Does Raising Kids Outdoors Prepare Them for the Real World?

After 18 years of backpacking, boating, and skiing, a mother and son confront letting go.
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collage of family pictures

A collage of family snapshots

Eighteen-year-old Scout and I are lying in our tent with the cold moon glaring through. I am trying to sleep despite teeth-clenching shivers; Scout is out. His eyes track a dream beneath his lids. Predictable. He is positivity personified. No care or discomfort has ever kept my son from easy sleep.

We shouldn’t be this chilled. Sure, it’s late fall in Death Valley, but we checked the forecast before leaving our home in Colorado. It called for daily highs in the 60s and nightly lows in the 40s. We threw our summer-weight bags and lightweight clothing, visors, and sunscreen into duffels and hopped cheap flights to my parents’ home in Las Vegas, where we borrowed my mom’s SUV and hit the highway to Death Valley for one last mother-son trip before Scout leaves for college.

The drive was windows down, The Black Keys pumping, lemonades on gas station ice, and cotton T-shirts fluttering in the wind. But as we descended into Badwater Basin—282 feet below sea level—a haze cloaked the sun, the temperature dropped, and we closed the windows. By the time we rolled past The Inn at Furnace Creek, I was reaching into the back seat for a flannel. Then, just after 4:30 p.m., the sun dropped beneath the Panamint Range, dusk spread across the basin, and it grew cold enough for thick wool socks and mittens. Hastily, we pitched our floorless tent, threw down our uninsulated sleeping pads, and unfurled our 30°F bags in the sub-freezing desert night.

Now, as Scout sleeps, I study the oldest of my three children. Tufts of ginger hair poke out of his old-school Swix Nordic ski hat. The beard he’s trying to grow only makes his boyish face look dirty. And his body—wiry from years of endurance-sport training—weighs a slight 140 pounds and stretches to just 5’6”. His friends call him “a petite man,” but it doesn’t bother him in the least.

From beside him in the tent, I envy Scout’s comfort. The valve on my pad emits a menacing hiss, as the ground comes up to meet my hips. I flip around like a gasping fish trying to find a comfortable divot, but the more I do, the colder I get. I’m neither passive nor long-suffering so instead of duking it out with the dirt for a second longer, I get up, crawl out of the tent, and scavenge the floor mats from the car.

Sometimes you plan for one thing and something entirely different happens, like prepping for the desert and getting the Arctic. Or like raising your kid to love what you love so he’ll always want to adventure with you, and he does grow to love those things, but not always with you. That’s the hardest part, but isn’t it also the point?

remember the feeling in my chest the first time my husband Shawn left for work and it was just infant Scout and me alone in our Granby, Colorado, home. Scout was wailing and I was trying not to. I lay him on my bed in a ring of pillows and tore through the place seeking his carrier. I’d only put him in it a few times without someone else’s help. As soon I pulled him and the pack to my chest and I felt the warmth of his baby breath, my tears stopped, as did his. The road from our home led to a burbling creek. I walked there with Scout and felt the world expand beneath our feet.

It amazed—then thrilled—me to learn that he could nurse while we hiked. If he still fussed in the pack, I’d take him out, cradle him in my lap, and tickle his feet with wildflowers. In this manner we wiled away the hours of our first summer together. More often than not, he’d snooze on our walks, and I dreamed of all of the dayhikes, backpacking trips, mountain bike rides, and ski tours we’d take as he grew into the person I hoped he would, the person Shawn and I would help him become.

My willful toddler soon became my willful little kid, who to my delight, rejected the various organized sports our small mountain town offered. Scout mirrored me as someone who feels more comfortable outdoors than anywhere else. He grew to love trail running—like me!—and Nordic skiing—like me!—so I found myself sharing more of these adventures, teaching him, splitting the parenting work with Shawn and the wilds.

Pretty soon, outdoor adventures eclipsed all of Scout’s other interests, and Shawn and I fed our budding outdoorsman a steady diet of opportunities. There was the Outward Bound course in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness when he was 15 (on which, his instructors say, he clandestinely carried more group gear than he was supposed to); the three different multiday, multisport, front-door-to-sidecountry trips he led for his friends (at 14, 15, and 16); and countless half-day trail runs, all-day speed hikes, Nordic ski days, and mountain bike rides he and I took together.

I watched my son grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Along the way, he became adept at everything from winter camping to class 3 scrambling to backcountry skiing. Then he turned 18, graduated high school, and got into college, which I’d more or less prepared myself for.

But he decided not to go seven days before he was set to leave. He said he was worried about the debt he’d accrue at the state school he was accepted into, but I think his nerves were about something else. He’s grown up in a neighborhood in the woods, where there are often more elk outside than humans on any given day. His entire graduating class was a whopping 26 kids. He’d had the good fortune of training for cross-country running on trails that wind through a national forest and for ski racing at our local hill. He can navigate with a map and compass as adroitly as he can with a GPS, but when it came time to leave the safety of his surroundings for the “real world,” it proved too much.

