Lessons in survival

Tam Leach had always wanted to be an explorer but knew nothing about the wilderness. So she took a trip to Wyoming for some expert tuition

"Sticks?" En masse, our 11-strong group visibly blanch. "You want us to use sticks?" In lieu of toilet paper. For the next two weeks. Perhaps if we had signed up for a survival course the stick thing would have been less of a stumbling block. You know, those ones that involve military obsessives scrabbling for their lives across the desert, with only witchetty grubs for sustenance.

"Sticks?" En masse, our 11-strong group visibly blanch. "You want us to use sticks?" In lieu of toilet paper. For the next two weeks. Perhaps if we had signed up for a survival course the stick thing would have been less of a stumbling block. You know, those ones that involve military obsessives scrabbling for their lives across the desert, with only witchetty grubs for sustenance.

But we were about to set off for a fortnight with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), the eminently sensible and trusted wilderness educator of America's youth. And, like the other 20- to 40-somethings in my group, I had enrolled on one of the school's adult courses not to live out some Foreign Legion fantasy, but simply to learn the nuts and bolts of hiking and camping. Erecting tents to withstand any storm, cooking over camp fires, navigating with compasses, all good Scouts' stuff. There was certainly nothing in the catalogue about sticks.

Older, wiser and a good deal fitter than any of us, our laconic instructor, Mark, patiently explained why leaves and grass were not an option. Our classrooms for the fortnight were the high mountain plains and rocky passes of the Wind River Wilderness, Wyoming. It was summer, and the patchy grass had already been cropped close by grazing sheep, packhorses, and moose. Native trees were not of the smooth deciduous variety, but prickly pine and spruce. Pine cones, though - now they were exceeding useful scrapers, said Mark, so long as you remembered to use them in the right direction. Ouch.

Reading a combination of the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons created the belief that somewhere inside me was a competent explorer waiting to get out. I had a book on knots, the necessary 'kerchief and determination, but sadly there was never any need to produce a double half-hitch in suburbia. My parents sensibly declined to spend any time under damp canvas with their squabbling offspring, while independent teenage attempts to venture into the great outdoors always ended up in a leaky high street tent in the corner of some rain-soaked farmer's field, or surrounded by burnt plastic plates at another grubby festival. Not quite the glorious wilderness of my imagination.

Fortunately, I discovered NOLS. Renowned across the US for the quality of its programmes, in the 39 years since it was established this not-for-profit organisation has produced over 75,000 graduates. The school is practically a rite of passage for aspiring mountain guides, ski instructors and outdoor educators. Environmental policy-makers come to NOLS for advice, while NASA flight crews bond together under the stars on one of its courses before blasting off from terra firma. Trips last from two weeks to three months, and cover a range of outdoor skills including basic backpacking, mountaineering, sea-kayaking, canoeing, caving and back-country skiing. Most students roam through the great wild stretches of the American West, from the canyons of Utah to the peaks of Alaska, but you can also sign up for a course in more exotic locales, with Mexico, Patagonia and New Zealand currently on offer.

High school pupils, college students (who can exchange NOLS hours for credit towards their final degrees) and recent graduates are the typical attendees. Although older applicants are welcome on any "16 and over" program, dedicated adult courses (for those older than 25) have been offered by the school for almost 30 years. These trips are shorter than the NOLS average, the daily hiking goals are reduced and, although it seems inconceivable when struggling up those first few rocky inclines, backpacks are 20lb lighter. NOLS instructors will "help" you to pack their standard-issue bags, but prepare for a redefinition of the word "extravagance" when, for example, you say you intended to take three sets of underwear. Two are considered quite sufficient.

The adult courses are not to be mistaken for guided adventure holidays - they are more akin to expeditions with daily instruction in backpacking skills. Some days involve little hiking but are dedicated to rock climbing, fly fishing and lessons in wilderness first aid, while others are spent navigating by map and compass before setting camp two miles above sea level. Inspired career changes into outdoor education are not expected, but whether graduates wish to become serious explorers or just want to take family and friends camping each summer, NOLS programmes aim to furnish participants with the necessary know-how to get started.

Our group was still having problems wiping away the first hurdle. "Couldn't we just use paper and bury it?" asked one, plucking at childhood memories (most Americans camp as children, hence they were terrified by The Blair Witch Project while it made us Brits merely dizzy). "Animals dig up toilet paper," drawled Mark. "If you feel the need to use it, you'll have to pack it out." Ah, yes. Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Cliché of a thousand postcards, bumper stickers and National Forest pamphlets, the now-ubiquitous "leave no trace" philosophy was pioneered by NOLS. While on our trek we camped and washed dishes at least 200 feet from streams and lakes (so as not to contaminate natural water sources); hopped from rock to rock around the camp (so as not to create a permanent trail) and learnt how to build fires on sand (so as not to scorch the earth). We then substituted stoves for fires regardless, since in the middle of a dry summer the risk of starting a major blaze was too high.

We even dug scat holes and yes, got to grips with sticks. It wasn't particularly comfortable, but after a few days pounding the miles without seeing evidence of another human being, you begin to appreciate why it is important to keep the wilderness that way. Besides, despite the toiletry deprivation and long hikes, life had rarely seemed better. We fished before breakfast and dined on trout stew, added wild blueberries to pancake mix and learned to create calzones and brownies from bags of bland-looking dried food.

Most nights our more-or-less expertly erected tents were left empty, in favour of sleeping under the sparkling sky. And by the last few days of the course we were confident enough in navigation and safety skills to set off each day in small groups, instructors tailing us at a discrete distance.

I'm still no Grizzly Adams, but I no longer feel like a helpless suburbanite either. But whether I can put those leadership skills to work and organise a group of my friends remains to be seen. I'm pretty confident on remembering matches, basic first aid and packing sensibly - but can I teach them what to do in the woods?

TRAVEL GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The National Outdoor Leadership School headquarters, and the base for the Wind River Wilderness course, is the one-street town of Lander, Wyoming. The closest international airport is Salt Lake City, Utah. There are no direct flights from the UK, but for travel in May, for example, you can expect to pay around £500 return through discount agents for a flight on Continental from Gatwick via Houston, or on Delta from Gatwick or Manchester via Atlanta. From Salt Lake City you can catch a shuttle bus run by Wind River Transportation (001 800 439 7118), fare $75 (£47).

Alternatively, you can fly to Denver (eg non-stop from Heathrow on British Airways, 0845 850 9850; www.ba.com) and catch a Great Lakes Aviation flight to Riverton, half an hour on the shuttle from Lander for ($12.50/£8).

COURSES

NOLS programmes are considered college level, and college in the United States isn't cheap: fortnights in the Wind River Wilderness for the over-25s run at $2,490 (£1,550). The classic 30-day, 16-and-over course is $3,150 (£1,970); the average age is 19. For $2,585 (£1,620) you can spend three weeks sea-kayaking in Baja (16-and-over programme, average age 23); for $3,490 (£2,200), two weeks with a 25-and-over group trekking through the isolated Brooks Range in Alaska. Semester-length programmes start at $8,720 (£5,450) and are offered at college and post-graduate levels. Dormitory-style accommodation for the first and last nights of the programme is included in the price. Equipment, even boots, can be rented from NOLS.

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