| If there’s one piece of NOLS clothing that
has been on every equipment list, it’s the
NOLS windpants - those baggy, sometimes zippered
creations that hold up against just about anything.
And with that endearing back patch, it’s hard
to imagine anything more recognizably NOLS.
Paul Petzoldt and genius seamstress Thelma Young
developed the first NOLS windpants using rip stop
nylon. Those first prototypes were green, shapeless,
and slippery enough on snow to give students some
Thelma and a crew of seamstresses did the sewing
in-house until the late 1970s. NOLS then started
experimented with various commercial options. In
the mid-1980s, several NOLS locations returned to
using their own designs made at local sewing houses.
At that point, windpants made a series of evolutionary
leaps as instructors migrated around, selecting the
best features from each local design.
Amazingly, the folks doing the designing and ordering
didn’t realize they were making history, so
the exact date the now-familiar NOLS windpants first
went out on a course is lost. But by the late ‘80s,
the rip stop nylon was gone in favor of water-resistant
ripstop nylon reinforced with cordura patches. Cinch
ties at the ankles were replaced with zippers, and
given the large numbers of people headed into the
wilderness, the bright colors were toned down.
NOLS has made an estimated 20,000 pairs of its signature
windpants. There have been some experiments with
color, and NOLS Alaska ensures diversity in the design
pool with a mutant form featuring a pocket on the
front of the thigh and extra long zippers running
to above the knee, but it is the traditional side
pocket, green on green NOLS windpants that remain
Given that NOLS windpants rarely have the most flattering
fit and probably aren’t truly high fashion,
their enduring popularity is a bit of a mystery.
But in a time when bells, whistles, and a brand name
count for so much, perhaps these simple, sturdy windpants
stand out precisely because they get the job done
without fanfare. Perhaps it is their very anti-style
that gives them such quiet cachet.