NOLS has long been a leader in the field of outdoor education. Netflix founder Marc Randolph famously did his first NOLS course at age 14.
But why do we value it so much for our gap year and semester programs? Why do we prioritize it so early on in our global skills programs?
1. Wilderness experiences push you beyond where you thought you could go.
Every time the wilderness beats you up, you have a chance to push through. We want our students to know from day one of their gap year experience that they are capable of far more than they previously imagined. That insight serves them greatly when they get to even stranger places on the other side of world. Knowing that you have an ever greater capacity, as well as knowing your limits, are critical components of what you can learn on a NOLS course.
2. You will learn skills that save lives
During your NOLS course, you’ll get a chance to learn how to cook in the wild, how to keep your body warm, how to treat water, how to deal with intense inclement weather, how to read a map, the essentials of packing everything on your back and carrying your home, the essentials of hiking. On our gap year programs, students enter the wilderness experience having completed a Wilderness First Aid Certification, and the NOLS course is a real-life opportunity to put that experience into further practice.
3. You need to get away from your daily routine comforts to grow.
For our students to have the best gap year ever, they need to understand the relationship between comfort and learning. If your plan is to spend your gap year in as cushy an environment as possible, don’t be surprised if you learn very little. To really get a sense of how the other half lives, you need to live with the other half. Whether that’s in the wilderness, in the bustling streets of Bangkok, or the trim avenues of Western Europe, you’ll find discomfort somewhere. The more you learn to seek out that discomfort, the more prepared you are for life.
4. Your decisions have consequences.
On a NOLS course, especially on the custom programs we’ve built for our students, you’ll have the chance to make decisions with real consequences. How you inspire your fellow travelers, how you navigate the wilderness, how you respond to changes in the weather — these all matter. There is no ‘reset’ button when you’re in the wild, and your teachers will give you the chance to make real mistakes, within reason of course. But if you mismanage your group, it could mean having to walk through the dark after the sun has gone down, or waiting out in the cold. Real responsibility builds real character.
5. You will learn about your leadership style.
Everyone has their own way of doing things, especially when it comes to leading. One of the critical components of the NOLS course is how leadership training is codified and refined, so that you can learn about yourself, your strength areas as well as your weakness areas. What are the boundaries of your comfort zone, and what level of control do you insist on having over your teammates when given the leadership role? To know both ends of the spectrum is a distinct life advantage. You can imagine why the founder of Netflix sees NOLS as one of the most valuable experiences of his life.
6. Wilderness experiences create shared identity and powerful memories
When we design our gap year programs, we don’t just send students out to travel to different places around the world. We have very clear learning objectives in mind regarding skills, self-discovery, and team learning. No one should go it alone. When you begin your gap year, you’ll want to know that your friends and fellow travelers will have your back when the going gets tough. It’s not enough to know that they’ll stick with you in the good times. You never know what kinds of situations you’ll find yourself in. Having beared the wild together, you’ll know that you have others you can rely on, and can travel the world safely and confidently, knowing that each of you has earned their trust and their place in the circle.