While many people head to the backcountry regions of the US with a friend or a significant other, over the last few decades there have been more and more teenagers who try backpacking with hardly any experience. Some have never even left home before. Lauren Langer, a counselor for a summer program for teens looking to hike throughout the Pacific Northwest, sat with me in an interview about what this experience was like. Lauren has had some backpacking experience herself, but leading 14 year olds through the wilderness is certainly no walk in the park.
Tell me about the program. What’s it all about?
The program is PNW, sponsored by a JCC camp called ‘Camp Chi’. It’s a (Jewish) trip that brings together teenagers that are about to enter their freshman year of high school. It’s five weeks long, and we started the trip in Wisconsin. After doing some training, we began our trip, first stopping at places like the Badlands, South Dakota, and going on through many other beautiful backpacking destinations in the US and Canada.
Were the kids prepared for the physical challenges they’d be faced with throughout the summer?
Not really. Some kids said that they didn’t even consider themselves the ‘outdoorsy’ type. They may have liked to hike and be outside, but this was their first real experience as a backpacker. Some kids struggled a lot the first couple of weeks with all the strenuous hiking and constant activity, but many of them grew to love it.
What was the biggest challenge for you and the kids?
The biggest challenge was keeping the kids motivated. We had to work really hard to keep the intrinsic motivation alive in each kid. For them, they had a lot of responsibilities. Being that it was the first time some of them had ever pitched a tent, they needed to quickly learn serious outdoor skills. They had to take care of their jobs, which included cooking, cleaning, and carrying supplies. Most importantly, they always had to look after their group before themselves-not something easy for a teenager to do.
What was the most surprising moment of the trip?
The most surprising moment of our trip was actually the scariest for me. While hiking in Squamish, Canada, one girl became very dehydrated, and suddenly passed out. When we tried to wake her up, she stopped breathing and lost a pulse. I had to make a quick decision to administer CPR, and luckily, she regained her consciousness. I never thought that one of those ‘worst case scenarios’ we practiced during training would actually happen. Because we were on the side of a mountain at the time, a search and rescue team had to call in a helicopter and airlift the girl off the mountain. Luckily, despite the emotional trauma it caused for her and the group, she was perfectly fine and rejoined us not too long after.
What were the highlights of the trip?
While my favorite parts were definitely hiking, we got to do some pretty cool things along the way. We had the chance to take surf lessons, and even though no one could actually do it, it was still really fun. We did rafting a few times, and also took breaks from the outdoors by going to places like the Edmonton Mall (the biggest in North America), sightseeing, and visiting Jackson Hole in addition to several national parks.
What did you do for supplies?
This trip really tries to emphasize surviving in the wilderness. That being said, we slept in tents every night and cooked all our own food. We had small propane tanks we carried and dishes to feed everyone in our group. We of course also had a lot of first aid equipment to deal with minor injuries, like kids cutting themselves while cooking up their first meals. The kids brought duffels to last them the five weeks, as well as smaller bags for our overnight trips in the back country.
What was the most rewarding part of the trip?
Besides influencing the kids and teaching them to appreciate the outdoors, the most enlightening part for me was when we hiked Chief Mountain in Canada. It’s one of those hikes where you have to patient, because the reward is only at the end. After climbing up steep steps for 3 ½ hours all the way to the top, the breathtaking views at the summit were really worth it. It was here that I finally realized that my kids understood the meaning of hiking.
Any final words?
If there’s anything I learned from these five weeks, it’s that there’s actually no such thing as an ‘outdoor-sy type’, or any kind of ‘type’ for that matter. Anyone can do and enjoy anything if they have the right attitude. In the midst of everything, there is always something you will like. All my kids said that they would definitely do this trip again, and that’s all I could’ve really asked for.
If you liked this article, read more about Lauren’s backpacking experiences.