With careful planning, backcountry trips can be a valuable addition to the usual summer session
By Michael Behar
After three days of hiking through the Pioneer Mountains in Montana, a group of campers were surprised by a summer storm. The 15 teenagers were forced to cross an 11,000 foot mountain pass in sleet and snow. As the storm pelted them with ice, they remained calm and the crossing with smoothly. They had warm, waterproof clothing, plenty of food, enough gear to cross the steep snow field safely, a compass to navigate through the fog, and four competent leaders trained in climbing and first aid. Thanks to two years of careful preparation by the group's leader, Jim Stein, rough terrain and harsh weather did not ruin the trip. "That day we started very early, took compass readings along the way, then went off trail to cut time," says Stein, director of the Illinois-based adventure camp The Road Less Traveled, which specializes in four to six week wilderness expeditions in the American West. "The kids were prepared for a long, hard hike."
Although most traditional camps probably won't venture into as remote a wilderness area as Stein's group did, shorter backcountry excursions are feasible additions to many camp sessions. They are an excellent way to introduce campers to the beauty of unspoiled wilderness, while encouraging self-sufficiencyand teaching children about low-impact camping.
At The Road Less Traveled, Stein turns food preparation into a camp activity by teaching hikers how to plan their own meals. The lesson culminates with a trip to the supermarket, where each camper selects food for the trip. Stein prepares his campers for all types of conditions by making them aware of problems they could encounter and by walking them through some of the situations ahead of time. All leaders should know how to treat shock, hypothermia, heatstroke, dehydration, and a simple sprained ankle-common maladies on wilderness trips. Stein requires all his leaders to be certified in CPR, first aid and lifeguarding skills. All leaders have special training in wilderness emergency and rescue skills.
Bottom line, a safe excursion from camp requires careful planning and thorough training. "From permits to food to route finding to weather to hiring a qualified staff - it's all important to any successful trip," Stein says. In Montana, after he and his group had safely crossed the high mountain pass, the storm began to break. Later that evening, under a clear sky, the group discussed the day's events and shared what they had learned. Stein hopes the kids take what happened on the trip and apply it to everyday life.