He tried organic farming in Hawaii but wanted to come home after just two weeks when the party atmosphere made him uncomfortable. When Shawn and I tried to cajole him into finding a different farm to work on, he wrote back, “I want to come home. I’ll chop wood and sling coffee.” But back at home, despite (or maybe because of) his return to the nest, he seemed disappointed, bitter, and had a new distance about him. He’d been so excited for the farming program—for the big world—and watching it let him down made me wonder if the outdoor childhood we’d given him had actually prepared him for a world that contains as much disappointment as joy.

It wouldn’t be long before Scout would confront that idea with me directly.

The first morning in Death Valley, we’re up with the desert sun to walk the cold out of our bones. Scout and I are eternal optimists; if tonight gets as cold as last night, we’ll just pile on more summer-weight layers and ride it out. But what we can’t do is let the prospect of a little more discomfort distract us from the time we came here to spend together. Resiliency is a lesson Shawn and I have tried to instill in Scout and his siblings since they were young. We’ve backpacked through surprise snowstorms in July and searched for shade in extreme heat on springtime raft trips. Every morning is a fresh start.

In Death Valley’s backcountry office, Scout throws the ranger off with his joyous, “Good morning. How are you? Beautiful day!” She eyes him suspiciously, sees he’s sincere, and smiles. I smile, too—can’t help it—and shake my head. A hundred times a day it feels like I’m saying, “Oh, Scout,” to myself with eye-rolling annoyance, when in truth his exuberance is the thing I admire about him most. Within minutes we’re out the door, headed toward the 31-mile Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop, a Death Valley classic.

We’ll spend three days walking, two nights camping, and hours laughing and telling stories like we always do. I also want to bring up something painful Scout said to me not long before this trip, when he was still sour after Hawaii and I was in fix-it mode trying to build him up.

Shawn had met Scout’s retreat with criticism that had started when he backed out of going to college. I’d welcomed him home with open arms, happy to have my favorite adventure partner back. But the longer Scout lingered, the more annoyed Shawn seemed to get with his absentminded teenager behavior. And when this happens, with any of the kids, I have overreacted, pulling them in tight or whisking them away into the backcountry (as school schedules allow).

Over time, I began to see myself as a motherly pied piper of fun, delivering them into happy, pine-scented memories. But this only created more tension with Shawn, who wanted solidarity in parenting. Instead of confronting the source of the discomfort, I was quick to make space around it—to let wilderness smooth over the rough edges and hope to wake up the next morning feeling right. In hindsight, I can see how I’ve been the architect of family stress.

Now I was doing it again, only this time it felt different.

Back at the trailhead, as Scout and I organize our gear, I see a young man both Shawn and I have helped become an dedicated explorer and champion of environmental and social justice. He’s decked out in a worn pair of blue knickers, a striped T-shirt, an overloved pair of La Sportivas, two different socks (“But they’re the same weight, so they match!”), and a 10th Mountain Division-brand whiskey trucker hat that he’s had since he was 10. He paid for most of his gear with money he makes fishing sockeye salmon each summer in Alaska and donates part of his earnings to causes he cares about.

Looking at him now, I would have given anything to be as fit, confident, compassionate, and backcountry-cool when I was his age. I had known the outdoors by then, but my relationship with wilderness was complicated by sexual abuse from my stepfather. By the time I was Scout’s age, I was cleaving myself from my parents.

I can still recall the empowerment I felt when I started that process. It was messy and I was sad, but at least I was owning my life. I always imagined a better relationship with my own kids and I have that. So I never thought I’d find myself on the receiving side of a similar conversation.

It all came out one day in late November when Scout and I sat down at a cafe in Boulder. He’d been home from Hawaii for a few weeks and I’d noticed he’d seemed deflated. I wanted to lift him up, so I offered to buy.

We sat and I asked him how he was feeling. He hedged, looking past my shoulder. Normally he was effusive and forthcoming, so I pressed. I thought I knew, deep down, that he needed to unburden himself from Shawn’s criticism.

Instead Scout said that because of how both Shawn and I are, he didn’t want to be like either of us.

It caught me so far off guard that for the first time I can remember, I stuttered.

“Uuuuh. Oh-kaaay. Iiii, uuu…understand.” I did not understand.

“Dad is impossible to please,” he said. “And you’re…reactive. No offense. I’m just going to be different.”

My chest tightened, but I arranged my expression in what I hoped was neutral surprise.

The next few minutes felt like an hour, as I stiffened in my seat, attempted to smile, and listened as he said his piece. I fought tears until the time seemed right to say, “That’s fine. No worries. I think I’ll head home.”

I walked to my car, jammed myself in, and immediately broke down. I’d anticipated him saying something like this—teenagers do—to help himself achieve exit velocity from childhood into adulthood. But fat tears streamed down my face and a lump filled my throat when it happened. It took forever for me to fit the key into the ignition.

