11 Proven Ways Wilderness Adventure Camps Can Transform Your Kid’s Life

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Experiential education programs like wilderness adventure camps have ways of inspiring kids in ways that are not possible at home, school, or through traditional sports. Canoeing, hiking, and kayaking with a group through wilderness environments like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) of Northern Minnesota is much more than just fun. It can be a profound experience with lifelong lessons.

By banning electronics, detaching participants from their normal patterns and behaviors, and connecting them with nature in a supportive group setting, wilderness adventure camps are designed to cause participants to confront their self-concept and motivate them to explore and exceed what they thought were their limits. Confidence comes from this experience and it prepares kids for life. Below are 11 time-tested ways this experience can transform your kid’s life.

Wilderness adventure camps

are summer camps that specialize in learning through adventure-centered experiences in remote locations.

1. In a world full of screens, a tech-free experience can be life-changing.

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According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids ages 8-18 spend on average 114 full days per year watching screens for entertainment. Certainly we are leveraging technology in some positive ways, but excessive screen time impairs our health. What benefits does staring at electronic screens provide?

While the inactive lifestyle that screen time promotes is certainly worrisome, many people would agree that excessive screen time is negatively affecting their children’s social skills and motivation. Many children would rather play video games and compare high scores with their friends than play outside.

Studies even suggest that too much electronic media consumption may rewire our brains into becoming less focused and effective. Each “like”, notification, and high score triggers a small hit of dopamine in our brains – and we can obtain that nearly whenever and as often as we want. Over time, we become addicted and find it difficult to focus on anything non-electronic because we aren’t used to receiving such relatively little stimulation. There’s even a new term coined for this. Videophilia is “the new tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.”

Wilderness to the people of America is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.

Sigurd Olson

Unplugged and outside, a tech-free summer camp experience forces kids to socialize and learn experientially about group dynamics. Instead of connecting with the internet, they connect with each other. They must learn the arts of leadership and effective communication, which are teased out on multi-day trips into the wild.

2. Experiential education is often the missing link in a true well-rounded education.

If we want children to have a true-well rounded education, we must stop relying on traditional lecture-based teaching methods and focus more on experiential teaching methods. Certainly, we should know by now that listening to a bunch of information accompanied by a 50-minute Powerpoint lecture is not the most effective way to learn, and yet, it remains the predominant teaching method today.

Experiential education emphasizes learning by doing. Rather than reading a chapter of an American History textbook on the causes of World War II followed by listening to a lecture about the Axis powers versus the Allies and taking a multiple-choice quiz on the material; experiential educators might challenge their students by splitting them into small groups and task them with creating pieces for a proposed WWII museum that would help visitors understand the causes and outcomes of the war.

Experiential Education

is a holistic, multi-modal approach to learning, teaching, and leading that integrates direct experience with focused reflection for developing new knowledge, relevant life skills, and socially-conscious dispositions. There are many expressions including project-based, problem-inquiry-based, place-based, and service-based learning; outdoor, environmental, and adventure education; internships; practicums; active learning; and cooperative education. [Carlson, J. MNSU-Mankato. (2019). Reflection & processing for experiential learning.]

According to the theory of multiple intelligences by psychiatrist Howard Gardner, intelligence may be split into eight categories: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

Schools hit many of the areas but not all. They seem to focus primarily on logical-mathematical and verbal-linguistic. One needs to look no farther than the intense focus on certain subjects to see the bias in educational policies towards reading, writing, and math. Aren’t human beings so much more dynamic than that?

Wilderness experiences, on the other hand, may not hit all eight areas of Gardner’s intelligences, but they will hit areas often overlooked in today’s world. For example:

  • Musical, through songs to pass the time during a long day of canoeing;
  • bodily-kinesthetic, by learning to flip canoes, portage, and travel efficiently;
  • visual-spatial, through navigating around the vast wilderness on paper maps and taking photographs along the way;
  • interpersonal, through relying on one another for a successful trip, participants build comradery, teamwork, and friendships;
  • intrapersonal, because nature promotes introspection;
  • naturalist, through experiencing connections to living things and experiencing why it’s important to care for the environment.

