The big dogs: Outward Bound and NOLS hit their thirties

  • NOLS ice climbers

    Brian Sheedy

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, in a special issue about outdoor education: Spreading the gospel

Instructors from the National Outdoor Leadership Schools (NOLS) and Outward Bound have a running joke: "NOLS is the place where you learn to stuff everything - even your feelings - in a backpack and hike hundreds of miles. Outward Bound is a better place to go for a group cry."

The difference between outdoor education's two biggest schools is philosophical. While Outward Bound leans more toward emotional development of its students, NOLS emphasizes technical prowess. The specialties are apparent in the schools' course catalogs: In addition to the standard wilderness classes, Outward Bound offers courses for youth with motivational or behavioral problems and team-building courses for professionals. NOLS sticks to teaching wilderness skills.

But the differences are minimal compared to the similarities. The core of both programs is wilderness training. Courses teach students minimum-impact camping, food preparation, navigation and first aid, plus specific skills such as kayaking, mountaineering, sailing, dog sledding or caving. For some people, a NOLS or Outward Bound course pushes them to expect more of themselves in all endeavors. Others go home with a lifelong passion for the West's wild lands and the knowledge they need to recreate there responsibly.

Outward Bound, founded in 1961 near Marble, Colo., was the first American school of its kind. The idea originated in England. Knowing that many young sailors died at sea because they didn't have enough stamina or training, German-born educator Kurt Hahn started Outward Bound, using as its name a sailors' term which means headed out to sea. Through adventure training, he believed, young men gained the strength and maturity needed for war (HCN, 4/24/89).

Four years after Outward Bound got started in the States, Paul Petzoldt, an early instructor at Colorado's Outward Bound School, founded NOLS in Lander, Wyo. Although the school's initial purpose was to train instructors for Outward Bound, it soon gained its own reputation as a premier wilderness training school.

Today, both nonprofits have training centers all over the world. Each year, Outward Bound teaches 30,000 students in the United States, ranging in age from teenagers to septuagenarians. Worldwide, courses are based at more than 50 schools in 26 countries. Two Western schools - Colorado Outward Bound in Denver and Pacific Crest Outward Bound School in Portland, Ore. - educate about 5,000 students each year.

NOLS is more Western-based. Some 2,700 students annually attend four schools in the United States - in Wyoming, Washington, Arizona and Alaska - or international schools in Baja California, Kenya, Chile and Canada. Most NOLS courses cater to high school and college students.

Though enrollment has leveled out over the past few years, with both schools experiencing less than 5 percent growth over the past few years, neither school is in danger of going out of business. NOLS, one of the largest employers in Lander, pop. 7,000, has $12 million in assets and an annual operating budget of roughly $15 million. Outward Bound's two Western schools cost the same amount as NOLS to run, although the total operation has assets of $20 million and an annual operating budget of $39 million.

Bruce Palmer, admissions manager for NOLS, adds that the two schools may also be coming closer together in philosophy: "We're realizing that when people go home, they talk about community, not skills. So we're starting to place less emphasis on skills and more on experience."

For more information contact Outward Bound, Route 9D, R2 Box 280, Garrison, NY 10524 (914/424-4000) or NOLS, 288 Main St., Lander, WY 82520-3140 (307/332-8800).

High Country News Classifieds