Risk Management in the Outdoors: Beyond the NOLS Course

By Logan Claytor

Mar 16, 2016

Sea Kayaking in Scandinavia 
Photo by Cass Colman. 

At NOLS, we believe in the value of spending time in wild places. We also know there is risk involved in what we do. We strive to practice and teach thoughtful risk management that emphasizes the health and well-being of our students and staff, and have for over 50 years.

At NOLS Risk Services, we draw on this expertise to support other programs that work, play, and travel in remote environments around the world. Our goal is to help organizations think critically about the risks their programs face and then manage those risks responsibly.


For example, Middlebury College employs about 150 student instructors who lead about 600 students on an outdoor orientation trip every year. Through an in-person consultation with NOLS, Middlebury identified and executed improvements with their field emergency communication and their process for selecting student instructors.

They mentioned that our service was helpful because NOLS “had suggestions for refinement and improvement rather than wholesale change.”

Derek Doucet, Middlebury’s director of outdoor programs and club sports, took a NOLS Fall Semester in the Rockies in 1992, so he knew NOLS was a leader in risk management in the outdoors. Even then, he said that he and his team researched other options first, but found that NOLS’ reputation speaks for itself. 

mauricio-clauzet-nols-alaska-camp-mountain Photo by Mauricio Clauzet.

“We had really high expectations of NOLS, and those expectations were met or exceeded,” said Doucet. He continued, “It was wonderful. We were both gratified with the really positive feedback and, just as we had hoped, we got some good constructive feedback to improve our program.”

Through this process, Middlebury learned that risk management isn’t a checklist of items you can address and forget; it is a culture and a habit that has to be woven through every part of an organization. It is an active process of both working to reduce the likelihood of a serious incident AND taking a realistic look at your current systems to deal with incidents when they do arise.

NOLS Risk Services offers both consulting services and trainings designed to help organizations identify strengths and gaps in their existing risk management systems, including scenario-based emergency response training, guided creation of custom risk management plans, program reviews, and much more.

Read more about how risk management benefits outdoor organizations in this conversation with NOLS senior risk management consultant Katie Baum Mettenbrink.

By Logan Claytor, Admission Officer, and Sarah Zimmerman, PR and Marketing Intern

Editor's note: Post updated 6/7/18

Written By

Logan Claytor

Logan is an Admission Officer and grad of the Semester in East Africa course in 2015.

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