Schools for beginner backpackers

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Schools for beginner backpackers
Question: I am a beginning backpacker fan! I haven't done much in travel, but I love the outdoors, and want to learn more about how to survive in the wilderness. I've looked through magazines galore to find a quality (but fairly inexpensive) wilderness survival school, but no luck yet. What do you think is the best school out there for my needs?

Cyn Espinosa
Kenosha, WI
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: Since I'm not sure how much you're willing to spend, how much time you can spare, and what kind of school you're interested in, I'll offer you a few suggestions that hopefully will cover all the bases.

For a straight-ahead, low-impact wilderness course, consider either Outward Bound or National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Both programs start with the fundamentals--the dos and don'ts of packing a backpack, backcountry safety, and compass reading--and then progress to more technical skills like rock climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, and rafting. Because these outfits are the bigwigs of wilderness schools, you'll get to choose from a slew of courses all around the continent--from alpine mountaineering in the High Sierra to paddling in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Of course, you'll pay pretty dearly for such a great selection and top-notch instructors. Outward Bound's eight- to 21-day alpine mountaineering course will set you back anywhere from $995 to $1,995, depending on trip length and location. A 30-day NOLS trip through the mountains of central Idaho that combines backpacking with river running on the Salmon and Owyhee rivers can be yours if you can cough up the dough: a mere $2,875. Call for the course catalogs (Outward Bound, 800-243-8520; NOLS, 307-332-6973) and prepare to spend a few hours drooling over all the to-die-for trips.

For something a little less mainstream and a little more hard-core--more of a forage-for-berries-or-starve course--consider Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), probably the best-known, most reputable no-holds-barred survival school in the West. Their one- to four-week field courses in the deserts of southern Utah involve an orientation, group trek, independent hike, and a solo quest. The focus is on surviving by carrying only the essentials, which, sadly, is less than you might think. In some phases of the course, the only food you get is the food you find (i.e., you'll be grazing on wild onions and skinny-legged frogs). And don't expect to learn the intricacies of outdoor gear management because before you leave, you're stripped of everything but a knife, a jacket, and an enamel cup. Courses run from early June through late August and range from $675 to $1,995. Call BOSS at 303-444-9779 for more details or a catalog.

Another good bet for a pure-survival-type school is Randy Kellers' outdoor courses in Alaska's Brooks Range and the Sierra Nevada. Each course varies, depending on the group's skill level. Sometimes he'll start by teaching the basics of camping and backpacking, and other times he'll cut right to the chase--how to walk off into the woods with nothing but the clothes on your back and survive. Call Randy at 310-399-8965 for more info.

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