Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
When is your teenager ready to hike or explore the outdoors alone? Here are five steps to ensure your teen is prepared to safely venture out on trails without you | by Cassandra Overby
All it took was one WTA work party—six hours of fresh air and hard work—for Gaby Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son Julian Narvaez to fall in love with the outdoors. And with that, the mother of three went from having a son who simply needed to fulfill school-mandated community service hours to having a son who couldn’t wait to get outside.
“After that first day, I picked him up and (he) was happy,” Gaby says. “He actually talked about (his day) in the car, which was nothing short of a miracle. Because you know how teenagers get, where they don’t want to talk to you? It was great. It just clicked … A couple of weekends after that, he said, ‘Mom, can I do this again?’ And that was the end of it.”
At first, Julian was happy attending WTA work parties. But before long, he started to crave the idea of going farther. So he signed up for a few Volunteer Vacations. It did help; he did go farther—to Andrew’s Creek, Beacon Rock and Alta Lake. But by the time he was 16, Julian was ready for a different kind of adventure. He wanted to hike with his newfound friends—independently.
Gaby was excited that her son was enjoying the outdoors so much, that he was away from screens and technology and that he loved to hike. It made her think of her own youth and how much she’d enjoyed being outside. But it was also a challenge, parenting a child who was now more outdoorsy than she was.
The unique joy and struggle of parenting an outdoorsy kid is something Josh Gannis, director of youth programs at The Mountaineers, sees all the time. There are now record numbers of kids participating in active youth programs and getting outside. Nearly 1,700 were enrolled in Mountaineers programs last year alone. Eventually, whether they have outdoorsy parents or not, they all want to enjoy the outdoors on their own or with peers. It’s simply part of growing up.
That fact that it’s natural doesn’t make it any easier on parents. Your son or daughter may not be a child anymore, but they are your child. And that means you’re destined to worry about everything from your son texting and driving on his way to a hike to your daughter taking a fall while paying more attention to her friends than the trail. How can you keep them safe if you’re not there?
As Gaby discovered, there is a way. It starts with building a strong foundation for your child and their love of the outdoors by getting involved in their interests and finding a good youth program for them. Then you can progress to mitigating the risks every hiker, young and old, faces on trail. In the process, you’ll help your teen build the independence that will support their life far beyond the outdoors.
It sounds counter intuitive, but as Gaby figured out early on, one of the best things you can do to help prepare your teen to adventure alone is to initially be there—a lot. Especially if your teen can’t drive yet, your support and participation— from driving them to the trail and hiking with them to helping them meet up with their friends—can mean the difference between them getting outside and being completely sidelined.
“(When I started getting outside), my mom was my primary ride for the year,” says Julian. “She got me to those (WTA) day trips … and really let me do what I needed to do.”
While rides often make teens’ outdoor adventures possible, spending time together on trail can supercharge the growth of your child’s outdoor education— and your trust in their skills and decision making. It’s okay to start small. As Gaby says, “Just go out with them. There are many hikes even within the city. Just spend time with them. You don’t have to have an entire vacation or an entire day hike planned to go out with them. There are many places where you can just get out there and walk.”
When you’re out there, your goal is to impart as much of your outdoor knowledge to your teen as possible. Anything from rain to slick rocks to unprepared fellow hikers can be a teachable moment. But remember, don’t let the conversation be one-sided. You can learn a lot about your teen’s abilities by asking open-ended questions like, “What would you do in this situation?” and talking it out.
Chances are, at some point you will discover gaps in your own outdoor education. And that’s okay. Ask an outdoorsy friend or family member to tag along on trail and off er their own teachable moments. Or find a class that both you and your child can attend (REI has many great ones that are free)—and learn together.
Once your teen is getting outside regularly and you’ve imparted all the knowledge you can, it’s time to call in the experts and step back a bit. Your goal is to find a youth program that will continue to build your child’s outdoor foundation—and provide them with like-minded peers. For Gaby and Julian, that organization was WTA. For aspiring climbers, it’s typically The Mountaineers. Those who want an epic education farther from home often choose Outward Bound or NOLS.
Regardless of which organization you choose, there are several things to look for. The right program has plenty of quality instruction on everything from the Ten Essentials to Leave No Trace. At WTA, these values are emphasized on all work parties and Volunteer Vacations. The ideal organization also offers mentorship, so your teen will be learning from—and teaching—other teens. At The Mountaineers, all teen trips are kid led and instructor supervised, so by the time high schoolers want to go out on their own, they’ve already planned three or four group excursions. The right organization will also have opportunities for growth. As your child masters new skills, they will be able to practice them in a controlled environment. At Outward Bound, participants work up to and are supported in solo time outdoors within the confines of a larger, supervised trip.
