Top 10 Best Gap Year Programs for Outdoor Enthusiasts


Sep 27, 2023

More and more high school students just like you are choosing to take a gap year before starting college. But as you prepare to embark on this transformative journey, there's a crucial question that demands contemplation: What makes the best gap year programs?

kirk-rasmussen-group-river-happyPhoto by Kirk Rasmussen

The best gap year program is not one-size-fits-all; it's a tailor-made opportunity that aligns with your interests, values, and ambitions. So, as you dive into the world of gap year possibilities, remember that the path you choose should resonate with you.

Whether you are committed to traveling to a different country and immersing yourself in the local culture, developing your wilderness skills among the unexplored landscapes of the United States backcountry, or expanding your knowledge of Leave No Trace principles through hands-on environmental lessons, NOLS has a gap year program for you.

Key Takeaways

  • Outdoor-focused gap year programs offer personal growth and adventure
  • Hands-on learning, personal development, cultural immersion, and environmental stewardship are key aspects of top gap year programs
  • Gain valuable experiences and even earn academic credit with NOLS gap year programs

What Makes The Best Gap Year Programs?

First and foremost, the best gap year program for you is one that aligns with your goals and interests. When sifting through the countless gap year programs out there, it's important to recognize that what may constitute the perfect fit for one person could be entirely different from what constitutes the best gap year for you. 

For some, the location of the program is the most important feature. For others, being able to earn college credits and gain skills is the priority. When beginning to plan your gap year, take some time to sit and think about what your goals are for your gap year and let those goals shape your search for your ideal gap year program.

That being said, there are a few key aspects to look for when discerning which gap year programs are designed to give you the best experience all around:

Exceptional Instructors

NOLS has set the gold standard for instructor excellence. Our instructors are not just wilderness experts but also compassionate mentors, genuinely concerned about your well-being and success. This level of instructor quality is a hallmark of NOLS programs and sets them apart as the best choice for an enriching gap year experience.

Focus on Transferable Skills

NOLS goes beyond traditional classroom learning by imparting essential leadership skills through real-life challenges. From navigating glaciers to canoeing rapids and rock climbing, you'll gain hands-on experience that equips you with communication, teamwork, and resilience – skills that are not only valuable for college and careers but also for lifelong leadership.

Gain International Experience and Global Perspective

NOLS takes you on an extraordinary journey, spanning from the majestic Himalayas to the iconic Kilimanjaro and many other captivating locations worldwide. What sets NOLS apart is its incorporation of homestays, cultural immersion, and service learning, enriching your global perspectives and providing a deeper understanding of diverse cultures.

And if your passions lie in the great outdoors —

Immersive Wilderness Exploration

At the core of NOLS programs lies a commitment to building outdoor skills, ranging from backpacking to sea kayaking and mountaineering. What distinguishes NOLS is its dedication to skill progression, mastery, and testing under the guidance of highly experienced and supportive instructors. You'll not only acquire vital new skills but also foster a profound connection to nature and a newfound appreciation for a simpler way of life.

will-wamaru-ea-23-east-africa-kilimanjaro-mountain.jpg__1200x1200_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscalePhoto by Will Wamaru

Top 10 Best Gap Year Programs for You

1 - East Africa: Best Gap Year Program for Environmental Stewardship and Cultural Immersion

In the NOLS East Africa program, you'll embark on an extraordinary journey of wilderness exploration, delving into the heart of Tanzania's famed natural landscapes. From the iconic heights of Mount Kilimanjaro to the otherworldly Ngorongoro Crater and the fiery majesty of Oldoinyo Lengai, an active volcano, you'll witness nature's grandeur up close.

Yet, this experience is not merely about the wilderness; it's also an immersive cultural adventure. You'll engage deeply with the Maasai people, gaining insights into their way of life, history, and ecological knowledge. Hiking alongside a Maasai liaison, you'll develop a profound connection to the local culture. Additionally, the program offers the unique opportunity to stay with host families, experiencing their daily routines, helping with tasks, and even participating in service projects.

As you become a "loololan," a traveler with a heavy bag, rather than a tourist, you'll come to understand that NOLS East Africa isn't just a journey; it's a fulfilling but challenging odyssey through Tanzania.

