We always backpacked as a family. Before her first steps, my daughter Michal (pictured) rode in a child carrier on someone’s back. As a toddler, she hiked slippery bog bridges and fished in Utah’s High Uintas. At age 7, she hiked 10 miles to our campsite and at her request earned a “backpacking trophy” (which we created by attaching a cardboard “backpack” to women’s bowling trophy. At 10 she took a wrong turn and found her own way back to the trailhead.
Then came age 12, and things changed. We got eye rolling and a sigh when a hike was proposed. She went—reluctantly—and managed to stay far ahead of us most of the day.
“I wasn’t against nature,” she said years later, “but I didn’t want to be an outsider. We couldn’t have a normal vacation like going to the beach?” She came back around later—even choosing a hiking elective in college—but during those years in between, we had to learn to make hiking work for that peculiar species known as an American teenager.
If you have one of your own at home and need help coaxing them into the outdoors, a few tips can go a long way. Youth outdoor experts tell me the winning formula for engaging ‘tweens’ in nature combines fun, friends, food,and ownership. Here’s their advice.
Don’t make it scary. Parents can send negative messages about the outdoors by too many ‘don’ts’ that project fear, notes Kim Glodek of Outward Bound’s Philadelphia School. If kids are going on an outing or even just going to play outside, messages like “don’t get dirty, don’t be late, don’t go too far…” might conjure up negative images. “You are sending messages that there is something about the outdoors that is scary, dangerous, dirty,” she says. Instead, advises Glodek, focus on what you want for them—to get outside!—and model behavior by safely spending time outdoors yourself.
Make it fun. “Middle schoolers have a super-high fun need,” says Katie Nelson, also of OB’s Philadelphia School. “We constantly play games and riddles on the trail.” For instance, she explains, in an outdoorsy game of hide-and-seek with middle-school-aged kids, one person calls out “camouflage” and everyone goes off-trail to hide.
Mix things up. Nelson advises that it helps to set short achievable goals by saying things like, “Let’s hike 10 more minutes and then we can take a snack break.” And to stave off boredom, be creative with a mix of on-trail activities, like looking for certain birds or trees.
Include friends. Preteens and teens are socially oriented. “If you plan an outdoors trip, bring a friend or two. Or see if they have friends who do outdoors activities,” advises Julie Stone of North Cascades Institute.
Let them help create the fun. Kids make fun their own way. “I’ve learned we need to detach our expectations as adults and parents from their experience,” says Garrett Dempsey, who leads a new Detroit camping initiative for the Outdoor Alliance for Kids. On a camping trip with a partner group, he notes, some of the tween boys spread out camping pads and had an hour-long wrestling session.
Make sure they have creature comforts. “Keep kids warm, safe and dry,” advises Dempsey. “If you do this, nature does the rest.” Also, consider treats a comfort. “Do not underestimate the power of well-timed sugar,” Dempsey advises.
Feed them. Food sets the mood, agrees Jason Yale, director of Big City Mountaineers, which sponsors backpacking trips for under-resourced youth. “There is nothing more demoralizing than a cold gluey mass of pasta,” Yale warns.
Start small. “Tweens are still growing and physically maturing,” says Stone. “Choose something easier to start. The last thing you want is a really negative experience and they associate the outdoors with it.” Read up on how far kids can hike at a variety of ages.
Embrace technology. Banning tweens from carrying their phones may sound like a good idea, but forcing kids to leave the devices “could be a deal breaker,” says Nelson. “Taking a tween’s phone away is a common punishment; you don’t want to start a trip with your kid feeling punished. We may not realize how much our young people connect on social media. This is their world and we have to acknowledge it really exists.”
“#Placesofinstagram draws people to trailheads where there are incredible places. It’s a great way to motivate young people to get outdoors,” adds Stone.
Tap into interests. Plan a trip around your kids’ interests—wildlife, art, photography—or perhaps take a class to learn a new skill like rock climbing or geocaching. For outdoor skills classes, check out the YMCA, community college, county and city recreation departments, and university summer programs for youth. Retailers often offer courses for kids and adults at nominal charge.
Gear up. “Tweens are prone to embarrassment if they feel like they don’t belong,” says Stone. “You’ll want to make sure that they have the gear that they need and that they feel comfortable with what they’re using before you go.”
Let kids lead. “Involve your child as much as possible in the planning process,” says Nelson. “Like, ‘here are some options, parameters, let’s explore this together.’” She adds: “Young people are incredible,” though they often feel like no one takes them seriously. Learning that they can plan and accomplish a goal (like bagging a difficult peak) or help solve problems in “a real environment with real consequences” can be life-changing for a tween.
And sometimes, getting tweens into the outdoors provides unexpected rewards for parents, as I experienced years ago in Virginia. As a toddler, my daughter loved water and often would wade the creek, hiking the rocks, while we took the dry land. On a spring backpacking trip in Virginia's Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness, this paid off big time. I had stopped cold where our trail plunged into the waist-high flooded “draft," or creek. A series of angled logs was the only way to cross. “Come on, Mom,” Michal said. Proud, but embarrassed, I was led by the hand through the creek by my calm 13-year-old daughter.
Cindy Chojnacky is the author of Return to the Wilds: A Novel (Morgan James Publishing, April 23, 2019) under the pen name "CindyC."