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Declining Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities

The future of the outdoor industry - and wilderness activism - may be threatened by children's growing alienation from the natural world.

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by Matt Colon | 2005-08-12 03:00:00-06

Well, the news doesn't sound good, some say.

There’s really no way to candy-coat it – the future looks pretty bleak for the wild places we love. It’s a message we’re more than familiar with by now. But, according to Richard Louv, the guest speaker at the Outdoor Industry Association’s kickoff breakfast this morning, perhaps the most potent threat to future environmental protection comes not from loggers, miners or the captains of industry, but rather from apathy.

It turns out we’ve been starving the nation’s young people of contact with the natural world. And it turns out that it matters.

Louv is the author of the recently published Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The Outdoor Industry Association invited him to address attendees at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer as part of their ongoing effort to provide commentary on broad cultural trends that have an impact on the outdoor industry. And given what Richard Louv had to say, it is clear that present trends in how kids relate to the natural world could have a monumental impact, not just on the outdoor industry, but on the future of wild places as well.

According to Mr. Louv, for tens of thousands of years kids have had an abundance of unstructured experiences in the natural world by going out into the woods to play. Meanwhile, during the past few decades there has been a dramatic reversal of this process, as kids spend increasing amounts of time indoors, plugged in, and cut off from the possibilities of wonder and engagement that the natural world has to offer them. Mr. Louv reported that American kids now spend an average of forty-four hours a week in front of computers, playing video games or watching television. And if they’re not in front of some kind of screen, there’s a good chance that they’re doing homework, practicing an instrument, or engaged in some other structured activity that keeps them inside.

In addition to having both feet firmly planted in the media culture and suffering from chronic over-scheduling, kids also have to contend with the changing nature of the places they live. Louv cited examples of Homeowners’ Associations that have outlawed much of what used to be considered normal outdoor child activity. In many planned communities forts and tree houses are forbidden, and in some neighborhoods children are no longer allowed to go outside and simply draw on sidewalks with chalk. Louv also argues that in addition to crowded schedules and social norms that are increasingly hostile to the existence of unfettered children, there has also been a dramatic increase in the perception of what he calls “Stranger Danger.” Parents are frequently gripped by the fear that unsupervised children will be abducted or otherwise harmed by strangers if they are allowed to stray too far from home. The result is that most kids will never know what it feels like to explore the natural world on their own terms as many of us did when we were growing up.

So what does all of this have to do with the future of wild places, or maybe even more pointedly, with backpacking? The upshot seems to be that as fewer and fewer kids have compelling experiences in nature, we are likely to see a corresponding collapse in environmental constituency as these children mature into adulthood and become the future’s majority. And without a committed constituency, it is unlikely that the places we love, which are already so frequently threatened, stand much of a chance over the long haul. So while this summer’s Outdoor Retailer is the largest show in the event’s history, and while thousands of retailers, manufacturers, and media people exhaust themselves trying to catch the latest and most likely trends in the industry, the most significant trend may be that the industry itself faces an uncertain future.


"Declining Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities," by Matt Colon. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-08-12 03:00:00-06.


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Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities?
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities? on 08/12/2005 17:54:32 MDT Print View

This forum is a companion commentary to:

Declining Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities

Topic for discussion:

How, or can, the lightweight trend or philosophy contribute to the evolution of health youth participation?

Mark Larson
(mlarson) - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities? on 08/12/2005 21:29:17 MDT Print View

This is very interesting. I haven't read the book, but I think the comments about a lack of 'unstructured' time are dead-on. I remember being able to disappear into the woods behind my house for pretty much an entire day, unsupervised. My summer vacations used to be 3.5 months or so; today, where my mom teaches it's just barely more than 2 months. They're being robbed!

There's also just a current cultural phenomenon that today's parents seem much more involved in their children's day-to-day lives, even the older kids [judging from my work in college student affairs]. Maybe a way the UL/LW philosophy can make an indirect impact is through the parents, reviving the interest the old folks used to have, but this time lighter and easier on the body. Not to mention logistically easier--fewer items to sort and carry, shelters you can pitch in 2 minutes, stoves that start cooking as soon as you flick the bic, packs whose straps you can understand at first glance... Your campsite need not cover an acre.

Another thing I was musing on earlier today is young female interest in outdoor activities. I wonder what the numbers and trends are like for hiking, climbing, mountain biking, etc. One way UL/LW can help is simply 'de-macho-fying' the backpacking image. The 'tough guy' notion of carrying 'monster loads' seems to be fading a bit, and that's a good thing. Time to wake up and realize that hiking does not mean sweat and suffering, and you don't have to be an athlete. It can be pretty easy.

Hmm...what else... I think the rise of adventure racing is a good thing, a uniquely outdoor activity that has its own edgy mass appeal, and could probably attract the younger crowds better. Maybe social hiking just lacks that competitive edge? [which is just fine by me] The thru-hiking community also seems like one that's improving on the awareness it's always had. Ceterus paribus, a lightly-loaded hiker probably has a better finishing chance than a heavy-load. The more reasonably burdened the rookies start, the more likely they'll be to meet their goals and continue to enjoy the experience. Those who complete the hikes probably come away with a different perspective on nature.