Getting kids outside amongst trees, water, and open skies opens up new avenues of learning and engagement with our world that education within four concrete walls simply cannot.

3. Mother Nature may help cure nature-deficit disorder.

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Like putting a lion into a cage at a zoo, human beings were not meant to be inside all day long. Yet around 90% of our time is spent indoors. Humans are hardwired to be outside. After all, we adapted in close proximity to nature for thousands of years and therefore have many adaptations that allow us to thrive outside.

The biophilia hypothesis, derived from evolutionary theory and coined by E.O. Wilson, argues that humans have a fundamental, genetically-based need to affiliate with life and lifelike processes. For more than 99% of our species history, we developed adaptive responses to natural forces – not artificial or human- created forces. Agriculture, cities, mass production of goods and services, and electronic technology are all relatively new inventions; especially when taking into consideration that our species has been evolving for over 200,000 years, and our ancestors for eons more.

Since we evolved so closely with nature for thousands of years and, only until relatively recently, have shifted to manufactured conditions, there have been few genetic adaptations to manufactured environments. Therefore,

biophilia is still today woven into the architecture of the human mind, and the human species cannot achieve its full measure of sensibility and meaning apart from the natural world.

Peter Kahn

Being outside and exposed to nature has powerful effects on our brains and wellbeing.

People don’t often write beautiful poems about the insides of houses – they write poems about mountains, trees, birds, and fall colors. We are inspired by nature. The beauty of nature can also help to promote stress reduction, as research suggests visiting natural environments such as parks and green spaces (versus urban or manufactured environments) after stressful events can promote recovery and relaxation. Effects include lower heart rate and blood pressure and lower levels of stress hormones.

Our enchantment with nature can even help to restore our attention. When we are outside, many times we are indirectly paying attention (quite effortlessly) to our surroundings. As this is occurring, our direct attention (effortful attention) is recharging. Our direct attention is what is taxed at work, school or other more stressful environments.

With all these positive effects, natural environments seem like an ideal medium for growth. When the outdoors is your classroom, you are in your natural environment so your stress levels are lowered, attention is recharged, and you are where you evolved to thrive.

4. Wilderness adventure builds character.

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What if there was a way to quickly improve your child’s

  • personal responsibility,
  • self-esteem and confidence,
  • gratefulness,
  • and unselfishness?

Start with prohibiting cell phones. Then send them outside. Wilderness trips of more than three days offer full immersion and therefore take participants out of their comfort zones, where they learn quickly that old ways of coping – like pulling out their phones when they are bored or uncomfortable – are absurdly useless. They are forced to confront their self-concept.

The forest doesn’t care what your social status is at school. Neither do your trip mates. The canvas that was once your past life is wiped clean and you have a chance to create anew. All that matters is that you pull your weight and help out your crew.

Outdoor adventures are not all rainbows and butterflies. Frankly, they can be a lot of grueling work. An important lesson for children to learn is that just because something isn’t fun doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Kids must grow up and mature quickly to travel successfully in the wilderness. No matter how tough you think you are, trips like Grand Portage where you have to carry your gear over an 8.5-mile portage will change you. It will also leave you with a sense of empowerment when you find that you can achieve more than what you previously thought possible. Ultimately, confidence comes from experience.

All the while, trip leaders trained in behavioral management, group dynamics, and wilderness risk-management fall right alongside the other participants and often become sterling examples of someone to strive to be like.

Small accomplishments on wilderness trips become the foundations of newfound self-esteem. Challenges promote growth and personal growth is cultivated by trip leaders who care.

5. Wilderness experiences teach kids to be mindful and enjoy the simple life.

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Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.

