Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me)
By Michael Lanza
A glacial wind pours through a snowy pass in the remote mountains of Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park. Virtually devoid of vegetation, the terrain offers no refuge from the relentless current of frigid air. Some of the troops are hungry, a little tired, and grumpy; mutinous doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility, so I don’t want to add “cold” to their growing list of grievances. I coax everyone to push on just a little farther, down out of the wind to a sun-splashed, snow-free area of dirt and rocks for lunch.
But I don’t like the looks of the steep slope we have to descend. Blanketed in snow made firm by freezing overnight temperatures, and littered with protruding boulders, it runs hundreds of feet down to a lake choked with icebergs—in mid-July. A trench stomped into the snow by other trekkers diagonals down to our lunch spot. It’s well traveled, but someone slipping in that track could rocket downhill at the speed of a car on a highway. I turn to our little party—which ranges in age from my nine-year-old daughter to my 75-year-old mother—and emphasize that we have to proceed extremely carefully.
We inch our way across a span of snow broader than a football field is long. Within twenty feet of the safety of the dirt where we intend to stop, I hear my wife behind me shriek, “Nate!” And I spin around to see my 11-year-old son sliding downhill, accelerating rapidly.
By sheer luck—or perhaps just because he weighs so little—he stops abruptly about 30 feet below us, caught on the lip of a moat that has melted out on the uphill side of a boulder. (With a little more speed, he might have slammed into that boulder, miles from the nearest road and many hours from the nearest emergency room.) I tell him to remain still, then usher everyone to the lunch spot and kick steps into the hard snow down to Nate to lead him to safe ground.
I hesitate to share that story because some people will read it and judge me a bad parent who willingly places his children in harm’s way. Some parents may see it as validation for their fear of taking kids out into nature. I’m a father (and not mentally unbalanced, honestly); I understand that protective instinct. I’ve also seen how quickly everything can go wrong in the backcountry—a few times, in fact, which is a few too many. But seeing danger suddenly grab one of my kids and hurl him down a mountainside felt like simultaneous blows to my head and heart. For the rest of that trip, and occasionally since, those three seconds of horror have replayed in my mind, and I’ve chastised myself for not simply guiding my kids and my mom one at a time across that slope (as I did when we continued that descent—uneventfully—after lunch).
Today, more than four years after that beautiful, weeklong, hut-to-hut trek in Jotunheimen, my family and the friends who joined us look back on it fondly. In spite of that haunting memory of Nate’s slide and a deep understanding of the inherent risks, I continue to take my kids backpacking into wilderness, rock and mountain climbing, whitewater kayaking and rafting, and backcountry skiing. The reasons for that derive from societal forces as much as personal values, and are as complicated and vexing as parenting itself.
But I’m still not sure what terrifies me more: knowing how close we came to tragedy, or my enduring belief that exposing my kids to this kind of danger is somehow good for them.
Raising Wild Kids
I became a father at age 39, on the brink of middle age, and began playing parent by ear with only a vague sense of the melody (which inevitably means hitting a lot of bad notes before finding the right ones). I’d had a good life through my thirties, working as an outdoor writer, spending more days outside every year than many avid backpackers, climbers, skiers, and paddlers spend in 10 years. In some ways, I think it may have been harder to surrender that freedom at that age than it might have been 10 years earlier. Suddenly, the cold reality of daddyhood had taken away my ability to head out anytime the desire hit me.
I saw only one conceivable strategy for preserving my charmed lifestyle—and my sanity: I had to raise my children to love the outdoors as much as I do.
Shortly after my son and daughter came along in the early 2000s, author Richard Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder in his bestseller Last Child in the Woods, revealing just how little time children in many Western nations spend outdoors. As my kids reached school age, I began to realize how many parents believed—based on overwrought news reports that painted a picture very different from the statistical reality—that child abductors lurked everywhere, making the streets and playgrounds unsafe for children to wander around unsupervised (as if they were children). Instead, parents actively managed their children’s time through organized sports and music lessons and “play dates” with other kids—which I believe helps foster the impression in kids’ minds that “playing” involves one friend, maybe two or three, not the larger gatherings required for activities like pickup sports games.
