By Tara Taylor
For avid campers, the thought of spending your summer in the woods disconnected from all technology sounds like heaven, but for many teens, it's a tough sell. Some teens would even argue that summer is all about lounging about the house, texting friends, and binge-watching Netflix. Many parents adamantly disagree.
What better way to break up the summer boredom and laziness with a camping trip? Many families choose to pack up the car and head to one of the many campgrounds just outside the Bay Area, but for teens who have outgrown the family tradition, backpacking is the perfect alternate. Guided backcountry trips have everything that a teen could want: independence, challenges, and friends.
Structured (and supervised) backpacking summer camps let teens get the independence and adventure they crave while satisfying their parents' request to get off the phone and get outside. And the best part is many of these camps are right here in California, with guided trips from the Pacific coast to the Sierra Nevada.
Over the past decade, there has been a boom in outdoor adventure camps for teens. Outward Bound is now only one of nearly 100 camps that take teens into the great outdoors. Long gone are the disciplinary excursions that focuses on "toughening up" troubled kids.
"It was incredibly positive," said Anna Kristina Moseidjor, who hiked through Yosemite for 14 days with NatureBridge, a program that focuses on environmental education. "The biggest challenges were socially. I am fairly introverted."
These camps are not just about hiking and pitching a tent; there are activities that can be added to college résumés. A majority of trips focus on forming connections with other teens and the greater outdoors. Many have larger themes such as environmental education, leadership, or community service.
"Kids get to know each other really well over a short amount of time," said Chad Olcott, director of Apogee Adventures, a nationwide outdoor adventure program that hosts trips through California's coast and mountains. "It etches something in a kid's memory that can really change the direction of a kid's life."
Moseidjor's trip with NatureBridge was so influential that the following summer she enrolled in a backpacking and mountaineering program. "I think the cool thing about these camps are that they are an opportunity to push you."
While more expensive than traditional overnight camps, these types of camps offer an experience that can be life-changing and are well worth it. Backpacking programs can range from one to three weeks, with some campers flying in from out of state. Groups are usually coed, with a few specialized camps for teen girls. Boys and girls do not share tents. You can expect the group sizes to be anywhere from 10 to 20 teens, with usually two adult guides at the lead.
At the beginning of the program, campers meet in a single location and then are bused to the wilderness with their guides. Guides help make the campers feel connected. The first night usually includes a light hike, making camp, and then some team-building exercises. Campers carry all their gear, and there are no phones allowed. Teens usually go through a brief withdrawal, but most camp directors insist that the beauty of being out in nature eases the pain.
Nearly all programs are structured to incorporate smaller activities to break up the hiking, and some camps have their campers spend time in one location and then move to a different environment a few days later.
"It's different than a traditional camp, where kids can get lost in the shuffle," said Olcott, adding that the intimacy of the small groups brings out traits that some teens did know they had.
While the guides are there to supervise and help support the teens, much of the work falls on the campers. Packing, pitching tents, and cooking are all parts of the program. You don't have to be an experienced hiker, and some programs even provide all the gear. Teens should not let the fear of lack of experience hold them back from considering backpacking camp experiences.
"We are prepared for a big spectrum of abilities," said Gaia Girls Passages back country program manager Jenya Schieder, adding that Gaia Girls encourage campers to take hikes before the program begins, but the trip leaders will go at the pace of the group, and no one is left behind.
Parents' worries are usually soothed with the fact that nearly all programs employ guides who are wilderness trained, and while there are no cellphones allowed, the guides carry satellite phones and are prepared to handle any emergency. But if there are any lingering worries, camp directors are experts at addressing parents' concerns.
"The director of the camp sets the tone of the camp," explained Jim Wiltens, camp director of Deer Crossing, an off-the-grid camp in the El Dorado National Forest. "By meeting the director, you get a feeling for what their standards are." Wiltens added that it is not taboo to ask a director about accidents and incidents that they have had to handle in the past.
Talking to the camp director is not just for parents. For many campers, it's their first time outside of a traditional summer camp, and getting to know the camp director and guides helps quell and lingering questions that teens might have, though the first question is always, "Can I bring my phone?"