The main education channels may need to change a bit as well, though I don't know how enthusiastic that will be. NOLS, Outward Bound, BSA, could all make some progress in outdoor gear philosophy. Less paranoia, more self-reliance [less off-the-shelf-reliance]. I know legal CYOA policies need to be kept, but there is room for improvement. As for the media and other more informal education outlets, BPL sets a fine example that the larger print mags would do well to follow. I think one of the best parts of the UL/LW mindset is the underlying approach: asking what works, what doesn't, why. A mission to understand the technologies, driven by a need for function, simplicity, reliability, ease of use, minimal impact on earth and body.

Hopefully I hit some talking points, looking forward to other responses.

Edited by mlarson on 08/12/2005 21:30:44 MDT.

Yes, But ... on 08/13/2005 07:32:39 MDT Print View

I agree that today's youth suffers from a lack of "free play" and that their world view will be significantly altered because of it.

On the other hand, I am amused by the concern that the number of people in the wilderness will be reduced. Aren't many of our wilderness areas suffering from over-use?

On the other hand, I have recently completed a week-long North-to-South PCT backpack during which I encountered a couple of dozen through-hikers. They were all drawn from a generation that grew up in pretty much the same environment cited in the article.

My conclusion is that (a) interest in the wilderness won't decrease as significantly as is feared, and (b) a little less use of our wilderness is a good thing.


Craig Shelley
(craig_shelley) - F

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Taking youth and comments on 08/13/2005 15:03:23 MDT Print View

I'm certainly not a wilderness activist. I suspect most activists have never been backpacking or seldom do it. I don't think there is a lack of "wilderness activists". I also find it hard to believe that the abundant wilderness areas will shrink with the government selling off land. The local Black Ridge Wilderness area, which I hike/backpack in routinely, has very few backpackers or hikers. I seldom see any people. However, the BLM just purchased more private land to add to this wilderness size. The two Senators and one representative involved in getting funding for the purchase were all Republicans.

There is a large nonpartisan constituency that support wilderness areas, backpackers and hikers are a very small percent of that constituency. "Wilderness activists" are also a very small percent of that constituency. I'm skeptical that the author is correct.

I agree with Ryan, take your kids or others on backpacking trips and you will have an affect on their lives. It's not important to try to increase the number of "wilderness activists". It is good for them to get to enjoy outdoor experiences.

I took my nephew (13 years old) last week on a 3 night backpacking trip in the Uncompaghre Wilderness in Colorado. It was his first experience. He kept saying how much fun it was. We had a great time together.

I took my daughter (15 years old) last March to Utah's Grand Gulch. She went with a group of young girls in June on another trip (they were shocked with how little her backpack weighed).

I'm taking my oldest daughter (24 years old) next week.

Craig Shelley

John Davis
(JNDavis) - F

Locale: Isle of Man
Youth Participation in Wilderness Activities? on 08/13/2005 16:08:47 MDT Print View

Is this a world wide phenomenon? The better known British hills seem very busy these days. When I started backpacking (it wasn't called backpacking then!) meeting someone led to a ten minute conversation at least. Now, we just give one another a cursory nod. Participation by women has increased dramatically but black people don't seem to be getting into the hills much. It's still a middle-class, suburban game and the urban working classes don't get out much.

To be honest, many young people seem inactive these days. Hard sports like cycling are seeing a shortage of participants but hill walking seems really popular over here. It's common to see the nearest parking space to a Munro (3000 ft hill) jammed with vehicles and on the hill young couples are to be found striding out for the summit. Backpacking is one of the hard sports but youngsters are doing it.

I wonder if the Duke of Edinburgh's Award has anything to do with it? Is this better at introducing youngsters to the hills than I have suspected? Seeing them hauling heavy, borrowed, Centre gear in uncomfortable rucksacks along routes contrived to give a navigational challenge makes me wince but the youngsters may be enjoying it. They are certainly getting an easier introduction than I had so perhaps they are sticking with backpacking.

Charles Maguire
(hikelite) - F

Locale: Virginia
Outdoor "lite" on 08/16/2005 11:26:04 MDT Print View

If I remember correctly, a past report stated that the number car camping or day hiking is steady, if not growing, so vendors are looking at their gear for this market.

I think the general public is avoiding the interior, at least in my view. The busiest trails are close-in hikes to waterfalls, vista's, swimming holes etc. Fewer seem to be doing multi-day hikes in remote area's. The AT gets crowded but secondary trails that offer great hikes go vacant.

The day hikers unpreparedness strikes me as alarming. I see a lot of day hikers hiking 1-2 or more miles down hill to a waterfall in sandals or sneakers with normal street clothes. During very hot southern summers they do not realize that climbing back up that trail with no water is going to be a challange.

People want the outdoors but without the inconvenience. Case in point - look at all the trailers in the campgrounds. There seems to be fewer and fewer tents.

We do coddle our youth, and I think it takes away great experiences. My 8 years old fondest outdoor experiences all revolve around hiking/camping in pouring rain or blistering cold. We laugh everytime we talk about these trips.

However, few families go at all if conditions are not close to perfect and cut the trip short if the least bit inconvenienced. This teaches the kids to avoid less than perfect outdoor conditions.

Fred Goodwin
(fgoodwin) - F
Scouting and the Outdoors on 07/03/2006 09:31:46 MDT Print View

As a Boy Scout volunteer, I'm disappointed that Louv doesn't mention Scouting as a way to get kids out of the house and more involved in the outdoors.

But I'm only about 80% of the way through the book -- maybe he mentions Scouting in the part I haven't read so far.