Teaching Kids to Love the Outdoors
Lessons I learned from organizing a homeless-youth outdoors program and how you can apply them to improving your own corner of the world
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Wish the world was a better place? The best way to start is for each of us to improve our own little corner of it. My personal answer here in Hollywood, California, was to start an outdoors program for homeless youth. It’s been way easier and more rewarding than I could have imagined, and you can do something similar. Here's how.
Why Take Homeless Kids Camping?
There’s a big difference between sleeping rough and learning to enjoy the outdoors. Activities like hiking, camping, rock climbing, and horseback riding don’t just give people confidence; they’re a fun way to learn the value of taking risks, learning new skills, and overcoming challenges.
Because each of us is only the summation of our experiences, character-building activities like these—and the new perspectives developed through them—help put these kids on a more equal footing as they work to build new lives and become successful adults.
Honestly, it's also a little social engineering on my part. Through my work writing about the outdoors, and through programs like this one, I hope to give more people the ability to enjoy nature. You won’t vote or act to protect something if it has no value in your life; hopefully I’m helping new people gain a new appreciation for our wild places, and hopefully that will help them support and vote for things like protecting our public lands, conserving our natural resources, and working to minimize the impacts of climate change.
Going outdoors is one of the most egalitarian American traditions. Everyone deserves a chance to do this stuff.
Find an Organization You Respect
You shouldn’t just drive around town with a “Free Camping Trip” sign on your van. Instead, work with an existing youth organization to take advantage of their non-profit structures, existing relationships with kids, and their adult leaders.
I work with a great local nonprofit called the Los Angeles Youth Network. They provide young adults transitioning off the street or out of foster programs with therapy, guidance, and a safe place to live. Adding an outdoors program to that mix adds value to their existing curriculum, and thus the lives of the kids enrolled in it.
I’d been looking around for an organization to get involved with for a while. At first, I considered volunteering for a local scout troop, since the BSA is something I reaped enormous benefits from when I was a kid. But I didn’t know any parents involved in local troops and had no way of approaching them. So, I reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters, but was rebuffed due to my hectic travel schedule, which made a regular time commitment impossible. Then I connected with LAYN, which was local, needed help, and understood my need for flexibility. Done.
Of course, working with kids is never quite that easy. Expect to undergo a background check, finger printing, a physical checkup, and a tuberculosis test. None of that is difficult or expensive. I set aside a day and did it all.
By working with LAYN, all the ins and outs of liability, insurance, and getting the kids organized are taken care of, leaving me with a relatively turn-key ability to organize trips and activities, then make them happen. It also gives me access to adults who can help supervise all this: we use the same two adults minimum policy the BSA employs.
Get the Kids Excited
It’s no good trying to do something for a bunch of kids if they don’t want to do it. And you shouldn’t expect them to be appreciative of your efforts or even kindly disposed toward you from the beginning. “My” kids, for example, were mostly thrown out by or ran away from bad parents.
For my first time meeting them, I dressed up as a caricature of an adventure dude, loaded an iPad full of a bunch of Chris Brinlee Jr. photos and was accompanied by my awesome dog. They cooked dinner, I told a few stories, and then I tried (in vain) to reassure them that going to the bathroom in the woods wouldn’t be gross. They were convinced that Wiley would fight off the bear attacks that they thought were inevitable. But the thing that sold them was the ability to post better Instagram photos and Snapchats than their friends. (I glossed over the whole no-cell-service-in-the-mountains thing.)
So I sort of ram-rodded that first camping trip through. But the kids had a great time, and now they’re excited to try virtually anything, and can help convince the other kids that they’ll have a good time, too. Now, I come up with a list of possible activities, describe them to the kids, then let them decide which they’d like to do. Once they pick, it’s my job to put all the pieces together.
Hiking into some hot springs last Monday, one of the girls remarked to me, “I always do the coolest stuff with you!”
Activities That Work
Originally, my plan for that first trip was backpacking. I figured I’d pick an easy destination, just five miles or so into the Sierra Nevada. My thinking was that short a distance would be easy for anybody and that it would give the kids the definitive California outdoors experience. That sounds epic and achievable right? Wrong.
A couple weeks before the trip, I took the kids and their counselors hiking at a local park. You know, just an easy walk up a 1,600-foot hill in the hot sun, on loose dirt. The lesson I learned: my perspective as someone who pursues fitness and does a lot of outdoor activities wasn't in-line with theirs. So we went car camping on that first trip, and built in a nature walk, a visit to the beach, and a stop at a farm where we could feed ostriches. The kids had a blast.
When you’re dealing with people who are brand new to this stuff, the easier the better. Just getting out there is exciting enough.
Since then, we’ve enjoyed climbing at my local gym, Hollywood Boulders, and did a day trip to Deep Creek Hot Springs, an hour or so outside the city. We’re also planning more horseback riding, more time at the boulder gym, and a camping trip to Santa Cruz Island in the spring. The foxes sold them on that one.
