Wilderness Skills: A KEEN Guide to Teaching Your Teen
Teenager: “Can we bring a saucer sled to ride down Mount Saint Helens?”
Adult: “Uh, a sled?”
Teenager: “Yeah, people ski down, right? We thought we’d sled down!”
Adult: “I’m not sure that’s a great idea. It’s steep and potentially icy.”
Teenager: “How hard could it be if we can walk up it?”
Adult: “You might be surprised …”
That’s the gist of a conversation between a KEEN parent and a group of teens while preparing to climb Mount Saint Helens. The climb is not exactly a technical mountaineering challenge, but it’s a heck of a long hike up a snow-covered mountain, and it’s no place for a toy sled. Its non-technical nature is, however, what makes it a great climb for teenagers looking to build their adventure skillset.
Teaching kids the skills to enjoy the outdoors requires a balance of trust in their judgment and respect for the risk involved.
As the adult in charge, there’s a responsibility to keep the group safe. But as a parent and teacher, there’s a responsibility to help kids develop the skills to pursue adventure on their own. The difference between staying safe and encouraging teenagers to make good decisions in the backcountry is a bit of a balancing act. Although sledding down a volcano is decidedly irresponsible, letting them realize this for themselves makes it a learning experience — especially when you have the ability to steer the decision making.
Teaching kids the skills to enjoy the outdoors requires a balance of trust in their judgment and respect for the risk involved. It’s also important to stay within the limits of your skills, so you know when to step in and when to let things unfold. It’s experiential education at its best. But what about the little stuff like motivating kids and teaching basic first aid and route finding? Well, along with teaching good adventure decision making, the following hard skills are core elements to any adventure toolbox.
Fitness: Can you make it to your next camp? Do you have the energy to help others? Being exhausted leads to poor decision making. Having the fitness to hike, ride, or ski all day is like a safety net. It’s like knowing your car is in good repair for a long trip. How do you motivate teens to get fit?
Every kid is different, but one basic adage usually applies — keep it fun. Appeal to a teen’s competitive side. Try Strava to time, track, and set fitness goals. Keep training interesting. Choose hikes with a reward. Summit views, lake swims, loops, and off-trail scrambles all help make exercise more fun. Keep the goal in mind. Every day trip is one step closer to the main event — the big climb, backpacking trip, or bikepacking adventure.
Route Finding: Staying found (recognizing you are losing your way before you are so lost that you can’t re-find it) is perhaps the most valuable skill you can foster for a lifetime of adventure. Staying found is all about the confidence to question your direction options. Does the trail fork? Is the trail hard to follow? Is there even a trail? It’s always better to second guess your route when you still have an easy-to-find landmark that lets you reorient with a map or GPS.
Map and GPS: Knowing how to read a topographic map and use a GPS are essential to staying found. Like building fitness, learning to use a GPS and read a map can be fun. Think treasure hunt or its modern-day equivalent — geocaching. Geocaching is accessible to all ages and is an awesome tool for learning GPS skills. Need a GPS? Consider using GAIA GPS on your phone.
First Aid: Injury prevention is always better than first aid. That said, accidents happen. But a few tips will keep kids on the prevention side of the first aid equation. For example, the small but mighty foot blister has probably wreaked havoc on more adventure ambitions than any other basic first aid problem. Learning to recognize a hot spot (the start of a blister) and address it is a critical skill. As for more serious injuries, take a practice, practice, practice approach. Challenge your teen to an injury scenario. Using basic backpacking gear (or whatever adventure gear you prefer), practice immobilizing a leg injury and improvising a litter to carry an injured hiker. If you’re brave, let them package you — it’s always good for some laughs when the splint falls off or they can’t move you, at least when it’s just practice. Practice scenarios hit home just how hard it is to deal with a real injury in the backcountry and put risk and good decision making in perspective.
Speaking of good decision making — back on Mount Saint Helens, it didn’t take long for the teenagers to start questioning their choice to bring sleds. By the time they hit the steeper upper slopes, they saw the folly in their idea. They wisely kept the sleds packed until the lower, gentle slopes where sliding could be kept in control. Just like adventuring is a balance of risk/reward based on skills/knowledge, teaching teens requires a similar balance. It’s experiential education in action!
Gearing up your teen with hiking shoes? They're not "kids" anymore, and they're not yet adults. So what shoe size are they? You might find that your 13-year-old still fits into the largest youth size (that's size 7 at KEEN). A youth size 7 at KEEN is very close to a men's 7.5 and a women's 8.5. Check out our size chart for heel-to-toe measurements to find the right fit, whether choosing a kids' or adult style.