Key Features of the East Africa Gap Year:

  • Wilderness Exploration: Explore Tanzania's renowned wilderness areas, from Mount Kilimanjaro to the Ngorongoro Crater, and experience the grandeur of the active volcano Oldoinyo Lengai.
  • Cultural Immersion: Engage with the Maasai people, hike with a Maasai liaison, and participate in local culture, ecology, and history to gain a deeper understanding of Tanzania.
  • Homestays: Experience daily life with host families, including participating in their activities, learning to cook local dishes like ugali and uji, and engaging in service projects.

india-cass-colman-cliffs-1024x683Photo by Cass Colman

2 - India: Best Gap Year Program for High-Altitude Adventure and Cultural Learning

Discover the thrill of high-altitude adventure amidst the breathtaking landscapes of the Indian Himalaya with a NOLS India gap program. Whether you're backpacking through picturesque alpine villages, honing your mountaineering skills on lofty glaciers, or navigating the adrenaline-pumping whitewater rapids of the Kali River, this journey promises excitement.

Beyond the physical challenges, you'll also engage deeply with the culture of the Kumaon communities. Immersed in the daily life of the region, you'll practice conversational Hindi and connect with local community members, gaining a holistic understanding of India. The program encourages cultural learning and meaningful interactions throughout your journey. It's an opportunity to not just explore the magnificent natural beauty but also to become part of the tapestry of local life while acquiring essential technical skills in one of the world's highest mountain chains.

Key Features of the India Gap Year:

  • High-Altitude Adventure: Embark on high-altitude adventures in the Indian Himalaya, including backpacking through alpine villages and developing mountaineering skills.
  • Cultural Learning: Immerse yourself in the culture of Kumaon communities, practice conversational Hindi, and engage with local community members during your journey.
  • Whitewater Rafting: Navigate the Kali River's whitewater rapids, offering a thrilling outdoor experience in one of the world's highest mountain chains.
  • Technical Skills: Learn backpacking, mountaineering, and whitewater rafting in an environment known for its physical challenges and stunning scenery.

talbot-callister-hats-newzealandPhoto by Talbot Callister

3 - New Zealand: Best Gap Year Program for Diverse Outdoor Skills and Eclectic Landscape

Embark on an adventure that spans a spectrum of outdoor skills with a NOLS New Zealand gap year. From backpacking to mountaineering, keelboat sailing, whitewater canoeing, and sea kayaking, this program offers a diverse array of technical proficiencies. Your journey takes you through New Zealand's remarkable landscapes, traversing rainforests, alpine grasslands, coastal bays, and rocky coves.

But it's not just about the environment; it's about the people too. You'll have the privilege of meeting members of local Maori communities, delving into their unique way of life, and experiencing their culture, both past and present.

Embracing the unpredictable New Zealand weather, you'll learn the art of adaptability in the face of ever-changing conditions, all while reveling in the beauty of this remote and captivating terrain.

Key features of the New Zealand Gap Year:

  • Diverse Outdoor Skills: Gain proficiency in various technical skills, such as backpacking, mountaineering, keelboat sailing, whitewater canoeing, and sea kayaking.
  • Eclectic Landscape: Explore New Zealand's diverse landscapes, from rainforests to alpine grasslands, coastal bays, and rocky coves while backpacking and sailing.
  • Cultural Interaction: Meet members of local Maori communities, learn about their way of life, and experience their culture, both past and present.
  • Adaptability: Embrace the unpredictable weather of New Zealand and learn to adjust to its ever-changing conditions while enjoying its remote and beautiful terrain.

diego-allolio-img_0993Photo by Diego Allolio

4 - Patagonia: Best Gap Year Program for Rugged Exploration and Cultural Exchange in South America

Prepare to explore the rugged, untamed landscapes of Chilean Patagonia in the NOLS Patagonia program. From the vast steppes and lush temperate rainforests to the pristine alpine ecosystems and dramatic ocean fjords, you'll journey through an awe-inspiring variety of environments.

You'll engage in a rich cultural exchange with local ranchers and settlers, known as pobladores. Immerse yourself in the Spanish language as you listen to the stories of families who have called this remote region home for generations. Regular interactions with local communities are a highlight of the program, and some courses even include homestays with Chilean host families, deepening your connection to the land and its people.

As a grand finale, you'll partake in local traditions, such as the cordero al palo feast, which pays homage to the sharing spirit and values of Patagonia's inhabitants.

Key features of the Patagonia Gap Year:

  • Rugged Exploration: Venture into Chilean Patagonia's rugged landscapes, from steppes and temperate rainforests to alpine ecosystems and ocean fjords.
  • Cultural Exchange: Engage with local ranchers and settlers known as pobladores, practice Spanish language skills, and learn about the region's history.
  • Community Interaction: Regularly interact with local communities and potentially experience a homestay with a Chilean host family.
  • Traditional Celebrations: Participate in local traditions like the cordero al palo feast, reflecting the values and sharing traditions of Patagonia's inhabitants.