It slowly dawned on me how radically the topography of childhood had shifted in the decades since I’d traveled over it.
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Then my children reached a transitional age from elementary school to junior high, and they and their peers seemed to phase out almost all outdoor activity. They still played soccer, but only in organized leagues; I rarely see any kids in our residential neighborhood engaged in the pickup ball games that dominated my time at that age. For many of this generation, the games that kept my peers and me outside and physically active are replaced by electronic entertainment that keeps them inside and inactive.
My son and daughter, now 16 and almost 14, move comfortably between two strikingly disparate worlds. One is the world they love to visit: nature. They have explored many wild places that I didn’t even know the names of as a boy: Sequoia (lead photo at top of story), Zion, Olympic, Glacier Bay, Capitol Reef, Everglades, and in the state of their birth, the Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains and Middle Fork of the Salmon River, among other public lands. They were skilled and experienced wilderness travelers before they became teenagers.
At the same time, when we’re home, my teenagers live in the walled-in, plugged-in, touchscreen, modern world. They communicate or play electronically with friends who are in their own homes more often than in person. If I tell my kids to go outside, they look at me as if I’ve suggested that they go live in a hollowed-out log and subsist on grubs; they tell me that none of their friends are outside or see any reason for going out. From their perspective, formed by comparing themselves with the kids they know, this is perfectly normal.
That bothers me—particularly the normalization of living almost entirely indoors. But what bothers me even more is adult society’s complicity in the growing home confinement of its children.
Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the mountain, I’m trying to raise wild kids from the most wired generation in history.
Young Backcountry Skiers
Snowflakes float silently out of a gray ceiling and fingers of fog probe the mountainsides within view as five of us slowly ski uphill on Pilot Peak in southern Idaho’s Boise Mountains. Our group includes my friends and regular backcountry-skiing partners Paul Forester and Gary Davis; Gary’s 15-year-old daughter, Mae, out on her first-ever day of carving wild snow; and my son, Nate. Mae and Nate grew up as neighbors and have become close friends in high school.
After climbing steadily uphill for more than an hour, we reach the top of an open meadow that slopes downhill for several hundred vertical feet from where we stand. Pine forest flanks the sprawling meadow on all sides, many of the trees scorched, blackened husks since a major wildfire last summer—the kind of blaze that has become larger and more common throughout the West as the climate warms. I wonder what that portends for the future of skiing for these teenagers—although that may someday seem trivial in light of the larger climate-related problems facing their world. (Read about the impacts of climate change in my book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.)
But today, in a winter of one snowstorm after another, white fluff covers the ground deeply here, at over 7,000 feet. We dig a pit nearly two meters deep to evaluate the likelihood of an avalanche occurring where we want to ski. We’ve deliberately picked a run we know doesn’t get steep enough to make an avalanche likely. Still, risk is like pine sap on clothing—no matter what you do, you can never eliminate it completely, anywhere. The three adults here feel the enormity of responsibility we bear to keep these two young people safe.
After judging the avalanche risk low enough to ski here, we head downhill one at a time. Nate and Mae both face-plant in the powder and come up laughing. After a couple of laps up and down, Mae feels a sports injury acting up, and Paul’s having a binding issue; they and Gary decide to ski down to the car, and offer to wait there while Nate and I ski another lap. So we take them up on it.
As we make the last uphill climb, Nate confesses: “The first few times we went backcountry skiing, I was just trusting you when you said it would get more fun, because it wasn’t a lot of fun those first times.” I nod; skiing up a mountain is hard work. “But now I get it. This is great,” he says, gesturing at the heavily falling snow and deeply quiet ponderosa pine forest around us, “and every time we go, I like it better.”
A Generation Indoors
Few of Nate’s and Mae’s peers experience anything even remotely resembling our day on Pilot Peak.
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told National Geographic magazine in 2016, “Young people are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” While national parks have seen record numbers of visitors three years in a row—with 325 million in 2016—those people are mostly Baby Boomers (and predominantly white, another concern of National Park Service managers). The average age of visitors to Yellowstone is 54, while the number of people under age 15 going to national parks has fallen by half in recent years.