My theory is that by teaching these kids basic outdoors skills now, they'll have the ability and confidence to do all of this by themselves in the future. They’ll be able to go camping, backpacking, or climbing, whether alone or with a group of friends, and have the skills to pull it off safely and comfortably.
We build education into every experience. Something like an afternoon at the boulder gym is obviously just about learning to climb, and a day at the hot springs is about discovering that really neat stuff exists outdoors. But a two-night camping trip provides ample opportunity for learning all the little stuff that goes into being comfortable outside.
Map reading, animal tracking, plant identification, fire making, camp cooking, and identifying stars and constellations all make for fun lessons everyone can enjoy and participate in. To stave off boredom, I try to keep stuff short, fun, and participatory. The novelty of learning about something like the habits of deer, then getting to see some in the wild, plays very well.
Something I’m trying to figure out right now is how to bake more scout-style leadership training into all this. So far, that’s taken the form of delegated duties and group responsibility for things like policing campgrounds, keeping track of buddies, and caring for their equipment. But I’d like to take it further. Hopefully that’s going to involve them planning all the details of that next trip to Santa Cruz.
Dealing with Diversity
My goal is to be a safe, positive leader for these kids. I’m a friendly, neutral face, not someone who comes at them with outside priorities like religion or politics. That means listening without expressing my own opinions or emotions and respecting their motivations and actions.
Setting a good example is the best way to lead in circumstances like these. If you’re calm and confident in a new and intimidating situation, they won’t be scared. If you explain the reason why we all need to do stuff like pick up other people’s trash, then help do it, it’s a lot stronger lesson than just making them do it.
Striking the right balance between being an authority figure and a friend is only something that comes with practice, but is probably a skill anyone who wants to do something like this should bring with them.
The biggest barrier to getting started with a program like this is going to be outdoor gear and transportation. That’s also another area where participating in an existing non-profit is going to be a big help.
Getting started, the easiest trips are going to be day hikes, which require nothing but a water bottle and a comfortable pair of shoes. But as you scale into activities that require specialty gear or even basic camping equipment, you’ll need to figure out a way to get that.
The best advice I can give you is to leverage any friendships or connections you may have in your local community. Friends with the manager of your climbing gym? I bet they’ll say yes if you ask to bring some kids in here and there, during off-peak hours. Know a local scout troop? Maybe they can help solicit and round up donations for used camping equipment. Heck, getting a homeless youth outdoors program off the ground would make a great project for an Eagle Scout candidate.
That’ll get you started, but as your program scales up, it'll get more expensive. This is where the non-profit helps: they should be able to provide paperwork allowing for donations to work as tax write offs. Take advantage of that to solicit help from local individuals and businesses. Making your program visible (as I’m doing here) also helps encourage people to participate.
One of our next activities is teaching all the kids how to swim—or advancing their existing skills in the water to a more competent, safe place. I considered just taking them to the public pool and teaching them myself, but for such an important, potentially life saving skill, I figured getting them professional lessons made more sense. We’re going to do that with the local YMCA, which is affordable, but any time you scale a cost to 15 kids or more, things get expensive. I plan to run a little IndieGoGo campaign to fund it, and ask my friends here in Hollywood for donations.
Are there going to be expenses outside gear and transportation? Of course. I’ve gone out-of-pocket to buy a few additional tents, pay for fuel, and take the kids out restaurants a couple times. It was totally worth it.
Keeping Everyone Safe
A date asked me the other day if I was worried about the kids getting hurt or lost. Honestly, it’s not really something I’ve had to think about. Part of that is because I have a strong background in lifesaving and first aid, but most of it is preparation.
Working with LAYN, their counselors are already trained in first aid, and we bring a solid group kit along. We’ve only had one injury so far, and all it took was a few band aids, and some reassuring words, to fix it.
Obviously greater risks exist, and anyone seeking to organize such a program should first shore up their first aid and CPR certifications. At least two adults with that baseline knowledge should be present during any activity. Only plan activities and trips within your area of experience. We go places I’ve been before, and in circumstances where I can confidently assure safety. For example, I’m a very strong swimmer, so I feel confident having the kids around water, even though most of them can’t swim. You should be able to say the same, or bring someone with you who can. When we went to the beach, we went to one with lifeguards.
Also, never underestimate the buddy system. Asking each kid to take responsibility for their peers is the best way to ensure that no one gets lost, and that it’s communicated if someone is uncomfortable, or not feeling well.
Walking back from the hot springs the other day, I realized I’d underestimated the challenge of the two-mile, uphill hike back to the cars. And some of the kids had a really hard time with it. The ones who didn’t were great about hanging back, helping their friends make the climb, and encouraging them through the more precipitous sections. Experiences like that are what I’ve been most proud of so far. When we started, these were just a bunch of kids who’d never left the city and were convinced they’d be eaten by bears as soon as they did. But at that moment, we were a cohesive group of hikers, working together to complete a difficult outdoor challenge.