What’s the Difference Between NOLS, Outward Bound, and Other Outdoor Programs?

NCOAE Headquarters

June 16, 2023

As an accredited outdoor and adventure education provider, we here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) know that people are diligently doing their homework in their search to find the best guided wilderness trips for their children or for themselves.

And topping their list of questions is this query: What makes NCOAE different from programs like Outward Bound, programs like NOLS, and even traditional summer camps? How do you make a well-informed choice between our outdoor education company’s offerings and those offered by a summer camp, tour operator, GAP semester provider, or an unaccredited outdoor adventure programming company?

Many organizations like ours seek to set themselves apart from the top two standard bearers, namely, The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound (OB). Truth be told, NCOAE’s similarities to those organizations far surpass our differences. In fact, like so many other organizations, we trace our pedigree back to programs like Outward Bound and NOLS.

NOLS and OB are leaders in the field, and for very good reason. They’ve been around longer than most every other outdoor education and adventure programming organization out there. Both brands are highly recognizable and trusted, and each has trained hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom have gone on to found outdoor recreation companies of their own.

In addition, these two organizations play leading roles within the outdoor education industry, from convening the annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference each fall to publishing industry-leading research. They’re also refreshingly upfront and transparent about reporting their in-field near misses and fatalities.

We share that transparency with both organizations, including other attributes, such as accreditation by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). And like NOLS and OB, we have our own curriculum. We hire, train, and retain only the best instructors; we place an emphasis on our staff’s professional development and continuing education; we participate in annual in-person industry educational and networking events; we offer courses in unique and challenging destinations; and we have our own policies and guidelines according to how and where we operate.

But rather than comparing and contrasting ourselves to organizations like NOLS and Outward Bound, we think it’s most helpful for prospective students and their parents to compare what we offer to other options, such as:

  • Residential summer camps
  • Tour operators
  • GAP programs
  • Semester programs
  • Urban summer programs
  • Other outdoor and adventure-based schools

What we’d like to do in the sections that follow is outline what sets NCOAE apart from other forms of experiences that you or your child may be considering, starting with residential summer camps.

Residential Summer Camps
Residential summer camps are supervised by professional adults, college students, and counselors in training (CITs) to foster personal growth for children by providing them with fun educational and recreational programs in a safe environment.

Residential summer camps generally share the following characteristics:

  • Living units of 12–50 students, often divided into smaller groups for specific activities
  • A wide array of activities such as arts & crafts, sports, outdoor activities, and environmental pursuits
  • Opportunities for students to try new things and be somewhat in charge of new responsibilities, such as cleaning the bathhouse
  • Limited backcountry activities in which campers have the option, but not the obligation, to participate
  • Meals mostly prepared by camp kitchen staff and served in the dining hall with limited opportunities for campers to cook meals for themselves and their campmates
  • Centralized lodging, meals, and bathhouse facilities
  • Routine environment and activities coordinated from a central home base

NCOAE programs offer outdoor and adventure education experiences that promote personal growth the acquisition of technical outdoor skills, and stewardship in communities and in nature. Our outdoor and experiential education programs are characterized by the following:

  • Small groups with a 1:6 instructor-to-student ratio
  • Programs for individuals, school groups, university groups, nonprofit groups, and others
  • Outcome-focused curriculum
  • Activities chosen carefully to optimize experiential education outcomes
  • Opportunities to try new things and develop higher levels of responsibility and leadership
  • Backcountry meal prep with participants largely in charge of meal preparation
  • Group participation in most activities, followed by expertly facilitated end-of-day discussions about what was experienced and learned
  • Wilderness environment — most activities/adventures are conducted on unique wilderness land and water wilderness environments
  • Backpacking — participants working together, participants carry everything they need to live in the backcountry
  • Smaller, more cohesive groups that enable instructors and guides to support the development of the group dynamic more effectively

Tour Operators
Tour operators focus on delivering fun recreational activities that may also be, tangentially, educational. They often share the following characteristics:

  • A specific activity or package of activities, such as kayaking, whitewater rafting, or bird watching
  • An emphasis on fun and recreation
  • Limited education focused on a narrow skill set such as paddle techniques, water safety, local flora and fauna, or local/regional history
  • Highly regimented — participants follow instructions with little so no opportunity to take on leadership roles
  • Full-service guided tours in which participants primarily play a passive role, mostly as sightseers

NCOAE’s outdoor and adventure education experiences are designed so students may be fully engaged. In contrast to a tour guide experience, participants can look forward to the following:

