Wilderness Camping with Teens during COVID19

By August 25, 2020 Education

This essay is HUGELY interesting! A friend of mine works for an outdoor education organization that arranges wilderness backpacking adventures for students.

I asked if he would write about his experiences being a wilderness instructor in the era of COVID19. His essay is below, written July 27, 2020. Note that through July and August, no student or instructor came down with COVID19 within his organization. 

                                                                                                    —Rebecca Locklear

ESSAY by jjr

An Update on the Youth

First, I’d like to start by saying that the kids are, in general, alright.  To be honest, their behavior didn’t differ significantly from what I’d seen any other year.  “Teenagers these days” are resilient, well connected, well informed, and accustomed to the chaos of our time.  Most of them were born in 2007 or 2008.  For as long as they can remember, their country has been in the midst of a war on terror.  Black Lives Matter has always been in the news and fighting to make change in their world.  Theirs is the generation of school shootings.  A global pandemic is just another scoop of you-know-what on the pile.  I’ll talk a little later about why I think this is a good thing, but for now it gives us context.

Thanks to the internet, not being able to see friends in person has not entirely shut them off from socializing.  The kids I spent this last week with came from varying backgrounds of privilege, but the fact is that, though income and privilege may affect what neighborhood you live in and what school you go to, chances are that you have access to something with a screen and internet, whether it’s a game system, computer, or phone.  As a result, kids have still been able to hang out, even while stuck in their own houses.  The proliferation over the last few years of online videogames that promote cooperative, group play (Sea of Thieves, Mine Craft, yes, even FortNite), may have saved kids’ sanity over the last few months.  Beyond that, kids have had access to the full gamut of social media to remain in touch with each other.  Friend groups have stayed mostly intact, and these particular youths had very nuanced, cautious ways of making friends out of strangers on the internet, too.  Even the rowdiest member of the group had enough respect for the power and danger of socializing on the internet to prove that this isn’t 2006 anymore.  I recognize that this doesn’t apply to all teenage youth, and that there are many young people who don’t have access like these folks do.  I just feel that it is worth noting how this tech-savvy generation is coping, when they have the means, with the conditions they have been put in.

Virus Policy…

Now, let’s talk about actually controlling the virus in the backcountry.  The program I work for has an extensive and well-written COVID policy.  Every day, whenever anybody goes to the office/home base, they answer a health questionnaire and get their temperature taken.  This includes everybody present (staff, participants, and caregivers) at the start of course.  Everybody wears masks.  Participants’ bags are wiped down with sanitizing wipes during check-in.  There are limits on how many people can be in each room in the building.  On the bus ride to the course area, we have five people per mini-bus (two buses per trip), drive with windows open and keep masks on.  At the beginning of the course, each student is given a personal bottle of soap and a personal bottle of hand sanitizer.  Feels pretty good.

… in the Back Country

The primary flaw in these plans, especially when we get into the backcountry, is that they rely on the ability of the participants to be self-regulating and self-aware.  As most people know, these are not traits that one uses to describe a teenager.  Heck, I think I’m just barely getting there, and I’m 26.  God bless these children, but they don’t have any attention span. 

  • They don’t know where any of their things are. 
  • They have a fundamental lack of awareness of space in all senses of the word. Too often I would hand a participant a tent stake or cooking utensil to have them first touch my hand, and then slide their hand up mine in an unwanted, awkward caress that only I seemed to be aware of before they actually found the thing I was handing them. 
  • They always spit when they talk. 
  • Their one soap/hand sanitizer kit got smashed, spilled, and was useless by lunch on the second day. 
  • They don’t know how to wash their hands or dishes, or tie their shoes. 
  • They can’t walk without kicking dirt and sand onto everything around them. 
  • They were constantly losing their masks (“I left it in my other pocket!”) or were simply unaware that it wasn’t on their face properly.  In any other year, that is OK.  Outdoor education is built on the principle of natural consequences, but that seems less appropriate when those consequences, or a cascade of them, can lead to participants giving or getting COVID. 

We still had health screenings every morning, wore masks when in the kitchen or generally breathing on group food, but how much of a difference was that really making?

