One of the greatest benefits of kids spending significant amounts of time in backcountry environments is the increase they have in self confidence. While studies have alluded to this it is the results in my own kids that stand out to me the most. However, as this confidence increases there is the question as to when to start giving them more autonomy in solo trips.
This year has been a momentous year for our 14 year old. He has always enjoyed the outdoors, both with our family on numerous camping trips as well as exploring the woods around our rural Idaho home by himself. This year he has leapt forward in solo pursuits on three separate trips.
His first real win was piloting a cataraft solo. Four years ago he had flipped out of an inflatable kayak on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and had been recirculated once or twice through the rapid. He had spent the subsequent years with the uncomfortable tension of loving whitewater, but having multiple panic attacks in it and absolutely refusing to pilot his own craft. This year he decided he was ready. On multiple trips he ran class 3 water with fantastic precision, often cheering loudly when conquering rapids that he had feared. Finally, he ended up piloting a 3 mile section of class 2 water while we we finished up packing at a campsite. We caught up to our triumphant teen 30 minutes later.
His second win was a 12 mile solo bikepacking trip up a collection of dirt roads, four wheeler tracks, and cow trails from our house up to meet some friends with their families on the mountain behind our place. He made the 2,000 ft elevation gain with all of his gear for the night strapped to his bike. I had given him our Garmin InReach and so we were able to track his progress and communicate by text in our cell reception impaired area. We caught up with him on the mountain the following day. He had regaled his friends with his adventure while setting up his own camp and cooking his own meals.
Finally, he decided as we were leaving a mountain lake in the Gospel-Hump Wilderness that we had backpacked to as a family that he wanted to take a different route out than the trail the rest of us were going to follow back to the car. He bushwhacked up a series of cascades to another lake east of where we were camped, climbed up a ridge, over a knife edged peak and then circled back to a different trailhead where we subsequently met him.
Each of these three trips involved some parental anxiety as he sought to forge his own path. Each resulted in a significant sense of accomplishment for him. Most importantly, for each of these things he had spent time planning, discussing potential pitfalls and solutions, and had previously demonstrated that he has the skill set to accomplish these goals.
So, back to the original question, “when are they old enough”? I think it will vary for each kid and each parent. However, after seeing the benefits of these experiences I think that it is an important part of an outdoor kid’s development. I think that some of the keys are rehearsals of potential complications, clear communication as to expectations, and making sure that your kid has the needed skill set. Finally, celebrate the accomplishment! These things are big deals to kids, and they should be to us as well.