By Michael Lanza
“That sounds totally boring.” “Other parents don’t force their kids to do things they don’t want to do.” “I hate (fill in the activity).” If you’re a parent of a teenager, you’ve probably heard these responses from your child, or any of an infinite number of variations on them—like a personal favorite that one of my kids, at 14, laid on me: “You get to choose your friends, but you don’t get to choose your family.” If you’re trying to persuade a teen to get outdoors with you—which often entails pulling him or her away from an electronic screen—your child can summon powers of resistance that conjure mental images of Superman stopping a high-speed train.
My kids, now 20 and 18, have taken far more backpacking trips and other outdoor adventures than they can remember, paddled whitewater rivers and waters from Alaska’s Glacier Bay to Florida’s Everglades and Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and skied and rock climbed since they were preschoolers—and they are still eager to take trips with my wife and me. Although we no longer encounter blowback to our plans to do something outdoors together, that certainly persisted well into their teen years. But as teens, our kids usually looked forward to most of our adventures. This story shares the reasons why.
Following up on my popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” mostly intended for parents of younger children, the tips below summarize what I’ve learned from many outdoors adventures with increasingly independent young people—who happen to share my genetic makeup.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share your thoughts on my advice or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
#1 Establish a Tradition
I took my son on our first father-son “Boy Trip” (the name he gave it), backpacking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, when he was six. My first father-daughter adventure (yup, our “Girl Trip”—her name) followed within a few years, and we have kept the tradition alive most years since.
Similarly, our family and another with kids close in age began taking an annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt when the children ranged in age from seven to four. The boy trip, girl trip, and yurt trip have become staples of our annual travel calendar, considered as sacrosanct as birthdays—and each involves days spent entirely disconnected in remote backcountry.
Ideally, start a regular tradition of an outdoors adventure when kids are fairly young—but your child is never too old to begin. With a teenager, you may need to up the excitement stakes, like climbing a big mountain together. Find whatever it is that excites everyone involved; it may be the same activity or destination every year, or something perennially different. There are no rules, except to make it strictly about spending a lot of quality time together.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips”
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”
#2 Encourage His Interests
My wife and I introduced our children to dayhiking and backpacking, skiing, rock climbing, and paddling on easier rivers and protected bays, with the occasional whitewater rafting adventure. Then our son, at age 12, decided on his own to take up whitewater kayaking. We sent him for several summers to a four-day whitewater kayaking camp near our home; through that instruction, and lots of practice on Idaho’s beautiful and fun rivers, he has developed into a competent boater.
Most importantly, he loves it and does it safely. But by encouraging his new interest, we not only gave him the freedom to embrace the outdoors in his way, we’ve also reaped the benefits of having someone in our family who expanded our horizons. Our family now does much more whitewater kayaking (our son in his hard-shell boat, the rest of us in inflatable kayaks), including rafting and kayaking one of the West’s classic wilderness rivers, Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon.
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#3 Do Something Really Cool
But when the other dad and I took them on a three-hour, late-afternoon hike through the slot canyons Peek-a-Boo Gulch and Spooky Gulch in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, squeezing between wildly curved walls frequently closer than shoulder-width apart, all we heard from them was laughter and expressions of awe.
Some places and experiences are so fascinating and fun that even teens can’t find a reason to complain. It may require a little research, but surprise your teenager with activities and destinations that will excite him—or perhaps even better, ask your kid to help you research and plan your trip, finding those things that will excite them and getting him or her emotionally invested in the entire plan.
See my story about that hike and others, “Playing the Memory Game in Southern Utah’s Escalante, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon.”
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#4 Pick a Shared Goal
When I went to our then-15-year-old son with a proposal that he and I climb a technical route up the highest peak in the Lower 48 states, California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, to raise money for an organization that introduces kids his age to the outdoors, he loved the idea and, months later, he and I made that climb together.
During my years as a field editor with Backpacker magazine, I participated in two of the first Summit For Someone fundraiser mountain climbs for Big City Mountaineers, a non-profit that takes underprivileged, urban teenagers on multi-day wilderness adventures. I believe strongly in the critical importance of BCM’s work in helping to ensure that the generation growing up today sustains America’s outdoors heritage.
Nate gleaned the importance of helping give opportunities like this to other young people while he and I pursued a big, shared goal together. (One ancillary benefit: Preparing for a rigorous, four-day snow climb up a big mountain helped motivate him to exercise regularly to train for it.)
Whether it’s a mountain climb or something else, find a shared goal that will challenge and excite you and your kid. You may both grow personally from it in ways that surprise you, while opening new doors in your relationship with your child.
I know dangerous. Read “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”
#5 Let Him Bring a Friend
When I invited my 17-year-old nephew, Marco, on what I knew would be an extremely difficult, 17-mile, 6,800-foot dayhike in the rugged Northern Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, he asked about bringing a friend. Marco had done a comparably hard dayhike in the Whites with me the year before, but I didn’t know anything about his friend except that they were soccer teammates. So I got on the phone with that boy’s father, told him about our plans in detail—partly because, as a parent, I’d want to know more about whoever was taking my kid on such a demanding adventure—and he told me why he thought his son would do fine.
Although it was a really tough, 15-hour day, ending long after dark, all of the kids—including my son, who was 14—survived without any lasting physical damage, and with a memorable war story to tell.
Letting a teenage son or daughter invite a friend along has long been a staple parenting strategy. It’s no different for outdoor adventures—just a little trickier in that you want to make sure the friend is up to whatever challenges he or she will face.
