NOLS: The National Outdoor Leadership School

The History


"The mission of the National Outdoor Leadership School is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment." - NOLS Mission Statement

Sixteen year old Peter Petzoldt realized the importance of proper expedition training and preparation after a near death experience on his 1924 ascent of Wyoming's Grand Teton. Soon after, Petzoldt began to develop and perfect numerous mountaineering techniques. In the early 1930s he founded the Petzoldt-Exum School of American Mountaineering, the first mountaineering school in America.

Petzoldt became very involved with Outward Bound during the 1960s. He helped establish the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) in 1963 and soon became the school's mountaineering adviser. When Petzoldt became the school's Chief Instructor in 1964, he identified 3 major needs of COBS. There was a need to expose the participants to "challenges inherent in a wilderness experience," a need for "quality instructors that would meet his standards as outdoor leaders," and a need for a "program that would meet the interests of those Outward Bound graduates who wanted to progress to greater levels on outdoor skill" (p. 85).

Petzoldt wrote to Josh Miner (founder of Outward Bound America) in 1964, expressing his desire to create an Outward Bound Leadership school for "the students who have finished a course in another Outward Bound school and who, then, are ready to profit by the training that we could give them to make them real outdoor leaders for their communities or, if [Miner] wished, for other Outward Bound schools in the future" (p. 85). Because Outward Bound was developing other American schools at the time, the Leadership school was never created.

Undeterred, Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership Schools (NOLS) in 1965 "to develop and teach wilderness skills and techniques; to develop and teach wilderness use that encourages minimal environmental impact; [and] to develop and teach outdoor leaders" (p. 86). The first NOLS class departed for the Wind River Range on June 8, 1965.

This first summer was very successful and NOLS expanded rapidly over the next five years. Courses for women, younger students (ages 13-15), and coed groups were added in the late 1960s. NOLS has continued to grow over the past 40 years, adding more course specific training, the Wilderness Medical Institute, and Professional Training to it's curriculum. There are currently 14 NOLS course locations around the world including Mexico, Alaska, Idaho, the North Cascades, Patagonia, the Yukon, Australia, and India. Today NOLS educates more than 3,000 students every year and has graduated more than 120,000 students since its first course in 1965.

NOLS courses operate with a commitment to the following values:

  • Wilderness
  • Education
  • Leadership
  • Safety
  • Community
  • Excellence

1. National Outdoor Leadership School-
2. Miles, J., Priest, S. (1990). Adventure Education. Venture Publishing, State College, PA.

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