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Reducing fossil fuel use is central to NOLS’ Carbon Reduction Goals and to part of the core vision of our Sustainability Initiative—to reduce consumption. This is no simple task given the heavy transportation demands of running wilderness courses in remote locations. Fortunately we’re building on 45 years of a Leave No Trace ethic, giving NOLS a strong foundation for sustainability success.

Our areas of focus include efficiencies, transportation, and renewable energy sources. Keep reading for example projects!


Our first task is to reduce overall energy use. The cleanest burning fuel is the one that’s not used. As such, energy efficiency is a priority when it comes to NOLS facilities and NOLS vehicles. We insulate, retrofit, rework, build sustainably, and whenever possible, warm ourselves in the sun.

  • NOLS Headquarters and the main building at NOLS Pacific Northwest are designed to take advantage of solar gain. High levels of insulation and carefully placed trees and window shades allow buildings to be heated and cooled without mechanical systems. Windows are made of low-emission thermo-pane glass.
  • The 2nd and 3rd floors of the Noble Hotel are equipped with thermally efficient windows that help slow heat gain during the hot summer days and slow heat loss during the cold winter days. Ceiling fans help to distribute heat in the winter and cool rooms in the summer.
  • Compact fluorescent bulbs have replaced all traditional light bulbs at NOLS Rocky Mountain, NOLS Headquarters, and the Noble Hotel. Motion sensors in strategic locations reduce unoccupied energy hogging. This saved us 15% energy in 2007.
  • Strawbale staff housing at NOLS Southwest and NOLS Patagonia require little to no heating or cooling and is built from renewable resources.


Transportation is a huge piece of running wilderness courses. Students and instructors must travel to often far-flung locations just to begin their adventures. On top of that, staff commutes to and from work and travel to meetings and conferences. A lot of that travel is air travel, which is responsible for particularly potent carbon emissions. So how does NOLS go about reducing something that is so integral to its operations?

Efficiency is the watchword for our current transportation carbon management plan, but it won’t get us to our ultimate carbon reduction goal of 80% by 2050. We continue to watch for new technologies and fuels, and budget for more efficient vehicles. In the meantime, we’re always looking for new solutions.

  • Larger buses have replaced small ones at NOLS Yukon and NOLS Rocky Mountain, reducing the number of trips and vehicles needed to transport courses. Using diesel vehicles also helps make for a more fuel efficient operation.
  • Staff members at NOLS Yukon are reimbursed if they use public transportation to travel between town and the base.
  • NOLS India is saving money and fuel by using public trains and buses to move students from Delhi to the base and from the base to the road head. Local residents on mules do all re-rations. The only vehicle that NOLS India actually owns is a scooter!

Renewable Energy:

Efficiencies are an integral part of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, but they can only take us so far. Once the light bulbs are changed and the efficient windows are installed, what’s next? Many NOLS branches are already addressing this question by installing alternative and renewable energy systems to power their buildings.

  • NOLS Patagonia uses a geo-thermal heat exchange pump to heat the building that houses the administrative offices. This system will reduce propane consumption and carbon emissions by approximately 75%. Dry firewood, an abundant local and renewable resource, is used to heat the classroom and student kitchen.
  • An array of solar panels produce 40% of NOLS Rocky Mountain’s energy needs. When energy use is minimal, energy goes back into the grid and into neighbors’ homes. RM staff has developed an interactive educational display, which illustrates solar energy production and distribution, as well as tangible take-home points. Click here to see live stats.
  • NOLS Mexico is a uniquely off-the-grid facility! It meets most of its energy needs through a solar panel array that collects energy throughout the day, which is then stored in batteries that continue to power the base at night.


Reducing fossil fuel use is central to NOLS’ Carbon Reduction Goals and to part of the core vision of our Sustainability Initiative—to reduce consumption.
Photo: Amy Rathke

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