Any parent can tell you where those kids are. Children age eight to 18 spend more than seven hours a day on electronic screens, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. (The New York Times news story about the study carried the headline: “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online.”) But that figure under-represents the reality: They multi-task on multiple devices and actually cram nearly 11 hours of media consumption into those seven-and-a-half hours.
At a wedding not long ago, I had the weirdly jolting experience of watching virtually everyone college age and under dancing with their phones in their hands—recording a video, taking a photo, or constantly ready to do either. They didn’t want to separate from their technology even for the length of a pop song. My kids have spent days at a time in the wilderness; they’re used to being offline for long periods. But for many of their generation, being disconnected poses a significant psychological obstacle to getting out in nature.
Anyone with an Internet connection can read reams of material demonstrating why too much screen time is unhealthy for kids. Some data also suggests that certain uses of devices aren’t bad for kids. But I worry more about what they’re missing by staying online indoors.
Responsibility for the future of our national parks, the air we breathe and water we drink, even our planet’s livability in this era of rapidly accelerating climate change, will fall soon upon the shoulders of these teenagers and children. We may discover what happens when we raise a generation of children as if they were indoor cats.
A growing body of research demonstrates what many of us know intuitively: that being in nature makes us physically and emotionally healthier.
University of Utah cognitive psychologist David Strayer found that a group of Outward Bound participants performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. His explanation: immersion in nature somehow gives the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s overtaxed command center, a much-needed break. Researchers at the University of Exeter found that increasing green space near people’s homes made them measurably happier. Other studies have shown that people with a window view of greenery perform better in school and at work and recover faster in hospitals. Whatever physiological indicators are measured—stress hormones, brain waves, heart rate, or protein markers—the evidence is clear: Our bodies prefer being in nature.
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But I think the ongoing conversation about how little time kids spend outdoors misses one critical point.
Adults tend to discuss the issue as if it’s a problem created by kids. Mine were born in the 21st century. They and their peers did not invent the Internet, online games, or electronic devices. They also did not create an urban and suburban environment where, compared to my boyhood, far more private and public property is fenced off or otherwise off-limits to playing, biking, sledding [insert childhood play activity of choice here] out of concern about “safety” (i.e., lawsuits). Today’s kids did not decide against walking to school; parents have created this generation of children who get driven to school.
Viewing this issue on a larger canvas, we should all worry about who will take on tomorrow’s conservation battles. Activism doesn’t arise from nothing—it is a fire stoked by experiences. Environmentalism’s greatest champions began as young people passionate about wilderness and nature. Responsibility for the future of our national parks, the air we breathe and water we drink, even our planet’s livability in this era of rapidly accelerating climate change, will fall soon upon the shoulders of these teenagers and children. We may be in danger of discovering what happens when we raise a generation of children as if they were indoor cats.
Last year, when I asked my 13-year-old daughter, Alex, what she’d like to do for our annual “girl trip,” she contemplated it only briefly, then said, “Let’s go rock climbing.” We had a wonderful time on the granite cliffs of Idaho’s Castle Rocks State Park, where she reached the top of some of the hardest routes she’s ever climbed. Nate has developed a passion for whitewater kayaking, and grown quite competent through attending camps. Last summer, as we paddled the class III whitewater of Idaho’s Payette River, a short drive from our home, I asked his advice on the correct line through an approaching rapid. Nate smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I wouldn’t just let you do it on your own.” Both kids were crushed to learn we couldn’t take our annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt this year, because a major wildfire last summer had damaged much of the yurt and trail system in the Boise National Forest. It would have been our tenth straight year, going back to when Alex was four.
Moments like these reinforce my gut feeling that my wife and I have done something right by taking them camping and climbing, backpacking and skiing since they were babies.
When my little world briefly turns to poo-poo, I know the cure—the instant injection of happiness delivered by going backpacking for several days, or spending a day skiing, climbing, or hiking, or taking an hour-long trail run. I see that same reaction in my kids and their friends who join us outside—an instant shot of joy. Children who grow up without that experience may never teach it to their own kids. For nearly all of the history of homo sapiens, we have been creatures of nature. Only in the past few generations have more and more people become distanced from it, fomenting a misguided notion of the natural world as alien to us.