  • A custom array of educational and recreational opportunities, with human-powered outdoor recreation activity serving as the vehicle used to drive personal growth, group dynamics, and leadership development
  • Active engagement in a range of educational lessons/activities, focused on technical skill development, leadership development, and environmental sciences
  • Opportunities for students to learn and grow — and then lead
  • Experiential education for developing the technical outdoor skills to live comfortably and safely in the backcountry
  • A highly customized personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum

Gap and Semester Programs
Gap and semester programs are generally travel educational experiences that students take as a break from more formal classroom studies — usually before enrolling in a college, university, or trade school. These programs are generally characterized by the following:

  • International travel
  • Duration of three to six months
  • High-school, college, and adult offerings
  • Cultural and foreign language immersion opportunities
  • Limited backcountry experiences (not part of most gap and semester programs)
  • Remote locations for some programs

In contrast, NCOAE’s outdoor and adventure education experiences involve both domestic and international travel — mostly in a backcountry environment:

  • Domestic and international travel; for example, from New Hampshire to Oregon to Ecuador
  • Shorter duration — 42-day and 60-day programs
  • Travel that is split into different legs/segments
  • Cultural immersion opportunities
  • Backcountry activities
  • NCOAE’s core experiential learning and personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum
  • Course offerings tailored to domestic and international locations
  • Programming for 18-plus aged participants exclusively

Urban Summer Programs & Day Camps
Urban summer programs are typically day camps for keeping young children physically and mentally active and engaged with one another in a community setting when they are not in school or home from a break in their community’s academic offerings. Characteristics of urban summer programs include the following:

  • Mostly day camp programming
  • Primarily based in urban areas
  • Broad array of activities such as dance, sports, skateboarding, and crafts
  • Supplemental outdoor activities such as archery and pool activities
  • Less defined curriculum
  • Local community input on program design
  • Short trips to natural environments, but primarily focused on activities/experiences in urban settings

NCOAE’s outdoor education and adventure experiences are uniquely different. We offer:

  • Primarily outdoor-based programs with limited time in any urban settings
  • Primarily overnight, multi-day programming with limited (if any) day programs
  • Backcountry wilderness environments
  • Development of technical outdoor skills
  • Personal, interpersonal, and leadership development curriculum in small-group settings in a wilderness environment to improve group dynamics and an understanding and appreciation of one’s individual and collective impact in a community

Other Outdoor and Adventure-Based Schools
Many providers of outdoor education and adventure programming are more limited in scope than we are and less flexible in their programming:

  • Focus primarily on outdoor skill development
  • Less focus on personal and interpersonal reflection and growth and on leadership development
  • Inability to customize programming
  • Limited to a few course areas and unable to roll out new ones to address changes in student needs and demands
  • Limited flexibility to pivot in response to client or staff feedback when warranted
  • More focus on allowing the environment and the physical experience of an expedition dictate the individual student’s learning and experience
  • Unaccredited by the Association for Experiential Education (AEE)

Here at NCOAE, we pride ourselves on delivering personalized outdoor education and adventure experiences that meet the unique needs of every individual and group that participates in our programs. We offer:

  • A well-rounded experience, with time for learning and challenge but also for relaxation and reflection, enabling participants to generalize and internalize so they can apply their learning when they return to their home or school communities
  • Outdoor activities that extend beyond participation to meet the outcomes defined in our unique core curriculum
  • Customized experiences for each partner organization and each class/year of students
  • Flexibility and passion for continuously improving our programs
  • The ability to pivot as needed to meet the school/organization/individual group needs
  • A careful balance of technical outdoor skill and leadership development
  • Sensitivity and flexibility regarding the pace of learning to ensure that participants are not pushed too hard or too far into a place of anxiety and frustration
  • Optimization of group dynamics and group bonding to reinforce the application of personal and leadership development and skills in a community setting
  • Bound by the Association for Experiential Education’s (AEE’s) strict standards of accreditation for program governance and administration, risk management, participant transportation, backcountry equipment and nutrition, and more

Choosing Between Outward Bound, NOLS, and NCOAE
We, at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education, possess expertise not only in the principles and curriculum that drive our unique approach to outdoor education and adventure programming but also in the theories that guide outdoor experiential education itself. By staying informed about alternative programs available to you or your child and actively engaging in networking and educational opportunities provided by our industry membership and trade associations, we are confident in our ability to assist you in making an informed choice regarding the matters discussed in this blog post.

We encourage you as an informed consumer to continue your research and ask numerous questions. If we can be of additional assistance, please reach out to us by calling our headquarters at (910) 399-8090 or emailing us at

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