Even better than finding the one friend who becomes the perfect adventure mate for your child is discovering an entire family that pairs well with your clan—parents and kids. That’s gold.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Click here now to learn more.
#6 Talk About the Outdoors
This tip may ring familiar to anyone who’s read my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” in which I advise parents to “Work Your P.R.” All that changes with older kids is how you talk about it. Put your enthusiasm about the outdoors on display. Don’t shove it down a kid’s throat, but when an opportunity presents itself—when your child looks interested—talk about what you love.
Show teens an inspirational online video (a medium they trust and connect with). When the Banff Mountain Film Festival Tour comes to our city every winter, showing dozens of the year’s prize-winning films about the outdoors, we take our kids, and we all go home jonesing for our next adventure.
Get inspired. Read my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
#7 Don’t Talk Only About the Outdoors
We all recall enough about our teenage years to know that life can seem overwhelming when you’re immersed in that heady and confusing age. They have a lot on their minds. No matter what your kids’ ages, parenting always boils down to figuring out their needs.
Spend time just shutting your pie hole and listening to whatever your kid wants to talk about; I always learn something about them from it. Listening also demonstrates that you really care what she’s interested in. Any parent who has told their teenager, “I’m really proud of you,” has almost certainly seen in their child’s reaction to those words how important your approval still is to them. That strategy may go farther than any other in getting your teen to want to spend time with you, outdoors or indoors.
Click here to see all of my expert e-guides, including to the best beginner-friendly backpacking trips in Yosemite and Grand Teton.
#8 Yes, It’s Still All About Food
Parents of teenagers (especially boys hitting their growth spurt) all have tales of incredible feats of caloric consumption by their child. The teenage metabolism is truly a wonder of nature, and observing it in action ranks right up there on the awe scale with seeing a wolf pack materialize on a ridgeline and commence howling, or swimming with migrating salmon.
The old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” really applies more literally to teenagers (especially boys) than to any grown adult. Whatever you’re doing outdoors, just bring food the kids will like—and more of it than you would think you need.
Afterward, celebrate with a pizza, burger and fries, milkshake, or whatever those ever-famished teenagers want to eat.
A satisfying post-trip feast may also be the most effective method for erasing any negative impressions a child has about the trip.
Get my help planning your backpacking, hiking, or family trip and 25% off a one-year subscription. Click here.
#9 Don’t Assume They Know
Teenagers may look, sound, and sometimes behave very much like adults, but like kids of any age, they can make a bad choice simply because they don’t know what the good choice is. Think about some of the dumb choices you made at that age, and why: It was probably because you hadn’t yet encountered that specific dilemma in your short life and figured out its solution. (I speak from deep personal experience.) They may be on the verge of adulthood, but they are woefully inexperienced. If you need any reminder of how young your teenager is, pull out a photo of him or her from three years ago.
If a young person inadvertently trashes an expensive piece of gear or forgets to bring something important that you reminded him a kajillion times to bring, try not to get frustrated. Use their mistake as a teachable moment: Engage them in finding the solution together. Let them feel like they had a part in solving the problem. They’ll have more ownership and pride in it and probably retain the lesson much better than just hearing yet another parental lecture (which usually just puts any kid on the defensive, feeling embarrassed).
Make every outing successful. See my “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors.”
#10 Give Some Ground
Battling with a teenager can feel like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object; it’s hard to win. So why not negotiate? Granted, sometimes you will just have to put your foot down and insist your child cooperate, in part just to maintain a proper pecking order. But you might have an easier time of it, and ultimately achieve your objective of getting your family outdoors and having fun, by giving your kids some say in the plans.
Your teenager may actually have some knowledge and skills that you lack; let her exercise those and she’ll feel empowered and invested in the plan. And when you recognize her contribution to the plan, she may also recognize that you possess a shred of intelligence and experience.
When possible, compromise on differences like a teen’s need to sleep later, but negotiate and persuade when necessary. When I hiked Mount St. Helens with my kids, and my 13-year-old bellyached about getting up early, I explained that we wouldn’t reach the summit without an early start (it ultimately took us 11 hours to go up and down)—and I promised to let him sleep later the next day.
Kids are really good at mimicking their parents’ behavior. Cling stubbornly to your position every time and your teen may learn that’s the way to handle disagreements. An unusual and inspirational experience outdoors presents an opportunity to alter that dynamic for the better, and grow a relationship with your teenager that’s more respectful and, if not entirely equal, at least more so than when that child was younger. It can shape a richer relationship in everyday life and teach your teen valuable lessons applicable throughout life.
Hiking Mount St. Helens is one of “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
#11 Get Off Your Screen
As parents, we are often busy with work and other commitments, even at home—even, crazily enough, sometimes when we’re away with our family on vacation ostensibly for family time. With many jobs today, it’s hard to cut off completely.
But if our kids do anything really well, it’s emulating our behavior. Do them—and yourself—a favor: Log out, shut down, and give your kids your full attention.
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#12 Don’t Wait Until She’s a Teenager
If you have a teenager, you already know that he or she no longer recognizes the old rule of engagement that the parents decide what the family does. Getting a preschooler or school-age child outdoors with you is easier than starting fresh with a teen, and you instill in a young child the idea that spending time outdoors is what your family does.
As our kids speed through their teenage years, we become increasingly aware of how little time we have left before they leave home. I could never predict when my son or daughter would spontaneously feel like playing a game with me or just start talking about something; but I always tried to drop whatever I was doing to take advantage of even short opportunities to share time with one or both of my kids.
As parents, we can still control much about our relationship with our children to make the most of these fleeting years.
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