Sigurd Olson

While cities certainly can be enriching and bustling hubs of human activity, they can also be an agent for a materialistic, conformist, rat-race, more-faster-better way of life. To many people, this is an unfulfilling lifestyle. Perhaps that is why people living in cities have higher rates of anxiety and depressive disorders. In today’s increasingly complex and urbanized world, camping forces us to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life.

The simple life refers to, as Camp Director John Erdmann would say, “bare-bones liven’”. Its foundation is built on the four classical elements of medieval alchemy: earth, water, air, and fire. Simple living is an antidote to the materialism and hyperconsumerism prevalent in today’s world. This change of mindset can be brought about by living in the outdoors.

Outside, the rhythms of the days revolve around the sun, water, weather, food, and finding a spot to sleep at night. Exposure to the natural light cycles of the earth helps to sync our hormone balances of melatonin and serotonin which promise deep z’s. Anyone who has trouble falling asleep should experience a full day of hiking, canoeing, or kayaking outside followed by a large meal of rice and beans with fish. As long as there are no thunderstorms in the forecast, a night spent in a tent provides sleep like no other. And given the high rates of teenage insomnia today, a good night of sleep is the first step towards a great day.

Unplugged from technology, kids discover many wonders of nature. Silence becomes beauty. Weather apps are replaced by looking up at the sky. Clothing loses its role as a fashion statement and becomes survival gear, as anyone who’s been caught in a rainstorm without their raincoat in the Boundary Waters can attest. Kids learn how to take care of themselves and how to be self-sufficient.

Living simply in the wilderness also leads to learning simple life lessons:

  • Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
  • Less is more.
  • Step over the rocks, duck under the trees.
  • Take care of your feet.
  • Stick together.
  • Mind over matter.

With over half of the world’s population now living in cities, kids today aren’t spending enough time outside, getting enough sleep, and the bigger-is-better lifestyle can leave them with an indefinite sense that something is missing. A wilderness camping experience can recalibrate kids’ sense of needs versus wants and result in a paradigm shift with lifelong ramifications.

6. Spending time outdoors teaches children why protecting our environment is important.

Proposed mining near the Boundary Waters. Microplastics recently found deep in Boundary Waters. These headlines teach us that no matter how pristine, remote, and vast a wilderness may be, it will always need responsible humans to protect it. To ensure the future of humanity, the next generation must be more sensible than the previous.

Want to raise an environmentally responsible child? They need to spend some time immersed in nature. Yet, children spend on average only 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week. The effects of spending less time in nature impact the world. “Direct experience with nature is the most highly cited influence on environmental attitude and conservation activism,” says Dr. Patricia Zaradic, who studies the matter.

When people frequently spend time outside, they develop a feeling of connectedness with nature. They start to notice the intricate connections of all living beings. Traveling through a pristine area like the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota, where you can drink clean water right from a lake as you paddle across with no one around, teaches the value of land stewardship.

Wilderness adventure camps also teach Leave No Trace principles (plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, be considerate of other visitors) which help to protect the regions they travel to from harm.

Climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and other environmental issues caused by human action could be mitigated by encouraging our children to play outside, where they can learn to appreciate nature and develop a lifelong connectedness with nature that fosters pro-environmentalism.

What is a wilderness?

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Howard Zahniser (Wilderness Act of 1964)

7. Wilderness adventures teach children about healthy risk-taking.

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“No, we cannot go down these Class 3 rapids because we are 50 miles from the nearest exit point in Kevlar canoes, carrying 8 days’ worth of food,” said the veteran trip leader to his wide-eyed crew.

The wilderness is an environment where risks are inherent and trial and error are normal, required, and socially acceptable. Problem-solving goes from a complicated math problem at school to lashing two canoes together using logs and p-chord to stabilize the canoes, while battling a headwind in the rain with a thunderstorm fast approaching.