Baja Sea Kayaking 3 Lynn PetzoldPhoto by Lynn Petzold

5 - Baja: Best Gap Year Program for Coastal Desert Adventure

Access over 1,000 miles of diverse mountain and marine environments with a NOLS Baja gap semester. Operating in a remote location, the campus functions entirely off the grid, generating its own solar power. What sets this program apart is its cultural, generational, and language diversity, creating a vibrant and welcoming atmosphere. 

Most courses begin or end in the stunning Coyote Bay, allowing you to maximize your backcountry time with kayaking, sailing, or hiking directly to or from campus. Your adventure encompasses various outdoor skills, from kayaking in the open ocean to hiking in the Sonoran desert. Along the way, you'll have the chance to interact with local communities, practice Spanish, and gain insights into the unique ecology of the coastal desert. NOLS Mexico offers a blend of outdoor exploration and cultural immersion in a truly off-the-grid setting.

Key features of the Baja Gap Year:

  • Coastal Desert Adventure: Explore Baja California's coastal desert and turquoise waters, offering access to diverse mountain and marine environments.
  • Off-the-Grid Experience: Operate in a remote location with an off-grid campus, relying on solar power for all services.
  • Cultural Diversity: Embrace the cultural, generational, and language diversity of NOLS Mexico's team, providing a welcoming atmosphere.
  • Water Activities: Participate in kayaking, sailing, and hiking activities that range from open ocean to coastal desert, gaining outdoor skills and experiencing local ecology.

alexis_alloway_pnw_012Photo by Alexis Alloway

6 - Pacific Northwest Semester: Best Gap Year Program for Outdoor Skill Development

If you're an aspiring outdoor leader ready to take on the challenge, this Pacific Northwest semester is your perfect match. Explore the captivating North Cascades and stunning Pacific Northwest coast, where you’ll ascend towering peaks and navigate tranquil coves while honing your leadership, collaboration, and teamwork skills. 

During this gap program, you’ll start with foundational lessons in minimal-impact camping, Leave No Trace principles, and environmental stewardship, all while advancing your skills in mountaineering, sea kayaking, and high-altitude rock, snow, and ice navigation.

With experienced instructors as your mentors, this journey invites students eager to embrace leadership roles. Develop essential skills in effective communication and risk management while leading glacier rope teams and making crucial decisions in dynamic ocean environments. Forge a solid leadership foundation to your college career and prepare you for any future pursuit.

Key features of the Pacific Northwest Gap Year:

  • Diverse Wilderness Exposure: Experience a wide range of environments, including northwest forests, glaciers, rugged mountains, and marine ecosystems. Learn how to adapt to different terrains and conditions and develop your adaptability and resilience.
  • Comprehensive Skill Development: The program offers a holistic approach to skill development, covering Wilderness First Aid, sea kayaking, and mountaineering.
  • Leadership and Teamwork: Throughout the course, students practice various leadership roles and learn to lead each other through new and challenging terrain. They also develop teamwork skills, crucial for successful outdoor expeditions and future endeavors.

craig-muderlak-communication-river-1Photo by Craig Muderlak

7 - River Base: Best Gap Year Program for Water Sports and River Adventures

NOLS River Base programs present a world of water adventures for those eager to learn, live, and play on the water. Whether you're navigating thrilling whitewater rapids in a raft, kayak, or canoe, this program promises an adrenaline-packed experience. 

Amidst a landscape bursting with geological richness, you'll explore a land of contrasts, from high mountain deserts to lush river corridors. This is dinosaur bone country, where fossil-rich geologic features abound. 

Skill progression is a huge focus of this program, starting with mastering the basics in quieter waters before progressing to more challenging whitewater sections, honing your boating skills and fostering teamwork. For those seeking an extra challenge, some expeditions also include rock climbing in world-class destinations in Wyoming, ensuring diverse outdoor experiences for all.

Key features of the River Base Gap Year:

  • Water Adventures: Join a crew of adventure enthusiasts to learn, live, and play on the water, including navigating whitewater rapids in a variety of watercraft.
  • Geological Richness: Discover a land of contrasts, from high mountain deserts to lush river corridors, with a backdrop of dinosaur bone country and fossil-rich geologic features.
  • Skill Progression: Start with mastering basics in quieter waters before progressing to more challenging whitewater sections, building boating skills and teamwork.
  • Rock Climbing Option: Some expeditions include rock climbing in world-class destinations in Wyoming, providing diverse outdoor experiences.

adam-swisher-96Photo by Adam Swisher

8 - Rocky Mountain: Best Gap Year Program for Mountaineering and Diverse Outdoor Experiences

At NOLS Rocky Mountain, you'll have the opportunity to choose from a rich variety of expeditions, each delving into the mountains, canyons, rivers, and wilderness areas across multiple Western U.S. states. 

