Ask Me: How Do We Keep Teenage Boys Motivated Over the Course of a 76-Mile Backpacking Trip?

[NOTE: My colleague and friend Kristin Hostetter, Backpacker Magazine’s Gear Editor, received this question from a reader and asked me for tips that she could share in her online column at]


It is finally here, we are taking our Boy Scout troop on the AT thru the GSMNP (Great Smoky Mountains National Park). We feel we have planned well and our gear is up to speed. The only question now is how to keep teenage boys motivated to complete the 76 miles. Any suggestions as to how convince them to keep digging? I have some ideas but wanted to get some from you all. I love the magazine and read it monthly, have used it as reference several times in the past. Keep up the great work!


Kristin’s response:

Dear Brian,

When my candy-starved kids were little, Skittles did the trick. I would dole out a few every 10 minutes or so. Once they hit the teenage years, it gets a bit more complicated. To get some ideas, I consulted my friend, BACKPACKER Northwest Editor Mike Lanza. He posts stories and images about his adventures, many with his family, at his blog, His book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, won honorable mention in the 2012 National Outdoor Book Awards. Mike came up with some great tips (below):

Hi Brian,

Having a group of boys is a good start: With friends around them, they will be less inclined to whine. Nonetheless, I’d set some ground rules at the outset, such as emphasizing that everyone feel free to speak up right away about any potential problems, like a hot spot on a foot that could become a blister. That gives you a window into setting a rule: They should speak up if they have an issue, but no whining.

These are teenage boys, so carry more food than you expect to need and feed them frequently. That will stave off most problems. Plan a short break every 60 to 90 minutes for snacks, and remind them to drink while hiking.

When dissension threatens, find a swimming hole for a break, or invent games to play on the trail that will distract them from the effort of hiking. Word games work with my kids, like the “rhyming game,” where we start with one word and everyone has to come up with a rhyming word until all but one player is eliminated. Have them invent a word game, like a contest to name song titles of their favorite bands.

Give out a daily prize (candy bar, or being relieved of that night’s kitchen cleanup duties) to whoever identifies the most wildlife.

If you have boys who hike at really differing paces, have leaders separate into faster and slower groups, so you don’t punish the fast as well as the slow by forcing them to stay together.

Assign duties that give them a sense of pride in responsibility. Teach them how to read the map and let them take turns leading. In camp, assign who gathers wood and builds the campfire or lights and monitors the cook stoves. Assign the most desirable duties based on choosing boys who demonstrated leadership that day on the trail by staying positive, carrying extra group weight, arriving in camp early to help set up tents, etc.

Play games in camp like capture the flag (two teams, each hides its flag within designated boundaries in the woods and tries to capture the other team’s flag while protecting theirs); or headlamp tag (one person is it, shines the light on another boy, he becomes it). Or have a nighttime scavenger hunt, looking for planted items (hidden gear) as well as natural objects (North star, an owl or other nocturnal wildlife identified by sound, worms, etc.).

And, of course: Tell ghost stories around the campfire after dark, while roasting marshmallows or s’mores.


In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at, message me at, or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission. I’m receiving an increasing volume of questions, so I cannot always respond quickly.

—Michael Lanza



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2 thoughts on “Ask Me: How Do We Keep Teenage Boys Motivated Over the Course of a 76-Mile Backpacking Trip?”

  1. Michael, I really enjoy your blog.

    Your story reminded me of a very long day hike in Big Bend National Park (Texas) to the South Rim with my son, who was then around 11. After reaching the South Rim and spending time there having lunch and enjoying the view, we began to load up for the return. My son looked at me and said, “Dad, I don’t mind the walking and everything, but it is just so boring. Could you tell me a story?” “Son, you want me to try and tell you a story for four hours? “Yeah, do you know any that long?”

    I thought of the longest story I knew and responded, “Well, once upon a time there were two Texas Rangers, Captain “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call. They lived in a town not far from here named Lonesome Dove…….”