From building skills to building confidence, there’s no better way to give your child more independence in the outdoors than by encouraging their participation in a high-quality, outdoors-oriented youth program. There’s even an added benefit to you: By connecting with a great organization, you’ll also be able to connect and swap tips with other parents of outdoorsy kids.
Once you’re confident that your teen is ready to tackle the outdoors on their own, it’s time to let them go. Luckily, there are things you can do before they leave and while they’re gone to keep your worrying to a minimum.
Once your teen has a specific excursion in mind, the best thing you can do is drill them on their plan. This includes both Plan A and Plan B (in case the trailhead parking lot is full, it starts to pour rain, etc.). You should have all the details of where they’re going, who they’re going with and when they plan to be back. Then it’s time to look for any weaknesses in the plan—and help your teen overcome them.
According to Gaby, this takes some research on the part of the parent. After she and Julian discuss a potential hiking trip, Gaby gets on the computer and checks out the hike description and an online map. She looks to see how far the trail is from civilization, if there will be cell phone service and if there are any dangers like high cliffs.
The goal, says Josh, is to “make sure their skills match what they want to do.” If they’ve never scrambled, an unchaperoned trip is not the time to start. If they’ve never hiked in snow, it’s best to do it together before they do it alone. Good trails for beginners are those that are well traveled, meticulously signed and close to home.
Once you and your teen have a final plan, write it down on a printable itinerary (wta.org/itinerary) and keep it with you. If anything unexpected occurs, like your teen needs help on trail or hasn’t checked in by the agreed-upon time, you’ll have all of the information you need to get help.
Once you’re comfortable with the plan, make sure your teen has the right gear to get outside. For Gaby, that meant investing in hiking boots for Julian. It can also mean pulling together a hiking kit that includes a backpack, water bottle and the Ten Essentials. Aside from the standard hiking gear, make sure your teen has gear that’s appropriate for the days they’re hiking, whether the weather is hot, cold, rainy or somewhere in between.
To make sure nothing gets forgotten, Gaby and Julian do a bag inspection before each hike.
“As the son of a fairly nervous parent, I just have to make sure I show them my packed bag and then I show them all the gear I’m bringing,” says Julian. “It’s really a matter of if I’m prepared and ready to go. They’re pretty understanding that if I have the right goals and I have the right gear, then anything that really comes my way, I’m able to deal with it.”
Once the plan is finalized, the gear is packed and your teen is out the door, the best thing you can do to avoid worrying about them while they’re gone is to stay in communication when possible. This is pretty simple if there’s cell phone service at the trailhead and on the trail. If this isn’t the case, consider sending them with a personal locator beacon, SPOT or satellite communicator. Any of these devices can alert search and rescue if your teen is in trouble; with the SPOT and satellite communicator, you also have the ability to follow along with their hike on your computer or mobile device. Depending on the brand and model of the unit your teen carries, they’ll even be able to send and receive check-in messages.
Whether your teen is calling via cell phone or messaging from another device, it’s important to have established check-in times. For Gaby and Julian, it’s when he starts hiking and when he gets back to the trailhead. Aside from regular check-ins, establish what other events require communication, such as changing from Plan A to Plan B, running late or making camp.
Once your favorite hiker is back home, there’s still plenty to communicate about. Talk about your teen’s favorite part of the trip, how the hike went and what lessons they learned. Ask what they would do differently next time—and then help them follow up. This is a great way to help them grow while still encouraging their independence.
With your help, your teen can do some amazing things in the outdoors. Julian started a hiking club at his high school; one of his friends recently summited Mount Rainier. This past summer, six teens from The Mountaineers hiked the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail—by themselves. But helping your teen gain their independence in the outdoors impacts far more than just their hobbies.
“The beautiful thing is, this transfers to all aspects of life,” says Josh. “You planned a trip and you figured out your logistics; you know everything you need to do to get from here to the top of Rainier. When you’re starting to apply for jobs, you apply that same skill set. When you’re applying to college, you have your ultimate goal and you can plan. You can, essentially, manage a project … It preps (kids) to be resilient. It’s going to set them up for success.”