I’ve been a serious gear head since my NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in 2006.
NOLS, for those not familiar, is one of the most professional: outdoor training, wilderness first aid and leadership schools in the world. It is also a serious gear playground and testing operation. Not officially of course but unofficially, I had valid excuse to stock up on fresh gear with the intention of beating the sh*t out of it for 3 months in the Mexican wilderness.
Before I get into some more detail about these Mexican shenanigans, I want to be forward in saying that myself and Outdoor Junkiez (OJz) owe a lot to NOLS. This trip wasn’t just my first introduction to TRUE outdoor culture or invaluable wilderness training, it was the inception of the outdoor ethics and principles that I guide OJz with today. And maybe most importantly, it really did teach me practical leadership techniques and instill the confidence to get me where I am today. So thank you NOLS, support staff and especially the instructors, (they don’t like being called that) let’s call them reluctant mentors. Now let’s revisit this Mexican NOLS excursion and how it’s shaped our gear testing at Outdoor Junkiez.
SO THERE I WAS…as all good stories begin, sifting through an ocean of gear and outdoor-over-stimulation at the Seattle REI. With my gear checklist in hand, I get an accelerated course in textile breathability and layering. I was a relative brand name virgin, thus a perfect disciple of functionality and performance, lacking the torment of brand bias. I settled on some practical, REI poly-blend base layers, an REI mid-layer (no hood) full zip and splurged, as recommended by REI Greg (his name wasn’t Greg) on a nice Marmot waterproof shell. It was green, it was the most expensive piece of clothing I (my parents) had ever purchased at that time.
The philosophy, products that are built well from reputable brands will outlast and out preform lesser budget products that skimped on stitching, materials, zippers, etc. That and if there is any factory malfunctions, reputable brands have good return/repair/exchange policies.
Outside of the load of soft goods, I came away with a reliable, basic Petzl headlamp, backpacker Tupperware, a badass spork-knife (sporf), compass, Vasque trekking boots, O.R. gaters and a backpack’s worth of other random stuff I probably ended up overpacking (minimalist foreshadowing). Outside of the gear I was responsible for wrangling, NOLS provides a solid service of renting out and offering pro-deals on the rest of the gear you need (OJz foreshadowing). Most memorable of these was my Empire State Building of backpacks, a single haul, top load, Lowe Alpine and everyone’s favorite, Crazy Creek‘s original camp chair.
This NOLS course was broken up into 3 separate sections and outdoor disciplines: backpacking/orienteering in Baja’s mountainous norther region (the San Pedro Martirs), sailing 22ft Drascombe longboats in the Sea of Cortez and then sea kayaking down to Baja’s southern city of La Paz. No this outdoor fiesta did not end in Cabo. Baja is a beautiful and rugged wilderness if you choose to look beyond its popular and populous northern cities and southern tourist hubs. The San Pedro Martirs are a formidable topographical foe, Siamese peaks and valleys complicate landmarks and we were often left standing around in hot debate of whether that rock was this dot and if this dot is this rock.
And yeah, we got lost, separated from the larger group, our rat-pack was forced to dine on popcorn and animal crackers for a night and ration our water.
The backpacking section was brutal at first, a bunch of soft teenagers and 20 somethings coming off summer vacation and being reluctantly forced to haul backpacks half their weight through unforgiving, razor-sharp manzanita shrubs. Not to mention the maneuvering and pack-passing through Goliath boulder fields and the schizophrenic calorie management. Fast-forward to the end of the course, the entire group all simultaneously agreed that the time spent in the mountains were some of our fondest memories. Everything and everyone was new and fresh; every secret little waterfall we discovered, the group-spooning for survival, stumbling across illegal marijuana grows, the puzzles of moving through a canyon, the freedom of distance from civilization.
The transition from the close quarters and freezing nights of the San Pedro Martirs to the #beachlife was more drastic than anyone had expected. I would like to preface that I chose the Baja course based on the fact it had TWO water based sections, which was more than any other NOLS course at the time, and again, those courses took place in MEXICO.
Sorry Patagonia, you’re gorgeous, but I un-apologetically live in my board shorts.
