Jobs They Love: Field Instructor
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is the world’s leading outdoor education school. They operate 16 campuses worldwide and provide instruction in a variety of outdoor skills, from mountaineering and sailing to wilderness medicine and risk management, that also empowers people to develop true leadership qualities.
Attendees range from high schoolers, mid-career professionals, and first responders to NASA astronauts, taking courses that run from a couple weeks to entire semesters. Classes are held in the great outdoors – often the most spectacular yet challenging and remote locations.
This summer, Nebraska native Lindsay Priefert is working as a horsepacking instructor for NOLS, taking high school students on 3-week horsepacking expeditions in the rugged mountains and desert areas of Wyoming. They’ll learn first-hand about the environment they travel through, plus how to care for their steeds, camp responsibly, build a fire, cook nutritious meals, and hone their decision-making and problem-solving skills.
But horsemanship is only the latest of many skills and passions Priefert has drawn upon to help provide life-changing outdoor experiences for hundreds of kids and adults that enroll in NOLS courses. She is also a certified instructor in backpacking and backcountry skiing, and adept at canyoneering and winter camping.
Her students have included adolescents, young adults, peer instructors, and U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. She’s worked as a field instructor for five years and organized and managed training courses for a few years before that.
During the COVID-19 pandemic when all regular operations at NOLS came to a standstill for a time, Priefert worked as a wilderness guide at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Colorado. There, she helped teens who struggle with life-challenges find understanding and connections through special outdoor learning adventures.
Aside from proficiency in the many outdoor tactical skills required of a NOLS instructor, what’s the single most important personal strength you rely on out in the field?
Good question, it’s tough to choose. This job pushes me to develop so many human, educational, and technical skills. I love this job because I get to work on continuously building skills I find so valuable, like patience, listening, flexibility, acceptance, allowing others to make mistakes and learn experientially, a growth mindset, humor in challenge, and emotional regulation, to name a few!
The primary strength I rely on, perhaps more important than the technical outdoor skills I need, is self-awareness. I’m aware of my thoughts and the stories I tell myself about my own competence, about my co-instructors’ needs, about our course’s challenges, about a student’s capabilities. I’m aware of my emotions and how they show up in my body, and they give me information about the decisions we’re making as a team. I’m aware of my expectations and motivations and whether or not I’m creating space for people to learn. It’s the foundational leadership skill I rely on, and everything else -- decision-making, attunement to students, celebrating success, learning from failure -- stems from there.
What’s it like for a group of teenagers these days to adjust to life in the wilderness for three weeks with no cell phone service or internet connectivity?
Quite tough, but potentially life changing. I have so much respect for them. They leave what they know to join a group of strangers doing physically and emotionally vulnerable things in a new and wild place. It takes so much courage. But something inspires them to make that brave choice, and I’m so glad they do.
I think students have a tough time separating from their phones while on course, because phones have become the center of our social network. It’s where we retreat when we experience a tough emotion, even as simple as boredom. In the wilderness, the escapes aren’t so easy to find, and the wilderness doesn’t stop throwing challenges your way. I think students learn to sit in discomfort, and take action in uncertainty, rather than escaping from it. I think they also learn to notice the beautiful moments they might have been missing before.
Riding horses, going camping and exploring in the great outdoors, is like the ideal grownup job that a lot of kids dream about. Was it for you?
Unfortunately not! Growing up in Nebraska, I didn’t have any role models following this career path. I started believing this was a career I could pursue when I was about 27. I had a good job but didn’t feel like I was utilizing my best strengths at work; my friend asked me the classic question, what I would do if I could do whatever I wanted to, without limitation. I said I’d want to take people camping, so they could learn about themselves and their capabilities (and I could continue to learn about mine). Luckily, she encouraged me and helped turn the dream into reality. I started networking my way into a whole new industry, and I’m so glad I did.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
When students find what they came looking for in a NOLS course. It’s hard to predict what someone’s most important course outcome will be, it’s so specific to each human. But living simply, in community, and making decisions together in uncertainty changes people. It often leads to people having more confidence to lead themselves in healthy ways, more positively contribute to their communities, and have the confidence to step forward to be a positive leader in uncertainty. It makes me proud to introduce people to these beautiful, wild places, and to send better, more grounded and self-assured people out into the world afterward.
Where do you hope this remarkable experience will lead you next in life?
I’m so lucky to have a job where I can learn new things and push my skills every day. Right now, I’m heading towards leading more horsepacking courses, and incorporating my interest in mindfulness into my backcountry work. We’ll see where I end up!
Being a NOLS field instructor is a 24/7, months-long commitment. How do you relax on the rare days-off – sleep in?
Time on course is focused and all-consuming, but large chunks of time off is such a gift of this work. I absolutely sleep in, drink coffee and read, cook food in a kitchen rather than on a backcountry stove, do crosswords and play basketball with my partner, catch up with my people, walk dogs, ride horses, and go on adventures. It’s a pretty good life!
Photos (from top): Lindsay Priefert; wilderness horsepacking, NOLS/Matt Hage