What will a Teen Learn at Wilderness Camp

The Wilderness Camp experience of which I write is not that of a posh resort-on-a-lake type. There are no tennis lessons, mixers or archery. The wilderness camp I refer to is where each child carries their own gear, helps make their own food (or goes hungry), sleeps on the ground and must deal with the elements first-hand. It is a one to two week camp led by a knowledgeable and experienced counselor (plus staff if appropriate).

Though it is (mostly) safe, wilderness camp is filled with things like bugs, blisters and sunburns. Rainstorms, soaked feet and various ouches are par for the course.

In this plugged-in world of computers, video games, text-messaging and Ipods our children run the very real risk of never actually having to deal with the “real” world. This is a harrowing thought for several reasons.

Teens are risk-taking animals. They are genetically programmed to push limits, dance on the edge and prove to themselves that they really are alive. I say it’s better to terrify and thrill them on a narrow, winding mountain trail than to let them stew in suburban boredom until the siren songs of Meth and Crack become too much to resist.

Our uber-comforted teens aren’t given the opportunity to test themselves and push their physical and emotional boundaries in healthy ways. Exchanging a centrally-heated, air-conditioned environment for a tent, sleeping bag and whatever Mother Nature throws at you can be a shock… but a good one.

My son, Nicholaus, is just starting to learn that discomfort isn’t necessarily pain, nor is it automatically evil. Discomfort is just something you put up with, while you’re engaged in something more important. What’s important? Catching a fish becomes very important if you haven’t eaten for a day. All of a sudden, a little rain doesn’t mean you’ll automatically melt.

The next problem that going to a good wilderness camp can address is “Overstimulation”. In a society that thinks the solution to all behavioral problems is to drug you at a moment’s notice – nature has a kinder, gentler and more subtle way of dealing with whacked-out kids. It’s hard to be ADD or ADHD or pretty much any sort of twitchy when you’ve just hiked 12 miles with a full pack. No, instead you pretty much want to eat something and crawl into your bag for the night.

We are hyper-stimulated in our techno-urban lives. There is hardly ever a moment that we aren’t bombarded with noise from television, radio, MP3’s, video games, telephones and the roar of traffic. Our eyes are assaulted with thousands of marketing messages urging us to consume, spend, get, want, and always more, more, more.

After a few days on the trail, something magical begins to happen. The constant whining starts to fade. Everybody starts to fall into the rhythm of life. Your rest stops become an opportunity to just sit and listen to the wind and feel the comfort of the sun on your face. Small things give you pleasure; cold water, a damp bandanna on the back of your neck or taking your boots off and feeling that first hint of breeze through your socks.

You have fewer distractions in the wilderness. Life gets reduced to the essentials; shelter, weather, work, food, fire, sleep. Life becomes a routine, a comforting routine that helps you glide gracefully through the day.

After a couple of weeks living at this pace, you adapt, relax, and at the same time find a reservoir of strength that you never even suspected you had. Confidence without swagger, ability with humility and the capacity to appreciate have all grown.

Think of it as an inoculation. A dose of nature to help fend off the ills of normal suburban teen pitfalls. And don’t forget their annual booster shots.