That said, we conveniently timed our beach arrival with a “small” hurricane. This delayed our setup and launch for a couple days while we hunkered down on the beach under the flipped hulls of our stripped sailboats. We survived the worst of it just fine with only a minor complication when a neighboring group’s tarps were ripped from their stakes. I had become accustomed to sleeping naked in my sleeping bag and had to sack-race over to their boat and help rebuild their shelter.
The sailing section was surprising, it was the only section where people actually GAINED weight. You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that eating thousands of calories and cruising in sailboats doesn’t offer the same metabolic benefits that strapping yourself with 80-pound packs and hopscotching through the mountains does. We also occasionally set anchor in rural fishing villages that dot the coast and the nearby islands. Villages loaded with delicious new cookies that had to be tasted and double tasted for quality control.
Perks of sailing were obvious: harnessing the Santa Ana winds and drifting (occasionally motoring) through the Sea of Cortez. We visited islands, crashed on uninhabited beaches, caught a baseball game, battled coyotes and fished. The Sea of Cortez is one of the most bio diverse bodies of water in the world. It’s home to whale sharks, pods of dolphins larger than I’ve ever seen, sperm whales, gray whales, back-flipping mobula rays (we all thought they were Mantas), cannibal Humbolt squid and a lot of tasty fish. So it would be fortuitous that these waters would be my first taste of free-diving.
One of our instructors was a competitive spear-fisherman who entertainer myself and my hilariously tattooed companion Pat on the principles of breath-holding and hunting fish. After unpacking the boats, setting anchor rigging, prepping camp and fulfilling our academic requirements (this was pretty much every day but you get good at it), we would slip into our “farmer john” wetsuits and slide beneath the surface.
We probably spent more time underwater than on land for the next two months. Our breath-hold increased to where we could comfortably spend upwards of three minutes underwater, comfortable searching the bottom at 50-80ft. We explored coral canyons and caves, identified exotic fish, dodged prehistoric moray eels and learned how to catch blunthead triggerfish with our bare hands. We never quite graduated to shooting anything due to our primitive satisfaction of scaring fish into holes, reaching in, coaxing them out and stabbing them in the head with your dive knife.
Other highlights include: sharing a long overdue meal of fish tacos with some millionaire Baja 1000 race team and diving for clams on a local fisherman’s, seemingly endless “secret” clam bed while his buddy mixed our fresh bounty topside with some little limes and hot sauce. The group however fell out of our honeymoon phase, now that we weren’t forced to huddle for warmth, people split off to sleep alone or in convenient couples. Light bickering is to be expected when fifteen random people are intimately stuck together and put into inescapable, semi-survival situations (inescapable unless you mortally wound yourself or expire). Every annoying tick and odd little quirk could quickly amplify into dramatic loathing within our little micro-community. It was ultimately short lived with the multitude of distractions and tasks that consumed our days.
I could have sailed forever but when the time came to swap the sail for the paddle, I found peace in knowing we weren’t leaving the ocean life just yet. I was also happy we had a chance to lock back into a more physical regimen. There would have been some raised eyebrows and doubtful criticism surrounding the intensity of this NOLS course if I had come back a few pounds heavier than I had left. Kayaking however was a whole new beast and lifestyle change. We finally realized the true value of our watches when we had to wake up at 4am every morning for a dimly lit conditions assessment.
I reflect on it now and realize it was training for my inevitable move to Hawaii and our winter dawn patrols to the North Shore. But unlike surfing, launching fully loaded sea kayaks and paddling long distances requires, to the best of the ocean’s cooperation, glassy calm conditions. Every morning we would all reluctantly shimmy, sack-hop and lumber up to the beach or nearest cliff and stare into the darkness. Listening for waves, feeling the wind, thinking about if we had time for pancakes or if it was going to be an oatmeal morning again. The kayaks, fully loaded, could weigh anywhere between 300 to 800lbs and took a village to move the doubles.
Routes were all thoroughly planned with a set destination and preferably a couple safety stops along the way if sh*t got hairy. The trips were grueling at times, your lower back would always ache a bit but if you learned how to paddle correctly, your arms and back eventually got used to it.
