6 Lessons I Did Not Expect to Learn from NOLS

By Travis Burhart

Aug 30, 2017

Pacific Northwest Backpacking
Photo by Travis Burhart.

Finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief. After hiking all morning, my NOLS expedition team and I finished ascending a peak in the McCall Gulch Cirque of the North Cascades Wilderness. I looked to the north, catching sight of Canada only miles away. Turning around, I observed the mountains to the south. Dense, snow-covered forests filled in the landscape, and I could not believe my team and I had traveled through that.

After dropping my pack and pulling out a much-needed Snickers bar, I sat on the ground as I made a feeble attempt to digest what had happened over the past few days. That week, my coursemates and I trekked in the hot sun during a twelve-hour day, bushwhacked through the forest in waist-deep snow, and gained thousands of feet in elevation to arrive at the peak where I now sat. I had no doubts that this period had been the most physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding section of the course.

Yet, what surprised me was how well-equipped I’d become to handle those challenges. My instructors helped me feel comfortable with the essential technical skills, but beyond that, I noticed an immense amount of personal growth.

Grit and resilience became the backbone of my attitude, supporting me through the long days and challenging circumstances. And my newly-found self-awareness taught me how to care for myself and better communicate my needs and feelings with my team.

As I sat on that mountain, I realized that what I expected to learn differed greatly from the lessons I had actually internalized. My instructors filled the beginning of the course with basic lessons like setting up our tents and using the camp stove. I established the expectation that the main learning at NOLS was technical skills. Ascending that peak, however, gave me the chance to marvel at how much change I noticed in myself during my time in the backcountry.

While I value the technical skills I developed, I treasure the personal development the most. While the growth and learning from NOLS will continue to manifest throughout my life, there are six main lessons I learned that I didn’t expect to.

1. You’re in control of how you react to every situation.

One of the fondest memories from my course occurred the second night of my Independent Student Group Expedition. My coursemates and I traveled and camped on top of a butte with our instructors a day ahead of us. As we began setting up camp, dark clouds approached. Pellets of hail began raining on us as we strung up tarps over our kitchen. We huddled under the tarps and started laughing. A hail storm on top of an exposed butte was not an ideal second night on our own, but we knew it wasn’t a catastrophe. Instead, I saw myself finding the fun in the situation and pride at our ability to roll with the punches.

2. Redefine what a problem is.

Living in the backcountry completely altered how I perceive problems and inconveniences. In the beginning of my course, challenges like hiking in the rain and carrying a heavy pack seemed overwhelming. It was not until I encountered more pressing issues, such as having to set up camp in an area without a reliable water source, that I began to put these problems into perspective. I realized I can deal with those inconveniences. As I transition back to the frontcountry, this remains true. Issues such as my cell phone dying or having my flight delayed would have been disasters before my course. Now, they don’t faze me as much. I trust things will work out and that I can create a solution.

3. Be solution-oriented.

In the backcountry, dealing with adversity is not an option. It is a responsibility. On the trail, my team and I once miscalculated the distance to our next campsite, underestimating it by several miles. By midafternoon, when we should have arrived at the campsite, we realized we had much more ground to cover. We had to majorly adjust our plans—we ate dinner on the trail, hiked late into the night until we found a different campsite, and used a GPS to verify our location to so we could figure out the best way to reach the actual destination the following day.

Rather than fretting over how our plan did not play out as expected, we thought through the best alternative and trusted our judgement. Before NOLS, I found myself just accepting the discomfort of having problems because I never recognized the agency I had to solve them; I now find myself quicker to craft solutions to obstacles I encounter and value completing tasks correctly the first time.

Pacific Northwest Backpacking
Photo by Travis Burhart

4. Underestimating yourself can be a default.

The first day of my course, my instructors led us on a three-mile hike to our campsite. A heavy pack compounded with elevation gain left me completely exhausted. That night, I desperately wondered how I would ever make it through the course. However, the next day, I managed to complete the hike. The day after, I did the same. This repeated until the month was over.

Even as I progressed through my course and continually proved I could navigate its challenges, I doubted myself more than I believed in myself. That mindset mirrored my life before NOLS, too. It was not until I spent that entire month beating my own expectations that I realized my potential is far greater than I’d dared to believe.

5. You can’t become resilient if you don't expose yourself to adversity and failure.

I have always disliked failure. It makes me uncomfortable, and I try to avoid it; however, I know that with failure comes growth. One day during my course, I had the responsibility of leading my coursemates to a designated campsite on our map. I familiarized myself with its location and landmarks and confidently led everyone toward the destination. Along the way, some of the team mentioned that they believed we had passed it. However, I insisted we had not reached it, leading us far beyond the campsite. Eventually, it became apparent I had led the group too far, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed.

Despite my team’s reassurance and patience, I struggled to let go of my blunder. All I needed to do was correct my mistake, learn from it, and do better next time. With the challenges I endured in the backcountry, I realized I must cultivate the ability to bounce back after failure. Creating a tolerance for adversity and uncertainty is what helped support me through the course, and I continue using that grit in my daily life.

6. Be kind to yourself.

Like underestimating myself, I recognized how harsh I could be when I felt I didn’t perform well. Another day when I led our group’s trek, I had trouble focusing on the tasks at hand, making decisions, and delegating roles to others. I struggled to remain present and motivated. Others began shifting into more supportive roles and helped facilitate the day for me. At the end of the day, all I did was focus on everything I had done poorly and never considered what I had done well.

I came to recognize how critical practicing compassion with myself is during those moments. My expedition was an exhilarating adventure of a lifetime, yet it was a challenge. However, that is why it was rewarding! Understanding how to treat myself kindly during my high and low points helped me develop a framework to grow. While I may not have anticipated so much personal growth from my expedition, it is what I value most from my time in the backcountry. NOLS taught me how to live and navigate in the wilderness, but more importantly, I gained the tools and perspective to continue navigating my life as a young adult.

See Travis’ course, Pacific Northwest Backpacking.

Written By

Travis Burhart

Travis is a geography student at Florida State University and a Pacific Northwest Backpacking and Wilderness First Aid graduate. Outside of classes, he enjoys backpacking, rock climbing, and kayaking.

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