Our History

Credit: NOLS Archives

Our Story

Our school began in a small cabin in Sinks Canyon, Wyoming in 1965 as the National Outdoor Leadership School. At that time, we were primarily an outdoors skills school, doing our work in local mountain ranges and exploring what it meant to teach leadership in the backcountry. Today, we are NOLS, a multifaceted wilderness school that supports thousands of students each year all over the world.

For us, it’s always been about how well we can serve our students. In the beginning, our founder Paul Petzoldt dreamt of nurturing leaders who knew how to live responsibly in the wilderness and teach others to do the same. One way we’ve evolved to better accomplish that has been by offering more diverse courses and trainings. We focus on teaching leadership in many contexts, from leading during a medical emergency to leading during a wilderness expedition, and from training company executives to helping our industry as a whole better manage risk in the wilderness.

Our story since 1965 is one of resilience and determination, passion and pushing the limits of our expertise. We are thriving today because of the grit we developed by necessity in our early years. We invented outdoor gear when it didn’t exist, recovered from financial struggles that could have sunk the school, handled the loss and celebrated the return of our provocative founder, and reflected and learned when one of our community experienced loss or injury in the wilderness.

We’re also thriving because of the way our school has diversified and grown over the years. The wild forms the core of every aspect of the school, and the interrelationship of our various parts makes us stronger. NOLS Wilderness Medicine, founded as the Wilderness Medicine Institute, was instrumental in promoting and elevating the quality of wilderness medicine in the field's early days. It has enabled our wilderness medicine curriculum to be constantly tested and improved in the outdoors and has led us to improved practices. Our years of managing risk for our own programs has become part of the expertise we share through risk management consulting and a yearly conference that promotes dialogue about risk in the industry. Being able to offer customized courses, in turn, has enabled us to reach larger audiences and test ways to keep our leadership curriculum relevant in many environments.

Today, our students are learning on oceans and in classrooms, in rivers and in conference rooms. Our curriculum resonates as much with a student just beginning high school as it does with an astronaut, entrepreneur, or outdoor program director; and each of these students shows us new ways to view and teach leadership.

As we strive to support growth in our students and continue to grow as leaders ourselves, we work together to leverage the strengths of each part of the school. We will continue to step forward boldly into the wild, no matter what that wild looks like, and help the world’s future leaders do the same.

The NOLS History Book

A Worthy Expedition: The History of NOLS  begins with the story of NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt and tells the story of the school through its challenging formative years, its successes and explorations of new wild places, and the stories of the people at the heart of the school.

NOLS Timeline

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2010-2020

Locations opened:
NOLS Wyss Campus, a place designed for our growing wilderness medicine courses (Lander, Wyoming).
NOLS East Africa (Arusha, Tanzania)

Locations closed:
NOLS Amazon 

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2016

NOLS completes a two-year branding initiative. This includes redesign of visual and voice elements, website, logo, as well as renaming of NOLS pillars:

NOLS Custom Education (formerly NOLS Professional Training)
NOLS Wilderness Medicine  (formerly NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute, or WMI)
NOLS Risk Services (formerly NOLS Risk Management Services)​
NOLS Expeditions

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2015

NOLS celebrates the 25th anniversary of WMI and the 50th anniversary of NOLS as an organization, remembering our history and preparing for the future.

Graduates of wilderness medicine courses begin receiving certifications electronically, increasing student service while saving the school thousands of dollars and hours.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2013

NOLS designs, develops, and leads Expedition Denali, the first all-African American team to attempt to climb Denali (Mt. McKinley), the United States’ highest peak at 20,320 feet. Learn more about Expedition Denali and the film telling their story, An American Ascent, here.

The Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus earns LEED Platinum certification.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2012

NOLS opens the Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus in Red Canyon outside of Lander, WY.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2011

NOLS starts Gateway Partnerships and fellowship programs, initiatives that aim to provide education and pathways of access to underserved populations.

NOLS opens NOLS Northeast in the Adirondacks.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2010

NOLS signs an agreement with REI to deliver wilderness medicine courses through REI Outdoor Schools and markets throughout the United States.

NOLS enters into a 20-year agreement with the Government Services Administration to facilitate course delivery to federal agencies.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2000-2010

Locations opened:
NOLS Scandinavia (Katterjakk, Sweden)
NOLS Amazon (Amazon Basin, Brazil)

NOLS Australia (Broome, West Australia)
NOLS New Zealand (Aniseed Valley, South Island)

Locations closed:
NOLS Kenya

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2007

WMI and Landmark Learning partner, expanding NOLS’ course offerings in the southeastern United States.