Your adventure begins at the historic Noble Hotel in downtown Lander, Wyoming, situated near NOLS' world headquarters. The technical skills you acquire here are diverse, including backpacking, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, canyoneering, white-water kayaking, rafting, or horsepacking.

The goal is to provide every student with a positive, life-changing experience amidst some of the most dramatic landscapes of the intermountain West.

Key features of the Rocky Mountain Gap Year:

  • Diverse Expeditions: Choose from a variety of courses exploring the mountains, canyons, rivers, and wilderness areas across multiple Western U.S. states.
  • Historic Base: Begin your adventure at the historic Noble Hotel in downtown Lander, Wyoming, near NOLS' world headquarters.
  • Technical Skills: Learn one or more technical skills, including backpacking, backcountry skiing, rock climbing, canyoneering, white water kayaking, rafting, or horsepacking.
  • Positive Experience: Strive to provide every student with a positive, life-changing experience in some of the most dramatic landscapes of the intermountain West.

kelsey-wicks-horsepack-group-rm-1024x768Photo by Kelsey Wicks

9 - Three Peaks Ranch: Best Gap Year Program for Horsepacking and Leadership Development

Embrace a Western adventure like no other: horsepacking in the rugged mountains and deserts of Wyoming during a NOLS Three Peaks Ranch gap year. Your journey begins by learning to travel and camp with horses, exploring the Red Desert, Wind River Range, or Absaroka Mountains. 

This isn't just about mastering the basics of backcountry horse travel; it's also an opportunity to develop leadership skills. The ranch itself is steeped in history, dating back to the late 19th century, and you'll become part of a longstanding tradition of exploration on horseback. Before heading into the field, you'll spend several days camping at the ranch, familiarizing yourself with the horses and gear, ensuring that you're well-prepared for the adventures that await.

Key features of the Three Peaks Ranch Gap Year:

  • Horsepacking Adventure: Immerse yourself in a Western adventure by learning to travel and camp with horses in Wyoming's rugged mountains and deserts.
  • Leadership Development: Develop leadership skills by working with horses and mastering the basics of backcountry horse travel.
  • Heritage and Tradition: Experience a longstanding tradition of exploration on horseback, as the ranch's history dates back to the late 19th century.
  • Comprehensive Preparation: Spend several days camping at the ranch, familiarizing yourself with horses and gear before heading into the field.

jared_steinman_wyss-045 (2)Photo by Jared Steinman

10 - Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Semester: Best Gap Year Program for Wilderness Medicine Training

You’ll start your gap year at the Wyss Campus, where Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician (WEMT) courses take center stage. Here, you'll have the opportunity to earn your EMT certification and learn how to respond to emergencies in the wilderness. The rugged Wyoming landscape serves as your backdrop as you participate in simulated medical scenarios that incorporate real-life terrain and weather conditions.

The semester doesn’t end there! Upon completing your WEMT training, you’ll extend the adventure with a two-month-long trek through backcountry. The first segment of this leg of the semester includes a thrilling three-week backpacking expedition in Utah's Red Rock Canyons or the Wind River Range, focusing on core wilderness skills, leadership training, and wilderness navigation. Learn rock climbing basics like bouldering, belaying, and knots as well as Rock Rescue skills.

For the final weeks of your gap semester, you’ll embark on a multi-week river expedition in Utah's scenic river canyons where expert NOLS instructors will introduce you to river canoeing or kayak/rafting and Swiftwater Rescue skills. This semester offers a comprehensive wilderness experience, enhancing your skills for wilderness emergencies.

Key features of the Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Gap Semester:

  • Wilderness Medicine: Participate in a Wilderness EMT (WEMT) course at the Wyss Campus, earning your EMT certification and learning to respond to emergencies in the wilderness.
  • Wilderness Rescue: This semester offers you the opportunity to develop critical Swiftwater Rescue and Rock Rescue skills. 


Lessons Learned From NOLS Gap Year Students

Communication, Teamwork, and Leadership Development Skills

Our gap year programs offer you a unique opportunity to develop essential life skills such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. You'll often be placed in challenging situations, allowing you to learn firsthand how to effectively communicate with others.

