If you’re a parent of a pre-teen or a teenager, and you like to hike, you may have had this experience. You wake up your teen early on a Saturday to announce that you’re going to hit the trail and ask them if they’d like to come. You want to spend the day with them and you know that the exercise and time in nature is good for them. They roll over, rub their eyes and moan like you’ve just asked them to mop the floor in the bathroom.
“Do I haaaaavvvveee to?”
“I’d like you to come with me. It’s a beautiful day outside. Don’t you want to get some sun and exercise?” You ask hopefully.
“Not really.” They grunt and roll back over, pulling the covers over their head.
Eventually, with much prodding and cajoling, they get out of bed, and two hours later, you’re in the car and on your way.
You know that as soon as they start walking in the woods and smell the fresh air and see the view they’ll love it. You deceive yourself of this false conclusion every time. You’re optimistic that your teen will realize that hiking is fun, feels good and that it’s “quality time” spent with the family. They seem okay with it—as long as the trail is flat or downhill and you’re not walking more than twenty minutes. As soon as the trail starts to gain elevation or you’ve finally been walking long enough to get a good heart rate going, the whining begins.
“When are we going to turn around?”
“Are we at the top yet? How much farther is it?”
“I have a headache.”
They’ll just slouch and drag, their pace slowly to an infuriatingly slow amble, so that any hope of real exercise is lost. And so is actually arriving at the summit, or the lake, or whatever your destination was. Because at their pace, it’ll take hours.
I know this isn’t just my experience. For years I designed a course catalog for a teen summer camp program for a Colorado company that took kids aged 13-17 everywhere in the world to rock climb, kayak, backpack, and camp. Whenever I selected beautiful photos of expansive mountain vistas depicting kids hiking, the owner of the business would tell me to remove the photo.
“Teens hate hiking,” he would say. “If we have that photo in the catalog they won’t sign up for that program. You have to pick photos of kids being active and having fun. Preferably eating and sitting by a campfire. Maybe goofing off. That’s their favorite thing to do. Goof around with each other and eat.”
I love hiking so much I’ve written a book about it, so the idea that someone would find hiking so torturous is amusing. Is it really that bad? Apparently, if you’re just about to turn 13, it’s considered a form of punishment. It’s a death march. It’s something your parents make you do when you’ve gotten an F on your report card.
Last year I was planning an annual trip to the San Juan mountains of Colorado with my family. One of the things my husband and I wanted to do is hike the 7-miles round trip to the Blue Lakes just beneath Mount Sneffels in Ridgway. I prepped my 12-year-old daughter for months ahead of time. We went on frequent walks and short hikes in town to get her into shape. I played basketball with her at the local rec center. I described how beautiful the trail would be and how majestic the mountain is. I told her it was something I had been looking forward to for so long and I couldn’t wait for her to experience it with me.
With so much preparation and inspiration, my daughter probably felt like she couldn’t let me down. When the day finally came, we did end up doing the hike – all 7 miles and 4-1/2 hours of it, and half of it in the rain no less! I was proud of her. It was a difficult trek uphill and an exhausting workout. We went out for pizza and ice cream that evening for dinner as a reward and I kept telling her over and over how proud I was of her. She was enchanted by the view and she didn’t complain even once the entire hike.
But now, whenever I tell her we’re going to go hiking, she compares everything to that hike. Is it as long as that hike up to the Blue Lakes, she wonders? Will it be as long? As much as she seemed to enjoy it, I doubt I could get her to do it again.
What I’ve discovered about my teen and hiking is that she enjoys it under certain circumstances. They are:
1. In a group of kids her age.
My daughter says the most magical, best experience of her life was hiking 7 miles in one day with a group of kids her age to the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado during a week-long wilderness camp. She talks about this day with reverence. It was grueling, yes, but since she was with kids her age it was also fun. Go figure.
2. If the hike involves a game or fun activity.
In my book, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range, I indicate the hiking activities that are “appropriate” and interesting for kids. Two of those are “drawing yourself in the landscape” and “tree games.” These activities break up the hike, spark their imagination and make it “fun.” Sometimes children and teens don’t see the point of walking long distances in the woods for its own sake. They want to laugh, have fun, see interesting things and maybe play for a while. My daughter liked the hikes where we played the tree games and drew pictures, and it wasn’t just about walking.
In the winter, my teen enjoys a short snowshoe, sledding or cross-country skiing. So do I.
3. If the hike is short and easy.
I’ll have to save the longer, grueling hikes for a time when my teen is visiting friends, hanging out at home with dad or away at summer camp. Otherwise, we’ll all be miserable listening to each other bitching and moaning.
4. If the hike involves animal sightings or frequent breaks to just “hang out” and explore.
One of the more exciting hikes we’ve done as a family was in Yellowstone, on a trail where there were scores of fat marmots running around and steam rose mysteriously out of the sands on the beach of Lake Yellowstone. The fear of grizzlies around every corner helped keep the adrenaline pumping, too.
Since I can’t find any weekend hiking clubs for teens where I live in Colorado, I guess I’ll just have to try my best to adhere to points #2-4. It’s not just a matter of assuring that my kid gets enough exercise—there are many sports leagues in town—it’s exposing her to nature and quiet, non-competitive time outdoors. It’s a challenge at this stage of her life, but it’s worth the extra effort to find a hiking experience we can all enjoy.