Some examples of positive risks are revealed in common questions kids ask their trip leaders:

  • Can I cook dinner tonight?
  • Can I navigate and take the lead today?
  • Can I try carrying the food pack this time?
  • Can I get my Junior Bushwhacker on this trip?

Those questions are a far cry from the scope of risk-taking teenagers confront (i.e. vaping) back in their hometown social circles. Furthermore, these positive risks are taken alongside adult counselors who model and moderate the whole process. These adults seek to promote growth mindsets and facilitate healthy risk-taking. When a crew arrives successfully back at base camp, they get to feel successful and hopefully they comprehend the significance of the risks they took.

Wilderness adventure fosters lifelong success by creating and reinforcing growth mindsets in children. They get to experience success. Participants have the opportunity to test themselves in an emotionally safe environment, moderated by trained counselors who provide support along the way.

8. Wilderness group travel teaches participants the value of selflessness in a cooperative community.

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Crossing your first portage can be an uncomfortable dose of reality when you realize how heavy some of the packs can be. When a veteran approaches and provides words of encouragement or perhaps takes some of the load off, the impact can be huge.

Interdependence is required for group travel. Groups must stick together and leave no one behind. Trip leaders can’t possibly do all the planning, packing, paddling, cooking, carrying, and chores alone. They must rely on their crew. Therefore, all participants play an integral role in the success of a trip.

Trust is ultimately built after multiple days of interdependence during the trip’s highs and lows. Participants who aren’t pulling their weight feel the social pressure to make some sacrifices for the good of the crew. They must set aside their desire for sleep to help the crew hang their food pack in a tree for safekeeping from bears.

Participants who learn and exhibit selflessness discover the meaning of generosity and the sincere impact it can play on their lives. Kindness is seen in a new light when you watch – from your dry tent – your trip leader build a fire and spend an hour cooking dinner in the pouring rain.

An emotional safety net is eventually formed that galvanizes the group. Participants learn to communicate their goals, ideas, wants, and needs – and sometimes how to set them aside for the benefit of the crew. By providing honest moments of achievement and camaraderie, wilderness adventures teach participants that working together towards a goal is one of the biggest joys in life.

9. Kids can learn to cook in the outdoors.

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Chasing smallies around Crooked Lake, hiking up and down the Superior Hiking Trail, and kayaking around the Apostle Islands works up a ravenous appetite. Meals as simple as rice and beans become more complex when you need to start a fire and keep it stoked while fighting off mosquitos and waning daylight. Not to mention, the staple meal of rice and beans can become quite bland when you’re on a 10-day trip into the Quetico and 5 of the suppers are rice and beans. Adventurers must learn the secret arts of cheese, peppers, onions, lemon pepper, taco seasoning, and various combinations of herbs to spice things up. Other meals include trail pizza, spaghetti, chicken alfredo, mac and cheese, and chicken pesto pasta.

Minnesota’s famous walleye sure taste great but be prepared to spend hours harvesting them. Assuming you caught enough for a meal, now you must find a way to clean them (on your slippery canoe paddle) without getting bear’s favorite attractant all over yourself and the campsite. Make sure to take multiple bags for the fillets and the waste. The parts of the fish you don’t eat must be disposed of far, far away from the campsite. Hopefully, you brought enough oil to fry `em up! Participants learn the value of food quickly when meals take that much preparation.

When trip leaders don’t pack enough food because they forget about the seemingly unlimited amount of food a teenage boy can eat, rationing teaches participants restraint and unselfishness in the most basic way. Taking an excessive handful of GORP (Good Ole’ Raisins and Peanuts) is easily one of the biggest sins one can make during a food shortage.

The art of cooking on the trail teaches resourcefulness, efficiency, and mindful eating. It cultivates an appreciation for the preparation of food that many kids haven’t experienced. Sharing a meal after a long day is rewarding. As a 13-year-old boy, effectively cooking a meal over a campfire for your crew of six is a gratifying skill they probably have never experienced and it becomes another success to build upon.

