Looking to get those teenagers away from the computer and the phone and out of the house this summer? How about getting them into the wilderness where they can hang with kids their age, while contributing to the community? They might be interested in the Tahoe Rim Trail Association’s Youth Backcountry Camp. In partnership with Sierra Nevada Journey and Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, the Youth Backcountry Camps take middle school and high school aged students into the wilderness where they learn leadership and backcountry skills while building and maintaining the Tahoe Rim Trail. It’s a win-win-win situation. They have fun, and do something positive for the community. You get to enjoy some peace and quiet for a few days and get the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something good for your kids.
In addition to helping build trail, participants learn orienteering, survival skills, leave-no-trace principles, local ecology, team building and personal development. If you ask them what it’s really all about, however, they will say it’s about playing in the woods, making new friends and doing work they can be proud of: improving the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 170 mile long trail that circles Lake Tahoe. Students learn the basics of backpacking like how and where to set up a tent, and cooking in the wilderness. They also pack in flora and fauna knowledge and geology of the Sierra, and increase bonding in the group through playing team building games and conducting nature scavenger hunts.
What do the kids think of the Backcountry Camp? It was “an awesome experience,” according to 13-year-old Erica Backhus from Tahoe City, who participated in a camp last summer. “It was really cool to meet new people.”
She found that learning how to backpack together was a great way for the group to bond. The highlight for Backus was the evening they hiked to the top of Mt. Watson to watch the sun set over Lake Tahoe, and then hiked back to camp in the dark.
Participant Kiefer Catron noted that it “felt like we were actually doing something.” The work that they did to maintain and improve the Tahoe Rim Trail is something that will be there for other trail users to enjoy and appreciate. And the trail work, while physically demanding, is fun.
Tom Rodriguez, outdoor program manager for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association has been a leader on several of the trips.
“On our first trip, we were pushed to hike through cold rains to our campsite at Watson Lake,” he says. “We learned to set up our tents for the first time with numb fingers, but then bonded over the warmth of a campfire and a dinner cooked by friends who were strangers earlier that day. We had a macaroni and cheese ‘cook-off,’ swam in alpine lakes, and learned to build survival shelters from downed logs, bark and branches.”
Rodriguez says that the campers strategized how to cross a snowy slope, hiked to moonlit vistas, played endless games and “watched thunderstorms rage over Reno to the east while the sun set over the western horizon.”
In addition to learning how to work and bond with new friends, what sets backpacking apart from day hiking is the magical nighttimes spent in the woods. Youth backcountry campers tell ghost stories, watch sunsets and sunrises, and learn the challenges of late night potty breaks. Of course, perhaps the best benefit of a nighttime in the wilderness is the chance to lie on a rock and gaze up at the impossibly dark sky pierced by the tiny lights of billions of stars.
Teenagers attending Backcountry Camps are pushing their boundaries and learning what they are capable of accomplishing. Rodriguez says that attitude is key.
“Their attitude is what can turn an inconvenience into an adventure and a challenge into a learning experience,” he says. “Their attitude is what motivates them to hike through heat and elevation changes with perseverance. You meet a new ‘you’ in this way—someone more positive, invigorated and confident. If we’re lucky during these trips, the mountains will challenge us in a way that is new and exciting.”