Anyone who has taken a NOLS course has heard the phrase “Expedition Behavior” repeated time and time again. Remember what it means? Helping a fellow student get through a rough day by carrying some of their weight, turning back due to bad weather, bringing your tentmate a hot drink, or keeping a smile on your face during five days of torrential rains are just a few examples of Expedition Behavior in action.
Since Paul Petzoldt coined the term in NOLS’ infancy, “Expedition Behavior” has evolved into a catchphrase—and an even shorter acronym, “EB”—that carries with it endless implications. In 1965 they were just two words Paul used to explain a suite of behavioral concepts, as simple as using the word “teamwork” on a football squad. Today, expedition behavior stands as an integral part of the NOLS curriculum, describing behaviors that help a group cooperate and attain goals.
EB is taught in the backcountry, yet its principles are transferable to everyday life. Many instructors consider EB to be one of the most important lessons a NOLS student can learn. “Learning expedition behavior is so important,” says NOLS Instructor Nate Hintze, “being able to live with a group of people 24/7 and to get along even when you have a bad day.”
Paul Petzoldt included a 17-page chapter entitled “Expedition Behavior” in his 1974 The Wilderness Handbook. This chapter, which defines and contextualizes the phrase, remains the seminal work on the topic. Paul writes, “After a few days away from civilization, everyone starts to change. Values change. The veneer, the bluffing, artificiality, and crutch of family wealth or prestige are no longer valid in the natural environment of camping. Suddenly, people must make their place in a new society based upon what they can actually do and what they really are.”
Through the 1970s, the phrase “Expedition Behavior” was in regular use at NOLS. In 1971, it appeared in written NOLS evaluations and curriculum outlines. Through practice and creativity, EB became a mantra by which the NOLS community operated.
In 1996, the NOLS Leadership Education Project drafted the following definition as seen on NOLS expeditions:
- Serve the mission and goals of the group.
- Be as concerned for others as you are for yourself.
- Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
- Support leadership and growth in everyone.
- Respect the cultures you contact.
- Be kind and open-hearted.
- Do your share and stay organized.
- Help others, but don't routinely do their work.
- Model integrity by being honest and accountable.
- Admit and correct your mistakes.
NOLS teaches and lives Expedition Behavior in the backcountry, in our professional lives and with our families. Since 1965, the high ideals of NOLS EB have been relevant, enduring and perhaps some of the most powerful contributions the school has made to education and society.
Acknowledgements: thanks to the many alumni from the 1960’s and 1970’s at NOLS’ recent 40th birthday party who contributed to this article.