10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You
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 my son, 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 these days often entails pulling him or her away from an electronic screen to engage in physical activity for hours—your child can summon powers of resistance that conjure mental images of Superman stopping a high-speed train.
Even though my kids, now 16 and 14, have dayhiked and backpacked hundreds of miles, paddled whitewater rivers and waters from Alaska’s Glacier Bay to Florida’s Everglades, and cross-country skied and rock climbed since they were preschoolers, we still sometimes encounter blowback to our plans to do something outdoors. But we’re usually still successful, and our kids look forward to most of our adventures. Here are the reasons why.
Following up on my popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” (over 20,000 Facebook likes), which mostly speaks to 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.
#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. 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.
#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 have sent him every summer since to a four-day whitewater kayaking camp near our home, where he has developed into a competent, young boater.
Most importantly, he loves it and he’s learning how to do it safely. But by encouraging his new interest, we have not only given him the freedom to embrace the outdoors in his way, we’ve also reaped the benefits of having someone in our family who wants to expand 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.
#3 Do Something Really Cool
On a two-family, spring break trip to southern Utah, the parents wanted to take some scenic dayhikes in places like Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks—which the four youths deemed “boring.” 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 find those things.
See my story “10 Really Cool Outdoor Adventures With Kids.”
#4 Pick a Shared Goal
Last fall, I went to our 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.
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. Now my son will glean a sense of the importance of helping give opportunities like this to other young people while he and I pursue a big, shared goal together. (One ancillary benefit: Preparing for a rigorous, four-day snow climb up a big mountain helps 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.
#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.
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