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NOLS Wilderness Guide: A Book Review

NOLS Wilderness Guide
NOLS Wilderness Guide

The NOL’s Wilderness Guide (National Outdoor Leadership School) is a great book to read even if your are an experienced hiker and backpacker.

The book provides in-depth instruction on a wealth of topics including:

  • expedition planning
  • how to dress for the backcountry
  • a camping equipment primer
  • camping technique
  • travel technique
  • leadership and expedition behavior
  • maps and compasses
  • emergency procedures
  • weather
  • cooking in the backcountry

If you’re not familiar with NOLS, they’re a famous outdoor school that focuses on teaching outdoor leadership skills and how to reduce one’s impact on the environment. That’s probably a overly simplistic description of their mission, but those are my two biggest takeaways from reading this book.

Outdoor leadership skills aren’t something that I think about very much since I do a lot of solo three season hiking. But this is my second season of winter hiking and mountaineering, an activity that I don’t do alone, and I can see of lot of utility in improving them.

The same goes for low impact or Leave No Trace backpacking. The book goes into a lot of depth on this topic, particularly around campsite selection and setup. While most of the examples cited focus on the geography of the Western USA, the practices and their motivation are easily adaptable to backpacking in the East.

One of my favorite chapters is the introduction to the book, titled “Why We Go” which explains the need for wilderness and how it restores our spirits. It is a beautiful piece of writing and sets the stage for the rest of the book which is about “How We Go.”

I also own a lot of the guides published by NOLS and they’re all quite well done. Make sure to check out NOLS Winter Camping and NOLS Wilderness Medicine if you don’t already own them.

Disclosure: The author owns this product and purchased it using their own funds.

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  1. Interesting book. I will have to pick up a copy.

  2. This is my favorite, too, and I have too many books about backpacking.

    The only weakness is in route planning. I know that is a big subject, but NOLS advocates making a Time Control Plan, but this book just gives a laundry list of what should be on it, with no examples.

    Hillwalking, by Steve Long, does an excellent job of describing a Route Card in only a little more space. "Route Card" is the (less intimidating) UK terminology for a TCP.

    I also wish the book would actually define good expedition behavior. It is a good chapter, but try to find a definition of "good EB".

    Finally, it doesn't have quite enough depth to really get you on the trail. You need to go somewhere else for depth about navigation, food, and first aid.

    Those are fairly minor nits, though. It is the best single book I've found on the subject.

  3. I also wish they provided more info about the TCP, as I'm doing one at the moment for my traverse of Scotland in May. All good points – thx!

  4. The route card referenced above would seem to be a good tool for above treeline hiking in the winter.

    While I have no frame of reference for either activity, I think hiking on the Scottish moors in the fog is probably as disorientating as hiking above treeline in white out conditions.

    The most difficult part of actually following the route plan in either of those conditions (without a GPS) would be estimating your speed of travel and hence the actual distance traveled in each leg of the route.

    I did a foggy bushwhack in the Whites in September and got myself a bit "misplaced" because I way overestimated my speed of travel.


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