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In a League Of Their Own

Somewhere between shouts of "Duct tape!" and "Sterno!" things got out of hand, and Robert's Rules of Order were nowhere to be found.

It started as a polite, well-behaved gathering of the BACKPACKER editors, the goal being to think our way through the past 25 years (it is our silver anniversary, you know) and come up with a short list of the people, ideas, and inventions that have most profoundly influenced the wilderness experience. We should have known better, though, because after all, you'd be hard pressed to find people more passionate (and stubborn) about such things. But persevere we did, and after many a rousing round of suggestions offered up in good cheer ("Internal frames!" "Jimmy Carter!" "Velcro!" "'s your mother...") we eventually narrowed it down to the nine you see here.

Which, we realize, will lead some casual observers to raise an eyebrow and ask, "Only nine?" After all, in the past quarter-century an enormous number of people, organizations, and inventions have changed where and how we hike. Granted. But we were after the BIGGEST achievements and achievers, the backcountry equivalents of Microsoft and Ted Turner. To find them, we subjected the 35 initial nominees to the following criteria:

  • Must have had a direct, significant, and positive impact on the state of backpacking during the past 25 years.
  • Must have been unique and represented a leap in logic or design or accomplishment, not simply an incremental improvement. In other words, big, giant steps-no tiny little baby steps.
  • Must have had national or global impact.
  • Without it, the wilderness would be a less enjoyable place.

So we offer congratulations to the winners, and to everyone who has worked for the betterment of outdoor recreation the past 25 years. But before getting to the individual accolades, here's a thought to ponder: What are you going to do to qualify for Backpacker's Golden Service Awards in 2023? That's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Common traits shared by all the winners (except the one with gills) include a love of the outdoors, an attitude of always striving to do their best, and the ability to consider alternatives. These are things all of us can do. As stewards of the remaining wild lands, it's our responsibility.
-The Editors

(The other eight awards went to Edward Abbey, Leave No Trace, Colin Fletcher, Snail Darter, Gor-Tex, Sierra Club, Polartec and The North Face Oval Intention Tent.)

National Outdoor Leadership School

Outdoor Adventure With a Conscience

Imagine that 43,000 pilgrims schooled in backcountry recreation skills, wilderness conservation, and leadership are sent out among the masses to lead by passionate example. Fathom such a thing and you begin to understand the impact of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Begun in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, a jack-of-all-trades mountaineer who had helped found the Colorado Outward Bound school and testified before Congress in support of the Wilderness Act of 1964, NOLS started on pocket change but quickly became the gold standard for outdoor adventure with a conscience. NOLS courses emphasized not just skills and self-reliance, but also a responsibility toward wilderness stewardship unheard of in any program that had gone before.

"We at NOLS believe that outdoor recreationists are capable of practicing an ethic of individual responsibility toward our remaining wildlands," reads the introduction to the 1995 edition of Soft Paths, the organization's treatise on low-impact wilderness travel. "It is up to those of us who love our pristine backcountry to live this ethic and to spread its message to others. Nothing less will suffice if we want our wildlands to survive."

The first NOLS course hit the trail into Wyoming's Wind River Range in 1965, but it wasn't until a year after a 1969 PBS documentary on the school aired that NOLS experienced "nearly unmanageable growth." The Lander, Wyoming-based school's current catalog offers more than 60 options of 10-day to three-month experiential wilderness courses that address a core curriculum of safety and judgment, leadership and teamwork, outdoor skills and environmental studies. Groups of eight to 17 students travel with two to five instructors, and students range in age from 14 to 75, the median being 20. Specialized classes include offerings for 14 to 15 year olds, for women only, and curricula tailored for outdoor educators.

But it's the students themselves who most clearly embody how NOLS is shaping our outdoor world. The alumni newsletter is brimming with testimonials from graduates professing how their experience in Idaho or Kenya or Patagonia prompted them to pursue a career in natural resource conservation or found a nonprofit, wilderness-based education program for troubled teens. Others state simply that their NOLS experiences inspired them to become more mindful, responsible citizens.

"I certainly learned that I can do anything if I decide that's what I need to do," attests Dawson Winch, Backpacker's assistant marketing manager and a 1983 NOLS graduate. "I can dig deep and get that little extra bit thanks in large part to my NOLS experience."

"NOLS grads have really infiltrated what has gone on in the wilderness," says Rich Brame, the school's outreach manager. "They've moved into every walk of life, and they all take a piece of NOLS with them." The world could use a lot more of that kind of influence. -Michele Morris

"We at NOLS believe that outdoor recreationists are capable of practicing an ethic of individual responsibility. Nothing less will suffice if we want our wildlands to survive."

Reproduced with written permission from BACKPACKER magazine, April 1998, © Rodale Press, Inc. The material contained herein, may not be cached, reproduced, or retransmitted without prior written permission from Rodale Press, Inc.
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