According to Sarah, who participated in a NOLS mountaineering expedition in Patagonia, "My gap year with NOLS helped me learn what my leadership style is while also teaching me how to be a better team player." She vividly recalled the challenges of navigating treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather, emphasizing how these experiences honed her ability to convey vital information to her team members. 

Sarah further noted, "Working with my group during my gap year not only enhanced my ability to collaborate but also taught me how to build trust and gain self-confidence in how I approach unexpected challenges with others." Now a project manager, Sarah shares the importance of her NOLS gap year in developing the essential skills she uses in her professional life.

Broadening Cultural Perspectives

Gap years also allow you to immerse yourself in various cultures, expanding your understanding of the world. Experiential learning through cultural immersion exposes you to different customs, traditions, and ways of life, promoting empathy, open-mindedness, and cultural understanding. In turn, this strengthens your ability to adapt to new environments and interact with people from diverse backgrounds in both your personal life and professional career.

Alex, another NOLS alum, shared their experience of cultural and language immersion during their outdoor gap year in East Africa. They emphasized how this opportunity exposed them to different customs, traditions, and ways of life, ultimately fostering empathy and open-mindedness. According to Alex, "NOLS really helped me expand not just how I think of the greater world, but also how I interact with others in my daily life. Before my gap year, I knew that I wanted to study abroad in college, but I had no clue what I wanted to study. I’m still undecided, but I’m much more honed in on my options: international relations or global environmentalism."

Self-Discovery, Self-Confidence, and Overall Personal Growth

Taking a year off before college can lead to significant personal growth and increased self-confidence. As you conquer challenges during your gap year, you'll learn more about your strengths, weaknesses, and what motivates you. Additionally, experiencing different environments, cultures, and communities enriches your self-awareness and broadens your perspectives, enabling you to better understand your own values and aspirations.

A NOLS Alaska alum, James, recounted conquering challenges in the Alaskan wilderness and navigating the complexities of different cultures, saying, "My gap year helped me gain a deeper understanding of my strengths, weaknesses, and what truly motivates me." James expressed how exposure to various environments, cultures, and communities enriched his self-awareness and broadened his perspectives. “I was worried about what I would write my college admissions essay about because in my high school, they never really asked us what motivates us or what our values are. NOLS challenged me to reflect. Not just on my experiences, but on how I see myself in the world. Let’s just say that I know what I’m going to write about now.”

Earn College Credit with a NOLS Gap Year

By participating in a NOLS Gap Year program, you can take your outdoor adventure experience and global education to the next level while also earning valuable academic credit. With more than 400 colleges and universities nationwide, including the University of Utah, recognizing NOLS courses for academic credit, you can explore the great outdoors, develop leadership skills, and boost your college transcript at the same time.

On a NOLS expedition, you'll have the opportunity to earn credits in various subject areas such as Risk Assessment, Leadership Techniques, Skills Practicum, Cultural Studies, and Environmental Studies. Throughout your journey, you'll discover how to apply these concepts in real-world scenarios, further enhancing your understanding and learning experience.

Your gap year program will also focus on important outdoor principles, such as Leave No Trace. As you explore and engage with the natural environment, you'll practice environmental stewardship and learn how to minimize human impacts on the areas you visit. By adopting these practices, you are contributing to the conservation and preservation of the world's natural treasures.

Cultural immersion is another key aspect of a NOLS Gap Year. By immersing yourself in various cultural experiences and engaging in cultural studies, you will develop a deeper understanding of diverse global perspectives and learn how to communicate effectively across cultural differences. This is a skill set that will greatly benefit your future academic, professional, and personal endeavors.

Embark on a NOLS Gap Year journey to not only challenge yourself physically and mentally through thrilling outdoor adventures but also earn academic credit to enhance your college education and enrich your life. Learn more about how NOLS students can earn academic credit for expedition courses.

Ready To Plan Your Own Gap Year With NOLS?

As we wrap up our exploration of what makes the best gap year programs, you may be wondering, "What's next?" Well, if you've been inspired by the exceptional experiences and transformative journeys offered by NOLS, then you're ready to take the next step—planning your very own gap year adventure with us.

Whether you're drawn to the wild landscapes of East Africa, the high-altitude adventures of India, the diverse range of outdoor skills in New Zealand, or any of our other incredible gap year and gap semester programs, NOLS is here to support you every step of the way.

Take the first step toward your unforgettable adventure with NOLS Gap Year Programs.



Written By


NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.

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