NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School Home

7- to 30-day Outcome-based Curriculum

Photos: Caitlin Buttor, Tracy Baynes, and Cara Rudio

The NOLS’ curriculum provides a shared language and real time experience for examining personal leadership skills and improving team performance. Research shows the skills most valued by NOLS participants years after their courses are as applicable in the boardroom as they are in the backcountry.

The NOLS’ curriculum is designed holistically. To get to the top of a mountain, down a river, or across a wilderness requires competence in myriad technical skills, awareness of ones’ environment, risk management skills and leadership skills.

A recent student-outcome study completed by the University of Utah investigated which skills remained useful to participants one to ten years after their courses using open-ended questions.* With respect to leadership, participants said a NOLS education was most critical, in the following order, in development of their abilities to:

  • Function effectively under difficult circumstances
  • Serve in a leadership role
  • Be self-confident
  • Work as a team member
  • Plan and organize
  • Identify my strengths and weaknesses
  • Get along with different types of people
  • Make informed and thoughtful decisions
  • Manage conflicts with others
  • Be patient
  • Communicate effectively

In summary, the NOLS curriculum is designed to develop more resilient, confident leaders who work better in teams. A NOLS education makes those leaders better able to plan and make decisions, remain self-aware and communicate effectively.


In the business environment this leads to better mission orientation, a clearer vision, better alignment among team members, more effective decision-making and ultimately a healthier bottom line. In today’s stormy business world, resilience is a critical leadership skill—and that happens to be the very skill participants self-identified most commonly as coming from their NOLS education.


Leadership and Teamwork
Participants are exposed to the theory and practice of expedition behavior, teamwork, and outdoor leadership. NOLS teaches situational leadership, which demands different decision-making styles depending on task urgency and the importance of group buy-in. At NOLS, expedition behavior involves commitment to the group, acceptance of others, and cooperation to achieve goals.

Risk Management
NOLS teaches wilderness users to practice responsible habits that promote the health and safety of self and others. At NOLS, the recognition and management of the inherent risks and hazards of living and traveling in remote wild areas is taught and practiced on every course. NOLS is committed to promoting a positive learning environment and physical and emotional well being for all students.

Wilderness Skills
NOLS students learn to camp and travel in wilderness areas, which demands learning a variety of skills, including camping, cooking, navigation and skills specific to the environment such as sea kayaking, whitewater boating, skiing or climbing. Our courses are wilderness expeditions, wherein lessons are immediate, lasting, and applicable to your life—no matter what you do.

Environmental Studies
Depending on course length, participants may be exposed to the climate, geology, plants, animals and ecological interactions that make their course area unique. Participants will explore Leave No Trace ethics and develop skills that protect the environment. They may also learn about land management policies and discuss how all of the above transfers to life at home.

The NOLS curriculum is rich in metaphor, facilitating the learning of skills applicable throughout a lifetime!

* Sibthorp, J.; Paisley, K.; Furman, N.; Gookin, J. (2009). Long-term impacts attributed to participation in adventure education: Preliminary findings from NOLS. Research in Outdoor Education, V.9 (in press).

In addition to leadership abilities, participants said NOLS was critical to the development of their:

  • Personal perspective on how life can be simpler
  • Desire to be in the outdoors
  • Appreciation of nature
  • Ability to take care of oneself and one’s needs

Working together in a high performing team is one expected outcome of NOLS Professional Training wilderness expeditions.

Photo: Tracy Baynes

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