Because even with all of our adventures, heart-to-hearts, philosophical debates, and mutual respect, Scout was this angry?

Tracy and Scout Hiking

The author and Scout on the trail

am far from a perfect parent. There have been times when it seemed like our small mountain cabin would fall in on itself if Shawn didn’t continuously fix it, or times when we let the oven stay semi-broken so we could buy a new raft. Choosing to raise outdoor kids has meant we didn’t give them a different kind of upbringing, didn’t create college funds, haven’t saved for retirement. But Shawn and I were not willing to compromise on access to nature and all of its barbs and balms—and we feel tremendously lucky that we’ve been able to give our kids this kind of life. I’ve seen Scout work through heartache over a summer of daily trail runs. He’s watched his younger brother Hatcher pivot out of bad behavior through immersion in kayaking and his little sister Hollis forget all about screens when the snow flies and she can ski every weekend. And when the going gets really rough for Shawn and me, Scout has seen how a day in the backcountry can be the best couples’ therapy.

But as he grew older, I’ve questioned if I’ve relied on the outdoors too heavily in teaching him life skills. Does a long, rainy slog actually build character? What does a trail have to teach about emotional intelligence, or group trips about problem solving? Had a childhood focused so much on outdoor fun taught him how to approach the grinding aspects of life with a sense of fortitude, self-confidence, and calm?

The way Scout bounced around after the he ditched his college semester, the way he reproached me at the coffee shop, made me wonder. Now he was going back into the real world, finally to college. And I no longer knew if I’d prepared him at all.

In Death Valley, the land transitions from moonscape studded with cacti flowering pink to an alluvial fan heading toward a tighter canyon. I follow Scout up the wash between narrowing cliffs into a grove of oaks with leafless branches. It’s slightly overcast but the sky is huge. Cheesecloth clouds create a rainbow around the sun. We hike at a clip, because that’s what we do. I breathe harder than Scout—our normal, too. Our pace makes me sweat, but I’m too happy cruising through the desert with my son to care what sweaty clothes do to a body on a cold winter night. Scout starts to sing his favorite Pogues song, “Waltzing Matilda.” I love his voice, so I don’t join in.

Tracy and Scout

A trail selfie

Just before mile 10, we find a flat, sheltered spot to camp. We’re above a creek and out of the wind. As soon as we stop, the sun falls behind the peaks, the temperature drops, and we are once again freezing.

Normally, when any number of our family backpacks together, we split the chores as evenly as possible when we get to camp. But very quickly, on account of me having sweated out my baselayers and not having another set to dive into, Scout takes over all camp duties. First, he places water on the stove to boil; then he pulls out my sleeping bag. By now I’m shivering so much that he has to hold it open while I worm inside. It feels weird to have my child see me so vulnerable. I hadn’t intended a role reversal like this.

Within minutes, we’re wolfing down dinner. Then I crawl into the tent while he stays busy. I—brilliantly—had hauled the floormats into the backcountry, so I’m already ahead of last night’s attempts to sleep. While I do some sleeping bag calisthenics Scout boils water, pours it into a Nalgene, and slips it into the tent, saying, “Mom. Down by your feet.”

He repeats this act of kindness twice more throughout the night. The kid who always slept now stays awake to look after his mom.

In the morning, I think of him watching me like I had watched him for most of his life. I hope he saw more good qualities in me than flaws, more parts he wants to emulate than not. I know that the compassion, knowledge, and skill he showed me last night would be enough to get him through to adulthood—that the skills Shawn and I had given him would serve him well in the transition. There’s no way I can ask him about that day at the cafe or to grade his childhood in general, because the morning is too lovely to mar with words. I want to let the wilderness soak in, to be fully present with my kid, maybe for the last time. Because from here on out, who knows where our lives go.

But I have an inkling based on how we both act on our third morning. Once we realize the cold will be locked in for hours before the sun pops above the canyon walls, we make ourselves pack up camp. Then we debate our next move—to carry on or to turn around. The problem is, I want to go forward and back.

I think that’s also how it is when a kid you love more than anything prepares to leave the nest. There’s a part of you that wants to keep him, make everything right, and send him off with only happy memories of his youth. But another part knows that raising a kid authentically means showing him that people, even or perhaps especially his parents, are imperfect.

We check each other’s packs to make sure we aren’t leaving anything important behind. We’d always have the trips we took and memories we made, even the ones when we froze. Maybe especially those ones. As we stand in the sun that’s just cresting the mountains, I think about this whole enterprise of raising a kid and watching him leave. I think of all of the promise, adventure, love, joy, and independence coming Scout’s way. I acknowledge in the same moment that releasing a kid is both the saddest and most satisfying thing. Then I turn to my son. We hug. And hike on.

Tracy Ross is an author, memoirist, and frequent contributor to BACKPACKER—and as all her children know, she’ll always be their mother and their trip buddy.