The National Outdoor Leadership School teaches students important life lessons through nature

Charlotte DeForrest

The sunrise casts a crimson shadow over the Wind River Range. The mountains loom in the sky and the clumping of boots ring rhythmically through the silence. Sophomore Caroline Reidy is up before the sun, experiencing the Wyoming mountains and lakes while learning to survive in the wilderness as a member of the National Outdoor Leadership Program (NOLS). 

Sophomore Caroline Reidy ascends the Wind River Range mountains while learning to survive alone in the wilderness. Photo courtesy of Caroline Reidy.

NOLS is a nonprofit organization that teaches outdoor survival, hiking, backpacking, wilderness medicine and leadership skills to students on outdoor expeditions. The expeditions range in length from one week to a year and take place in remote locations throughout the world. 

Rob Motley, a NOLS alumni and employee, claims that the goal of the program is to teach students self reliance, leadership and wilderness skills. 

“If they can lead their peers through terrain that doesn’t have any set trails, it really develops their confidence in themselves and their decision making abilities,” Motley said. 

For many students, the challenges are mental as well as physical. 

“Learning how to work with strangers in stressful situations and learning how you react to stressful situations is incredibly important. Developing grit to be able to persevere through stressful situations and gaining level headedness is so important for everyday life,” Motley said.

This summer, Caroline Reidy was one of the many Redwood students traveling with NOLS. Reidy spent 14 days hiking over 65 miles in Wind River Range, Wyoming. She was introduced to the program through her summer camp, Camp Kiniya, which she has attended for the past five years.

Reidy’s favorite part of the trip was making connections with the other girls in her group. 

“Having such a strong sense of community and having so many girls around you who really care about you and support you made me feel really connected to everything around me. It was amazing,” Reidy said. 

Reidy believes the trip was overall a positive experience, although it did not come without challenges. 

“It was probably the most pain I’d felt in my entire life. It hailed the entire day and I got frostbite on my toes. [My toes] came back after three days, but they were black. It was not fun. There was a lot of crying and a little bit of sweat. But, it was great,” Reidy added. 

Reidy claims that these challenges have helped her learn to be tenacious and take challenges 30 seconds at a time. 

Fishing for dinner, Reidy experiences the wilderness as a NOLS student. Photo courtesy of Caroline Reidy.

“It translates to not necessarily physical challenges in everyday life, but mental challenges. If I feel like I can’t study, I’ll just keep going for as long as I can, and it helps me persevere through hard times,” Reidy claimed. 

Another student who spent the summer with NOLS in Wyoming was Lucas Tress, a junior and member of Marin Search and Rescue. Tress believes that the experience has enabled him to be confident surviving in the wilderness alone. The expedition also taught him how to use technical skills applicable to Search and Rescue and developed his ability to successfully lead groups of strangers.

“[During school] the team building, teamwork and leadership side of NOLS comes more into play if you’re working in a group. I definitely learned how to deal with someone you’re not working well with better on my trip and what to do to overcome that,” Tress said.

Rachel Mueller, another junior, spent two weeks backpacking in Idaho with NOLS. Like Reidy and Tress, Mueller found NOLS to be a rewarding experience. 

“I had never been camping before, so it was a very new experience. But they made it feel really safe and it really, really pushed me. I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done mentally,” Mueller said. 

Like other NOLS Alumni, Mueller claims the course helped her develop skills she uses everyday. 

“I’m not surviving in the backcountry everyday, but [it taught me] to have confidence in my decisions and become more decisive. You have to make decisions on the course and a lot of times they are the wrong one, but you end up being creative to find solutions,” Mueller said.

Although the expedition was full of challenges, both Reidy and Mueller claim that they hope to travel with NOLS again. 

Reidy urges anyone who wants to learn about themselves and gain many important life skills to try NOLS.

“Do [NOLS] 100 percent.  It’s the best thing you’ll ever do, but the hardest,” Reidy said.