The Rules of Hiking with Teens

Over the years, I’ve compiled some tips to surviving nature with teens. But when I wrote down my advice and showed it to my twins recently, they (shockingly) had differing opinions.

My 13-year-old daughter recently told us that she knows a Saturday is going to suck (her words, not mine) when she wakes up and mom is playing Tom Petty, since that means we’re going for a hike. It’s true: My wife likes to blast “Full Moon Fever” while we pack and make sandwiches. 

I don’t mind hiking if we go somewhere cool, but this is the worst music to listen to. —Cooper

We’ve been hiking Pisgah National Forest with our twins, Addie and Cooper, since they could hold their heads up. While packing out poopy diapers wasn’t awesome, those early years were mostly joyous, full of discovery (butterflies!) and adventure (boulders!). But my babies are teenagers now, seemingly annoyed by our sheer existence. They communicate mostly through eye rolls of varying severity and strategically selected memes.

Also a series of conversations where we express our opinions that you seem to have forgotten. —Addie

And what they continue to tell us through this enigmatic language is that they hate hiking. Maybe “hate” is too strong of a word,

Nope. Nailed it. —Addie

but just getting them to the trailhead a couple of times a month is a Herculean feat. We’ve tried several tactics, from prepping them days in advance to surprising them in the car en route to the woods, like taking a dog to the vet.

That’s the exact feeling. —Addie

Nothing works. There are always complaints. Or worse, a dead silence that tells me they will not be kind to us in our advanced years. Yet, we still make them go. Regularly.

If I’m being honest, I thought parenting would have gotten easier by now. But I feel like my job as a parent is just getting started. I always thought stuffing two babies into backpacks and carrying them miles from the nearest changing table was as hard as it would get, but I’ll take constant ear infections over the sex talk any day. I’ll take a toddler tantrum in the Target checkout line over my 13-year-old son’s cold stare because I suggested spending the afternoon traipsing through the forest, instead of doing what he wants to do—which apparently is watching strangers play video games on YouTube.

That was so long ago. Now I watch sports highlights on Pinterest. —Cooper

But here’s the thing about hiking: They secretly love it.

No we don’t. —Addie

In the woods, they forget that they’re supposed to be surly teenagers and actually enjoy themselves. Out there, away from TikTok and text messages, my teenagers turn into delightful human beings again. They are silly and adventurous and engaged. You can ask them questions and they’ll respond. Not just one-syllable answers either. Full sentences. Like a conversation. It’s amazing.

I admit I don’t hate the outdoors, it’s just that the process is exhausting. I get carsick, I get hungry and I think walking in the woods for no reason is absurd. —Addie

Out on the trail, they like to stage “near-disaster photos” where they’ll arrange the camera angle so it looks like they’re dangling over a cliff’s edge, holding on by just a few fingers. I like to send those pictures to their grandparents.

I don’t think they enjoy it as much as we do. —Addie

To be honest, I really don’t care if my kids like hiking. I’m pretty sure there’s scientific proof that hiking makes us better people.

I’m gonna need to see those lab results. —Addie

That’s my job as a parent, right? To produce good people? So yeah, my wife and I make our kids hike. Ultimately, it’s worth the effort.

So. Much. Effort. —Addie

It’s worth the eye rolls and deep sighs and slammed doors and the long car rides where they get agitated with me because I’m breathing too loud. In fact, I’m sure those moments are exactly what I’ll look back on most fondly—going through the changes, including how sanguine they may be in the face of hiking, is the point.

When you hike with your kids, you get to measure how they change against the wilderness around them. My wife likes to mark their growth by re-creating photos of the kids on the same trail we’ve hiked over the years. This is absolute torture for our children, but they have to do it or I won’t let them ride in the car home (just kidding, but not really). My kids, too, note how a certain scramble is easier than the last time they tried it, or how a boulder isn’t as big anymore. It’s like walking into your old elementary school and marveling over the tiny desks. And it only happens if you make your kids get back on the trail.

To help other parents in this challenge, I’ve compiled some rules for surviving nature with teenagers (well, my teenagers, at least). I hope they help make a walk in the woods with your offspring a little more enjoyable.

Five Rules to Make Hiking with Teens (Mostly) Fun

Temper your enthusiasm. If a teenager shows interest in something along the trail, a parent’s enthusiasm for that fauna/flora/trail building/history/geology will quickly scare that teenager off. If your teen mentions it might be fun to jump in a swimming hole, remain calm. Shrug mildly and say something like, “If you want to.” Under no circumstances should you bring up any interesting facts that would better your teenager’s understanding of the world around them, even if, from your eager perspective, they’re basically asking you for a full lecture on the wonders of fungi.

Obsessing over something ruins its value. —Addie

They know everything they need to know already. Stop trying to turn everything into a teachable moment.

Exactly. You don’t have to make everything a lesson. —Cooper

Interesting landmarks suck. Teenagers don’t care about 360-degree views or waterfalls or unusually large and old trees. Man, do teenagers hate old-growth forests. They watched two hours of TikTok videos right before the hike, so an ancient hemlock doesn’t register in their brains.

It’s a tree, get over it. —Addie

I think it has something to do with dopamine receptors. And ultimately, that’s OK. Teenagers don’t have to enjoy nature in the exact same way their parents enjoy nature. As long as you’re giving them the opportunity to find what they love out there, you’re doing your job.

Make the hike really hard. Physically demanding hikes are more interesting to teenagers. Competition helps, too. We like to settle disputes in our family with foot races, and my kids love to see how they’re getting closer and closer to beating me. Adding an element of danger will also light up the risk/reward portion of their brain. Rock-hopping across a raging river, using a rope to downclimb a steep rock face, scrambling up boulders:

I like all of this. —Cooper

These risky situations will turn your teenager into an enthusiastic human being for a short period of time and should be sought out in abundance.

No phones. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s more nuanced than a blanket “no phone” rule.

And yet, you seem to be on your phone 70% of the time. —Addie

What I mean is no YouTube, no texting friends, no disappearing into a set of earbuds and whatever moody, overproduced pop passes for music these days. If they want to use their phones to take a picture, that’s great. If they want to borrow your phone to use the plant identification app to see if they can eat that green leafy thing on the side of the trail, that’s acceptable.

You’re such a nerd, Dad. —Addie

Ice cream is everything. This last rule proves that even at the ripe, jaded age of 13, my teenagers are still children. Because they will hike miles for mint chocolate chip.

You’re right. Ice cream is the GOAT. —Cooper

I wish I could figure out a way to bring ice cream out on the trail with us, because low blood sugar doesn’t just affect toddlers; teenagers also get cranky when they go too long without a hit of sugar. YETI, if you’re reading this, develop a backpack cooler that keeps ice cream frozen until mile 5 on a hot summer day. Until some company drops their backcountry ice cream pack, a scoop of strawberry on the way home will just have to be the carrot we dangle to get them through one more mile, one more climb. In a way, it’s comforting to know that frozen treats are still as much a motivator now as when the kids were toddling. So much has changed with our children—and our relationship with them—since then. But ice cream is a constant. A steady, delicious, motivating constant.

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