NOLS launches our new sustainability initiative, with the goal of creating a comprehensive, long-term plan to reduce the school’s global environmental footprint.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2006

Students head out for the first Year in Patagonia course, the first ever yearlong program in outdoor education.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2005

NOLS celebrates our 40th anniversary and receives the Better Business Bureau’s Torch Award for our fair, honest and ethical business practices.

NOLS began offering courses that combine wilderness medicine training in an expedition format.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  2002

WMI moves its staff and offices from Pitkin, CO to NOLS Headquarters in Lander, WY.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png 1980-1999

Locations opened:
NOLS Teton Valley (Driggs, Idaho)
NOLS Southwest (Tucson, Arizona)
NOLS Patagonia (Coyhaique, Chile)
NOLS India (Ranikhet, India)
NOLS Yukon (Whitehorse, Yukon Territory)

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1999

Thelma Young, beloved NOLS equipment seamstress and the longest tenured NOLS employee, dies at the age of 69.

Paul Petzoldt, founder of NOLS, dies at the age of 91.

NOLS purchases the Wilderness Medicine Institute, Inc. (WMI), now NOLS Wilderness Medicine , to better serve students by broadening educational opportunities and expanding its geographic reach.

NOLS launches NOLS Professional Training, now NOLS Custom Education, to provide customized experiences to our audience, including NASA astronauts, MBA programs, and other non-profits.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1998

NOLS conducts its first formal review of an outdoor program’s risk management practices, which eventually leads to other risk management offerings and the launch of NOLS Risk Management Services, now NOLS Risk Services. Earlier pro bono reviews of peer programs and participation in the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) accreditation process paved the way for this development.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1995

Joanne Hurley becomes the first woman to be named Chair of the NOLS Board of Trustees.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1994

NOLS coordinates the first Wilderness Risk Management Conference at NOLS Pacific Northwest in Conway, WA.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1991

NOLS runs the first Leave No Trace (LNT) course in the Wind River Range near Lander. We collaborate with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service to develop the curriculum for these courses. This curriculum is now internationally known and used.

NOLS starts the Department of Public Policy, later named Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, to help maintain the integrity of and access to wild places.

NOLS Wilderness First Aid by Tod Schimelpfenig and Linda Lindsey, now NOLS Wilderness Medicine, is first published.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1990

The Wilderness Medicine Institute, Inc. (WMI) is founded by Melissa Gray and Buck Tilton in Pitkin, CO. WMI runs three courses with 83 students.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1987

Soft Paths, by instructor Bruce Hampton and researcher David Cole, is published. The book was NOLS’ definitive statement on backcountry conservation and minimum impact practices. It was later adapted into several popular educational videos.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1986

The first computers are installed in the NOLS international administrative offices at the Noble Hotel in Lander.

NOLS hosts its first alumni reunion.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1984

The Instructor Development Fund is established to help instructors seek further development in leadership and outdoor skills.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1980

Joan Chitiea becomes the first woman elected to NOLS Board of Trustees. University of Utah and NOLS form a partnership to offer students academic credit.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1970-1979

Locations opened:
NOLS Kenya (Naro Moru, Kenya)

NOLS Alaska (Palmer, Alaska)
NOLS Pacific Northwest (Conway, Washington)
NOLS Mexico (Coyote Bay, Baja California)
NOLS Tennessee

Locations closed:
NOLS Tennessee

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1979

NOLS offers its first course in wilderness first aid, called Backcountry Emergency Care.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1975

Petzoldt is removed as executive director and named senior advisor. The NOLS Instructor Association (NIA) forms in response and to advocate for instructor interests.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1974

NOLS is the first in the outdoor industry to run a semester-length outdoor education expedition.

The Wilderness Handbook, written by Paul Petzoldt, is published. This was the first NOLS publication for national distribution.

The first edition of the NOLS Cookery is published. This was the first NOLS publication for public distribution.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1970

Alcoa Hour presents “Thirty Days to Survival,” a television show that got the word about NOLS out to a wider audience.

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1965-1969

Locations opened:
NOLS Rocky Mountain (Lander, Wyoming)

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1966

The first women enrolled on NOLS courses.

College credit became available to students.

Thelma Young is hired as a seamstress to make equipment and clothing that was not available commercially. She invented tents, wind shirts, sleeping bags, and more that provided the basis for many innovations in outdoor gear, and that NOLS still uses today!

field-note-arrow-small-mud.png  1965

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is founded in Lander, Wyoming by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt.

Our first course sets out from Sinks Canyon wearing Army surplus wool clothes, carrying heavy external frame backpacks, and ready for the challenges awaiting them.

Photos | Courtesy of the NOLS Archives