Kayaking was a bittersweet section knowing that it was to be FSB3’s last adventures together. Three months felt so long and then like any trip, you’re nearing the end and you can’t fight the early onset of separation anxiety. Our group dynamics had changed constantly, from the honeymoon phase during hiking, to the bickering and headbutting of the sailing section. Into kayaking, we all knew each other’s styles and accepted the quirks, we all just grooved together like a well oiled outdoor machine.
Kayaking wasn’t without it’s setbacks, at one point a mean wind storm trumpeted out of the Santa Ana mountains and whipped the Sea of Cortez into a frothy mess. We couldn’t launch the kayaks for over a week and were stranded on this isolated little slab of rock. Food was running low and there was talk of having to start rationing. We tried to flag down some panga fisherman for supplies but the waves made mayhem of the beach and botched that option. We organized a hiking party to head inland to where we thought there was a little town, no such town existed.
Rationing began. We were down to 1-2 cups of rice a day and water watch. We all chewed gum and broke apart into our designated cook groups, like small packs of hyenas. We all eyed up the other groups and all had the same sinister thoughts…
“If you had to eat anyone, who would it be and why?”
I chose Nicki (sorry Nicki), she was just the nicest, cheery person the entire time and I felt I wouldn’t even have to ask her, she would probably just offer me her arm, she’s so friendly!
We didn’t end up eating anyone and Nicki kept her arm, because just as we thought we might have to sincerely turn to cannibalism a stout Mexican fisherman arrived on the cliff above our camp and yelled, “TORTILLAS!” Or at least what I think he said, regardless this guy saved us from eating ourselves and i’m forever grateful; so is Nicki.
There are countless stories from this 3 months with my NOLS familia, some of us still keep in touch when we can but I know if we all met up tomorrow we would probably fall right back into place. Sadly, a good friend of ours from that trip did leave us not too long ago and I know I speak for all of us in saying we all owe some of our best times on this trip to him and his humor.
This is the trip that really sparked my love for the outdoors. Now, those NOLS principles not only guide Outdoor Junkiez, but continue to focus my philosophies on life, relationships, the outdoors and the future. I’ve had the luxury of being able to learn about and test gear in conditions gear was truly meant for and now I get to continue doing it for a living.
PARTING TRAVEL & GEAR TIPS
1. BE A MINIMALIST – This should also be a life philosophy but when it comes to travel, focus on the essentials and nothing else. You don’t need 5 pairs of shorts or jeans or f*cking t-shirts. I know they’re all your favorite but they’re taking up too much space – you’re not going to wear all of them. Focus on items and materials you can use over and over again. Ladies, bring a scarf or big necklace to pair with that shirt you’ve been wearing all week – now it’s a new outfit! Also if you leave a little room, there will be space for all those little travel keepsakes you inevitably pick up along the way. Here are some of my favorites from Patagonia.
2. BUY THE RIGHT PRODUCTS – Focus on brands who use quality materials that will last long and preform to your needs. Observe their return policy, warranty, and repair policy. If anything happens you can fix it or return it easily. It’s better for the environment and your pocket book long term if you only have to buy 1-2 jackets for life rather than a sh*tty one every couple years. Again, Patagonia has some of the best policies in the market
3. TRAVEL SMART – Don’t haul around bulky items that you don’t plan on using the entire trip. If you’re only going to be camping or surfing for half or less of your trip, look to gear rental companies (like Outdoor Junkiez) and locally for the gear you need. That way you can continue to travel light, use the gear when you need it and even save money on baggage fees. Shoots, the associated baggage fees will probably pay for your rentals and those beers at the bar!
4. ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL – I wouldn’t be a good NOLS alumni if I didn’t remind you to always be aware of yourself, your environment, and the locals. Try to reduce the amount of waste you pack in and out of an area (pick up your Clif Bar wrappers) and remember to LEAVE NO TRACE; or if you enjoy good nature karma, leave the place better than you found it. If everyone grabbed at least ONE piece of trash along your way, the world would be just that much prettier.
Thanks for reading, feel free to leave any comments or questions below. If you have gear you would like us to review or if you’re sitting there thinking, “I like reviewing gear and writing travel stories”…we’re always looking to share your voice with the outdoor community. Send any submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up on OJZ and you can submit stories directly from your profile!