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I don’t delude myself about the risks of my kids climbing, whitewater kayaking, backcountry skiing, or even just backpacking; I’ve seen the worst that can happen out there. I also understand how activities with a relatively low level of risk can be a sort of gateway drug to riskier pursuits; and how young people, especially, are sometimes drawn to danger like a moth to the flame. Still, risk is something we can estimate and make decisions to minimize; one obviously doesn’t have to climb cliffs or paddle whitewater. Simple immersion in nature requires no more risk than we accept without thought every day in civilization.
I’ve also seen how my kids draw real life lessons from what we do outdoors. We all learn to manage risk through experience; and outside, risk is so visual and visceral that those lessons get fast-tracked. On a cliff or in a whitewater rapid, danger is in your face. It provides an effective metaphor, when the time is right, for talking about the sort of hazards young people too often view blithely, like alcohol, drugs, sex, and cars.
Plus, there’s simply no analog in civilization for the time my family spends together in the backcountry, when we’re all disconnected from our electronics. We talk to each other. We tell stories. We laugh. In other words, we resort to the basic form of human communication that is the cornerstone of human civilization: verbal. Probably like most families, spending hours a day talking and sharing time together almost never happens in the “real world.”
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To a new parent asking my advice, I’d suggest establishing strict limits on screen time for young children (and impose the rule on yourself at home, because if kids are good at anything, it’s imitating their parents). I would postpone getting a kid her first cell phone for as long as possible—it’s electronic methamphetamine, and most kids (and adults) get addicted immediately.
But we’re never turning back the clock of childhood to a time before smartphones, tablets, laptops, social media, texting, and Youtube. That genie escaped the bottle years ago. Short of whisking your family off to live in the remote Arctic, insulating your child from the influences of society is as realistic as expecting him to never disagree with you. Their friends have phones and computers. They’ll reach an age where they routinely use a computer or other device for schoolwork. (Then try monitoring screen time.) As with most adults, the lives of children grow increasingly interwoven with technology.
Negative reinforcement—restricting a child’s access to anything—only goes so far. At some point, you have to grant your kid the freedom and responsibility to make decisions, which they will do with or without their parents’ endorsement, anyway. That’s called growing up.
To get my kids off screens, I have to offer them something better. And to find that something, we go outside.
Better Than Screens
The mountain goat seemed to appear out of thin air as we neared Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. Nate, then nine, and Alex, seven, froze in their tracks and stared at it—not in fear so much as wonder. It was their first mountain goat. We exchanged stares for several minutes, until the goat yielded the trail by plunging down the mountainside below us, which was basically a cliff. Alex peered down from the spot where the goat had stepped off the trail and said, “I can’t believe it went down there.”
Moments later, we encountered an older couple hiking in the opposite direction, who sized up our kids and gushed, “We’re impressed! We never had any luck trying to get our kids to backpack.” After they had passed, Alex turned to me and pointedly said: “You didn’t get us to do this. We wanted to do it.”
Six years after that hike in Glacier, Nate, now 15, and I are lying in our 0-degree sleeping bags on an April evening, in a tent pitched on snow at 12,000 feet below the soaring cliffs and spires of the East Face of California’s Mount Whitney. Hours after reaching the 14,505-foot summit of the highest peak in the contiguous United States via a mountaineering route, we’re tired and proud as we recall details of the day.
Then Nate throws an arm around my shoulders and speaks words that he’s said before and I’ll never get tired of hearing: “I love it when we do these things together.”
Am I endangering my kids by taking them on these outdoor adventures? I understand the honest answer to that question too well to deny it. But the anxious moments have been relatively few. More significant is the impact the outdoors has on my children. It’s making them better people—better able to manage the challenges and stresses they will encounter in “normal” life; better citizens for helping to address the myriad difficult choices the future holds for society; and well-rounded, mature individuals better able to follow a path that leads to happiness. That last item is what matters most to me.
So I view that question through the wide-angle lens that reveals the whole picture of what it’s like to be a young person today. And from that perspective, I’m convinced that, rather than endangering them, the outdoors is saving their lives.
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