National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

Outside the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

Select any title to view the full question and replies.

  • My 16 yr old son is interested in the outdoors and we are looking into NOLS and OB trips during the summer.  I've heard a lot of good things about both, with friends who they themselves, or their kids, have gone on trips over the years.

    Both OB and NOLS trips are whitewater rafting/climbing for about 2 weeks. The NOLS trip will likely have 15 participants (ages of 16-20, with average age 18) with 5 instructors, but the OB trip will only have 7 kids with 2 instructors but limited to ages 16-17 yrs.  My understanding so far is that OB trips focus on self development and leadership skills, whereas the NOLS trips focus on the outdoor activity skills, with developing confidence and leadership as an added benefit from participation in the activity. 

    In searching online, I found some very old posts (didn't specify if it was OB or NOLs) where people reported a lack of supervision (with kids going off to smoke pot or have sex) on these sorts of trips, which seems hard to imagine with the adult/kid ratio they advertise. I also read that for OB, there were "at risk kids" going who had delinquency problems and were sent on the trips as a last resort, but problems with behavior and serious conflicts with kids occurred during the course, kids ended up dropping out, etc.  Others wrote about having had some great experiences with both NOLS and OB.

    I'm leaning toward the NOLS trip because I think that with the larger group, even though not limited to 16/17 yr old, and more instructors, there will be more opportunities for a positive social experiences. and I think my son would prefer it to be focused on skill development in rafting/kayaking, rather than purposefully focusing on self development and being put in challenging situations to build character and leadership.  He has lot of grit and is highly motivated with respect to outdoor sport, although would benefit from leadership development.

    Wondering if anyone here has any experience with these programs, either with kids having gone to them or having gone themselves.


    This might be too long ago to be relevant but when I was a teenager - 20 years ago - I attended an OB one summer as a freshman and when I was a junior, a NOLS course. Both were great experiences from my perspective. The OB course in the Colorado mountains was more self reflection/ general backcountry travel, including a one day solo and an endurance run. The NOLS course was in British Columbia's Wadding range and involved extensive glacier travel. It was a much more technical course and an amazing experience to explore remote terrain. My sister attend a NOLS course too, in Alaska's Brooks range, and also had similar experiences. 

    I would recommend the NOLS course, if you had to choose one, based on my own experiences and your descriptions of what your son is interested in. It will be a remarkable experience!

    Hi my daughter did a 4 week NOLS trip 3 summers ago that was 2.5 weeks backpacking and 1.5 weeks rafting and loved it. One of those life-changing experiences that she will never forget. The program is all about leadership development through challenging activities and that is what you get. But it's the kind of experience where you learn leadership skills without really being focused on that. My daughter is a high level soccer player and has done quite a bit of hiking and climbing in Colorado and she was very physically challenged by the course. It is not something you just sign up for - they screen kids to make sure they can handle the physicality of the program. I cannot recommend it enough.

Parent Reviews

Parents, Sign in to post a review on this page.

We sent our 15 year old son on a NOLS backpacking trip in Wyoming and I absolutely can't say enough good things about them.  It was truly transformative for him - changed all of our lives really.  Looks like their youngest program is 14 so maybe keep them in mind for the future.

Our son also did a program with Spencer and he is great - I'm not sure what he is offering now.

This program also was highly recommended to us

Lastly - try getting in touch with the folks who run this program - I think they might know other options:

Archived Q&A and Reviews

March 2010

I am looking for discussion about NOLES courses- which my son wants to do during his GAP year. He wants to do rock climbing, back packing and kayaking. W

It is NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership School. It is top notch and rigorous beyond Outward Bound. On the pack trips, people carry 70 pounds on some trips. I have heard their Kenya program is great. I have taken their Wilderness First Responder class. It was a great course and I shared the class with Yosemite guides, raft guides and a guide for Nepal trips. Your teen would have a very active time and would come out with some great skills. kl

Hi, I did a NOLS course when i was 17. I did the semester in Kenya which included hiking Mt. Kenya, spending time with he Maasai while hiking through eh Rift Valley, and then ending with time sailing off the coast of Lamu. It was an amazing experience, and if i could afford to send my own teen i would! Without a doubt! We followed a curriculum, and i took advantage of the opportunity to receive college credit for certain ''courses''. So, i'm not sure what particular questions you had, but you are welcome to contact me further if you would like. Your son will learn skills and become more confident being a leader. cris b

I believe you are asking about NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Wyoming, with outdoor leadership courses all over the world. My daughter took a semester-long, Western USA class after finishing college and financed the $12,000 on her own, with 1/3 scholarship, 1/3 loan and 1/3 cash she had saved. She loved most of the course, but the last two weeks snow and camping at 20 degrees below 0, Fahrenheit, in quigloos they built for themselves was a little intense. Everyone had to be very disciplined about daily life to stay safe. She felt that most of the students in the course were economically privileged and not used to being on their own. Most were financed by their families. A friend of one person in her group air-dropped ice-cream to the whole group, after a long day's climb. NOLS does a very professional and structured program. The kids are safe and well cared for. They do amazing things in the outdoors and go to amazing places, though not entirely remote ones. This could be a good gap program, depending on your young person's interests, skills and discipline. Graduates of the semester leadership program can get jobs with camps and outdoor tour groups. Our daughter thought she wanted to pursue this sort of career, but changed her mind after the course. - Glad she did it

Nov 2009

Re: Kayak, canoe or rafting summer programs
My daughter had a fantastic life-changing 4 weeks kayaking around southern Alaska with NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) last summer. They learn so much more than just kayaking. See Anna

April 2007

Re: 14-y-o has no social life, mostly TV & video games
I really feel for you and your son, and I know there are not any easy solutions. However, I just wanted to comment on one thing you mentioned in your posting: ''One of his therapists strongly recommended NOLS but the kid refuses to go.'' I am a graduate of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School). NOLS is specifically *not* a place for a troubled teen. Instead, it is a place for (in their words) ''highly motivated students''. It is an outdoor wilderness skills and leadership development program. Teens can attend, but it is very important that they want to be there and participate willingly, or they could jeopardize the safety of the rest of the group. NOLS is intended for the type of person who reads their catalog and *begs* their parents to send them to NOLS! - NOLS Wind River Wilderness graduate