006

I'm with the go-it-alone crowd. I do lots of backpacking myself (+ dogs) or with my wife -- I can't imagine going on such a trip with a big crowd of people.

I'm in normal physical shape, and have no special skills -- contrary to what some ninnies will tell you, as long as you practice a little common sense, the outdoors isn't conspiring to kill you. And if it does, what a way to go, eh?

Lots of other outdoorsy friends have done OB and NOLS, one was a NOLS leader for a few years, and all say they'd have preferred just to have gone on those trips alone or with a small group.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:28 AM on July 20, 2006

I did a week-long OB adult (30+) tailored course (with supposedly lighter packs) at 34 and thought it was very worth it. I learned outdoors-skills and faced physical and emotional challenges that were right for me. We had a small group of 6 plus 2 leaders. It was fun meeting and getting to know new people, and in some cases relying on these relative-strangers with my life. By the end of the day I was frequently exhausted, but by the end of the week, I felt as though I'd just gone through a spiritual journey.
posted by indigo4963 at 10:49 AM on July 20, 2006

oh, also, they provided all the equipment for the trip -- no need to rent or buy. And a good chance to figure out what you really need for future camping trips.
posted by indigo4963 at 10:51 AM on July 20, 2006

I also recommend finding a local organization that leads hikes and getting involved that way, rather than OB or NOLS. You're looking for something fun, and they'll give you something difficult. Some EMS retail stores run workshops or short expeditions. There are probably local outdoor groups you could get involved with, too.
It sounds like you don't feel comfortable going it alone quite yet. Ask around at EMS/REI/etc stores for info on groups to get involved with or opportunities for instruction. Also try calling your local YMCA - they have camps all over the place, and might run workshops. I think what you find through these routes will be way more suited to your style than OB or NOLS, which are intensive leadership outings.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 10:57 AM on July 20, 2006

Some more random tips:

If going solo, don't pull a Ralston. Leave a detailed itinerary with someone who can notify Search and Rescue if you are overdue. You might want to put in a couple slack days in case you miscalculate, or get delayed.

Avoid cotton in all your clothing. It absorbs water in rain, and takes a long time to dry, adding a lot of weight to your pack. It also conducts heat away from your body rapidly which can be dangerous. Cotton socks magically transform into coarse grit sandpaper. Plan on being able to wear every article of clothing you are carrying at the same time, under the most extreme weather you might face. You should have enough clothing such that in the most extreme conditions you can wear all of your clothes and your sleeping bag+bivy sack and be safe and reasonably comfortable.

Look into the bears in your destination. Will you be encountering Grizzly or Black Bears? They require very different food management techniques. Also find out if the water will require filtration.

Plan your meals relatively high in fat, it makes good backpacker fuel.

Toilet Paper is known as "mountain money" for good reason.

If you are buying a tent, get something freestanding and light as possible. I like the Black Diamond Lighthouse. Its nice to be able to pitch when no trees or stakeable ground are available. Get a Therma-Rest too.

Get a compass and altimeter watch and learn to use them for navigation. If you want to go off-trail, a gps can also be handy, although not necessary. You also want a Topographical map for your area.
posted by Manjusri at 12:35 PM on July 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

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