It may not be spring yet, but it’s not too soon for parents to look ahead to summer, and to outdoor programs for their kids. Choosing the right program or experience—and making the most of it—often begins with asking the right questions. Andrea Muller, AMC’s North Country youth education director, offers the following list, along with her responses for AMC’s Teen Wilderness Programs. (AMC also offers Teen Trail Crew programs.)
Should my child go on a wilderness adventure or attend a sleepover camp?
Wilderness adventure trips depart from the classic summer camp model, Muller says, in the landscape they’re based in. Most often, wilderness trips take place on public lands, such as the White Mountain National Forest or Acadia National Park, that have been set aside for their natural beauty.
Wilderness trips are also active. Kids who participate in AMC’s Teen Wilderness Adventures hike, climb, kayak, and mountain bike—often in combination. Wilderness adventure programs are mobile: Some AMC trips move camp every day. (That said, kids in AMC programs also study the natural environment around them and may participate in service projects.)
“Wilderness trips tend to draw kids who are excited about what they’re doing,” Muller says. “There’s definitely a level of intensity that surrounds the group and what they are doing—and that’s the point.”
What are the differences between trips for 12-and 13-year-olds and trips for older teens? Between shorter and longer trips?
AMC’s trips are designed to give participants more responsibility as they move from early adolescence through the teenage years.
Twelve- and 13-year-olds are often doing their first real hiking trips away from their families. These kids, Muller says, “are literally learning about managing their stuff. Whether they’ve gone on hut trips with their parents before or they’ve never hiked on a trail, they’re learning to negotiate basic tasks”—like packing and keeping track of their belongings.
Trips for teens ages 13 to 16 accommodate a wide range of interests and experience. A teen who wants to try a new activity—kayaking or rock climbing, for example—may feel more comfortable signing up for a six-day trip. Teens who want to improve their skills will find plenty of challenges, as well. Longer trips often offer different combinations of activities, such as rock climbing and backpacking.
Older teens are physically and psychologically ready for more demanding adventures. “We hear from parents that the longer Teen Wilderness trips”—10 days or more—”are the most transformative,” Muller says. Participants can’t look ahead only a few days to the end of a course. Instead, they’re asked to settle into the experience, to say to themselves, “I am living here, I am working with this group.” Teens on the most advanced trips, Muller says, “end up managing themselves, individually and as a group. Parents tell us that these experiences really move their kids forward.”
My child is inexperienced; my child has a lot of experience. How will he or she fare on a wilderness adventure?
It’s important to learn what skills a teen is expected to have before starting a trip. Some, such as AMC’s Maine Wilderness Adventure, require prior backpacking experience. Others accommodate a wide range of experience: A teenager who has never carried a backpack or spent a night in a tent will find plenty of company, and support; likewise, a teenager who’s grown up hiking the Presidential Range or kayaking the Maine coast will nonetheless discover new skills and lessons in sharing those activities with peers rather than family members.
What if a teen is reluctant or anxious about going on a wilderness adventure?
A child may feel anxious about the physical demands of an adventure program or be more concerned about fitting in socially. It helps to understand the source of a child’s reluctance, Muller says. Especially for younger teens, signing up for a trip with a friend may alleviate some fears. By the end of high school, participants are often looking to make new friends with teens who share their interests.
It sometimes helps to let teens select a particular trip from the options, or decide whether to sign up at all. “We’ve had kids call us with their questions,” she says. Once it becomes their decision to come, they get pretty motivated.
What about instructors?
It’s useful to inquire about staff training, prior experience, and student/staff ratios, Muller says. At AMC, Teen Wilderness Adventure staff attend an eight-day training course that covers skills, emergency procedures, and group management techniques. Every instructor is required to have a current wilderness first aid certification, undergo a background check, and pass a water-safety class. A full Teen Wilderness Adventure course will have between eight and ten participants and two AMC instructors. Some trips have fewer participants, but never fewer than two instructors.
Field staff obviously plays a vital role in a summer-program experience. “We look for role models—young adults excited to be outdoors and working with kids,” Muller says. “When kids identify with someone just a few years older, someone they can think of who’s ‘cool,’ and who’s made the wilderness an important part of their lives—as opposed to ‘my parents are making me do this’—that creates a deep and powerful learning experience.”
Finding out what’s new and what has changed gives parents a window into a program’s goals and mission. The AMC program is continuing several trips that were new last year, including a backpack trip centering on 4,000-footers around the Tripyramid area. Muller is particularly excited about a new 27-day adventure for older teens. They’ll follow Henry David Thoreau’s route up the 92-mile Allagash River, hike the 100-mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail, and climb to the summit of Katahdin. The trip, as Muller sees it, offers an exciting extension of the program’s philosophy.
– Teen Wilderness Adventures: Read detailed trip descriptions, register online, follow entries in a trip journal, and more. Muller and her staff welcome questions from parents—and teenagers, too.
– Teen Trail Crews: Find out more about trail crew programs for teens ages 15 to 19 in the Berkshires and the White Mountains.
– AMC staff will be attending the New Hampshire Summer Camp Expo in Nashua, N.H., on March 12. The event runs from 10 am to 2 pm. AMC staff will be on hand to answer questions.
“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.