I’m looking down the long dinner table at a rifugio (mountain hut) in the Dolomites with my childhood friends mixed with new NOLS friends. As I sit, I'm reflecting on what it took to get my friends here. We're happy, and enjoying our time together in these Italian mountains.
Contrast that with a moment earlier that day: Our hiking group took a break and I spied one of my childhood friends lying prone on his back, giving me two thumbs up. But I was worrying that he was questioning his decision to go on this trip.
While NOLS Alumni trips are the perfect way to connect friends and family to the wilderness and everything else you love about NOLS, going on a NOLS trip can be a culture shock, different from any typical “vacation.”
As of this writing, I’ve been on four alumni trips and taken a total of five friends on two of them. In the process, I’ve learned some lessons (through trial and error) that can help you select, prepare, and travel with your “non-wilderness” friends to have their (and your) best NOLS alumni adventure.
Part 1: Before Deciding to Go
The reality is that, although we would love all of our friends and family to have a NOLS experience, there are only a subset who would truly enjoy it. Here are a few ways to figure out the difference.
Match the trip to your friends
The alumni trips pages do a good job of offering details about the trip, including an intensity rating. As you talk with your friends, try to get a sense of their expectations and how well they connect with the trip. There is a world of difference between “trip” and “vacation”—especially if your crew mistakes one for the other.
If you need more information, give the NOLS Alumni office a call or email and ask their opinion.
Introduce expedition behavior now
For any NOLS alumni, expedition behavior (EB) is the air we breathe. We don't think about it when it’s present, and it's all we can think about when it’s absent. For most people, though, it's not something they think about with their vacations. In fact, some people (understandably) want their trips to be places to “get away” from humanity, indulge themselves, and certainly not have to think about others.
Any NOLS trip will have moments where monitoring oneself and the group’s basic needs becomes part of the enjoyment and fun. By introducing the concept of EB early, you can help new folks understand that it's part of going on this trip and critical to its success.
Organize a “shakedown” trip, if possible
If your friends are newb to wilderness travel, baby step them into the wilderness, especially if you're choosing a more challenging alumni trip.
Over the years, I’ve organized different wilderness canoe trips for three of my friends as preparation for an alumni trip. These excursions allowed me to get them acquainted with transferable skills and knowledge, such as clothing layering systems, organizing camp, and even some basic map skills. It also gives you a “target-rich opportunity” for EB moments.
Part 2: Preparing for the Trip
Once you have your crew, the NOLS experience starts. How they show up with you at the trailhead is a function of helping them get prepped before the trip.
Conduct a trip meeting before buying gear
Walk through the course description and the gear list with your friends. Talk through the rationale of what is on the list and why it’s on the list. Do your best to clarify what they will need, and what they won’t (and that they need less than they think).
Walk through your friend's gear with them
Once they have their gear, practice using it with them (especially the critical things like footwear). My NOLS experience has taught me to bring a range of gear options and that I’ll make packing decisions when I get there.
Recognize that you will feel responsible for your friends' enjoyment and safety
No matter how much you prep your friends and family for the trip, you still intuitively understand that you are better prepared for the trip. Because of this, you will find yourself watching to see how they are doing: Are they smiling? Are they limping? Using the bathroom regularly?
As trite as it sounds, balance is the key here. There are places where you being a friend can be helpful for their comfort and enjoyment. And remember that there are still course instructors on the trip whose responsibility it is to keep everyone healthy and enjoying their time, and let them do their job.
Part 3: During the Trip
As mentioned above, you might feel like you are wearing many hats once out on the trail with your crew—that’s ok. Think of it as an opportunity to take your leadership to the next level.
Hike with your friends, and hike without them
For me, part of an alumni trip is experiencing a new part of the world or a new activity. The other part is the joy of meeting a new group of people who will be part of the expedition and learning about them. Give yourself permission to hike with everyone. This will allow your friends to do the same.
Check in every day
Because you will feel responsible for them (see above), do a quick check-in every day. How are they doing? Energy, physiology, psychology, etc. It's helpful for you to be the proactive person here—being your “friend on the trip” can actually limit their willingness to speak up when they have a blister or a muscle pull. You starting the conversation opens the door for them to talk about challenges and successes.
Keep Practicing EB
Remember the EB “expectation-setting” discussion you had prior to the trip? Whether it’s hiking uphill all day (and in the rain) or finding out that the “waterproof” pack cover they brought really isn’t (see gear walkthrough above), there are going to be moments when the veneer of the frontcountry wears away. Well-intentioned and good-hearted human beings can show up otherwise when they are wiped physically and emotionally. Setting up the importance of EB before the trip allows you to make it easier to signal to them what you see. You can offer a question like, “How’s your hydration?” or statement like “Grab a snack” (and, yes, how you say those things matters).
It’s an invitation for them to do a quick self-inventory and figure out how to get what they need, even if what they need is just to be more self-conscious or self-caring.
Remember to have your trip, too
Finally, with everything I’ve mentioned above, remember that you are having your own adventure! On my past trips, I still found my own rhythm, set my own goals, and took optional day trips separate from my friends to make sure this happened.
We're now home and settled again post-trip, and I’m sitting in that above-referenced friend’s living room (who was flat on his back when we saw him earlier). With his spouse, we're going through photos, telling stories, and re-living moments, much of the conversation laced with laughter.
This is one of my favorite parts of a backcountry trip: the return. We’ve all had the experience of coming back from a trip and sharing stories with friends. There is a special joy of coming back and sharing stories as a way to relive those moments with those who were there with you. It changes your frontcountry life and your friends’ lives. It deepens friendships. It opens up the possibility of a new friend or new backcountry spot the next time.
As much as I treasure all of my NOLS experiences, my alumni trips have given me a special opportunity to bring the people I love to the places love. I encourage you to do the same.
Kyle Courtaway is a partner at NinthEdge Inc., a leadership development firm based in Chicago, IL. He’s a graduate of the Yukon Outdoor Educator Backpacking and River in 2001 and Pacific Northwest Mountaineering in 2003 as well as four alumni trips. Little did he know that it would all just be training to keep up with his 6-year-old son, Elijah.