There were also the myriad of situations that our COVID policies understandably did not anticipate.  When you’re hiking at the back of the group and see your smallest, youngest participant start to stumble like a drunk, you don’t wait to do anything.  That’s two seconds and a coin toss away from a serious head injury.  You run up and get to him, and when you see he’s hyperventilating and says he’s having trouble breathing.  In that instance, you don’t stop to put on a mask or tell him to put on his.  You get his backpack off of him and help him lie down.  Maybe this kid is breathing all over me, but that’s not what’s important right now.  I’m worried about keeping his brain intact.  It’s like this all day long.  Despite all the space, you can’t really social distance in the backcountry with children.  They need too much support.  I suppose we could try to make them wear masks at all times, but I think that would go over as well as sunscreen.

Other policy aspirations, like washing masks with soap and water daily and putting them out in the sun to dry, and washing dishes before as well as after each meal, are well-intentioned but entirely impractical except for the most high-functioning group.  For participants, knowing where their bowls were was enough of a challenge, and most nights we were getting to camp in the dark anyway.  There simply wasn’t time to keep things at the level of cleanliness we needed.  We did our best, but decided it was more important that we keep everybody fed and hydrated, get enough rest to function, and hike enough miles each day to get out of the backcountry on time.  If anybody in this group had COVID, we were all going to get it.

More Ideal Outdoor Education COVID Scenarios

The realities of managing COVID exposure in the backcountry lend themselves well, I think, to either shorter- or longer-form outdoor education, because being in the outdoors with other people is essentially a messy, interpersonal endeavor. 

  • In the short form, working with small groups who are already exposed to each other seems very reasonable.  Facilitating group building games or other activities with young participants who have permission to touch and come in contact with each other (which they need to do) while as an instructor staying more physically distanced and being able to monitor your own personal hygiene, seems like a reasonable scenario.  I think that having the assistance of other adults who are already a part of the participants’ “germ community” would allow the instructor to protect their own health while still ensuring that participants get sufficient care and support. 
  • On the long-form end of things, multi-week or semester-long programs seem like an ideal way to do programming.  If there was enough time for all participants to get tested before course start and remain in isolation until they got their results, a group could go into the backcountry with normal hygiene standards that are much more easy to maintain, and live together in comfort knowing that they won’t get each other sick.

Are We Doing the Right Thing?

All that being said, I believe to a very high degree that we were all safe anyway.  Coronavirus is running rampant in this country, but I believe the chances of any of the kids having it were very low because of a common theme in all of their lives.  They have families that love them, and I mean that in a very nuanced way.  In my time doing this, I’ve met kids who have experienced very warm, nurturing parenting styles, and very cold, harsh ones.  No matter where a parenting style lands on the spectrum, they are all motivated by love.  Right now, in the area I am in, it seems like the thing to do with your kid if you are motivated by love is obvious: protect them from the virus.  As far as I can tell, it is a common philosophy that reaches across the borders of other demographics.  Every kid on my course was there because of a rationalization or reason motivated by love, and by association was probably coming from a household that had kept them virus-free.  All of our policies were just there as safety nets.  I recognize that is a risky, naive stance to take, but it’s also the only one I can make.

Despite the risk, whatever it may be, I believe that what we were doing is right.  We are giving people things they desperately need.  Yes, hanging out in a digital world can help people keep their sanity, but as we all know there is no replacement for real human interaction.  The boys on this trip overcame serious challenges, some of the longest, hardest, and scariest days I’ve ever seen as a wilderness instructor.  For a few days, there was a definite plan about what was going to happen, they were in charge of their own future, and they were unplugged from all the chaos of the front country.  There were also so many surreal moments and conversations, like walking down a beach with a thirteen year old kid, listening to him argue quite well that the idea of nature was a human invention, that we and everything we make is just as much a part of the natural world as a bird and it’s nest are.  In contrast to the incredible acts of violence being committed by people wearing badges all over the country right now, we solved a physically violent conflict with patience, conversation, understanding, and vulnerability.  I asked them to give me a new Bill of Rights one night while we sat around the campfire and their voice was united (though I did take the liberty of wrapping up their words in a pretty package):

  1. The right to sleep somewhere safe
  2. The right to healthcare
  3. The right to eat healthy food
  4. The right to a supporting community
  5. The right to equal opportunity, regardless of skin color, and the freedom from unfair treatment on the same basis

These kids are in middle school.  They’ve lived in a world of chaos their whole lives, and this is what they choose to believe in.  This is our future.  I’m going to vote for them.  And I think it is so important, now more than ever, to give them a chance to see what kind of society they can build, even if it’s just for a week.  They deserve to have that hope, and I think that together we can keep them safe enough to make them worth it.