10. Wilderness tripping creates unbreakable bonds of friendship.

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Anyone who has travelled extensively or taken multi-day backcountry trips has realized that it’s not always the places you visit, but the people you share the experiences with who matter most. The pictures and videos we share (while quite amazing) are superficial to the deep bonds formed on adventures. Creating and sharing experiences is one of the best ways to build positive relationships.

The experience of being out on the trail, with friends, is something that’s pretty profound.

Camp Director John Erdmann

Many trips begin with participants hardly talking and relying upon the group leader to facilitate communication. But after a day or two, genuine connections are created through the group’s struggles and successes. Long portages, headwinds, and rainstorms become the medium through which teamwork and grit are forged. Following the group struggle, collective feelings of jubilation cement the fellowships.

Summer camp friendships are different than other friendships. Stripped away from their old habits, socioeconomic privileges (or lack thereof), and dropped into a setting where teamwork is paramount to the success of a trip, participants thrive on the comradery kindled by group wilderness travel.

Wilderness trips have a way of shedding people’s facades quickly. It’s doesn’t matter what background a kid comes from. All that matters is how they treat other people, what they contribute to the group, and how much honest effort they put forth. When all members of a group are showing their true colors, real meaningful friendships flourish.

The travel groups are thoughtfully selected groups with mixtures of ages, experience, and character traits that ensure no two trips are ever alike. Working as a team in the wilderness, friends become family. The unbreakable bond of the trail creates memories and lessons that last a lifetime.

11. Kids can develop a lifelong passion for physical activity.

Our modern world has taken away many of the mainstay physical challenges of peoples’ past. Children are spending an average of 7.5 hours a day in front of screens. They are also exercising less, which is harmful since physical activity can have a positive impact on anxiety and depression, as well as ADHD, and obesity.

Even if children are staying away from screens by playing baseball all summer, kids need breaks from their main sports. Research suggests that for most sports, there is no evidence that intense training and specialization before [age 13 or 14] are necessary to achieve elite status. Risks of early sports specialization include higher rates of injury, and quitting sports at a young age. Furthermore, few remain active in their specialized sport once their school sports careers are over. Being able to hit a ball with a bat will not become a skill that can be utilized for a lifetime of physical activity.

Going on adventures into the wilderness where no motors are allowed is fundamentally physically demanding. Travelling and living outside takes work. At the beginning of canoe trips, 120 rod portages seem like menacing monsters. Learning how to plan a food menu, pack the right gear, and travel efficiently throughout the wilderness are unique skills that can lead to a lifetime of adventure. Even if kids don’t plan on engaging in outdoor pursuits their whole life, a quality wilderness adventure camp is so much more than a sports camp.

Participants get into shape fast on trips and confidence rises in junction. 120 rod portages become something to defy with Spartan-like toughness, not approach with fear and hesitation. The ultimate goal of physical education programs is to inspire lifelong physical activity. Outdoor adventures reveal to kids the benefits of staying in shape and gives them the skills to continue venturing out of their comfort zones for a lifetime.

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Camp Voyageur

Since 1951, Camp Voyageur’s wilderness adventure camp for boys has specialized in providing authentic experiences. Boys grow in ways not possible in other settings. The benefits that wilderness adventure camps provide are just a few reasons to pick Camp Voyageur. With a mission of fostering personal growth through group interaction in a wilderness setting, Camp Voyageur emphasizes selfless giving, hard work, and kindness using nature as a medium for growth.

Camp Voyageur

prepares kids

for life.

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We also have a dynamic in-camp program.

On our peninsula boys, chores come before choices. Boys live together in small cabins, take care of their own gear, and share chores. We offer a robust base camp routine of land and water sports. Our creative and energetic staff lead favorite activities like CV’s Gong Show, the cardboard boat regatta, WELK radio show, and the CV Olympics (watch videos). Boys get in shape playing sports as they prepare for progressively longer trips into the Quetico-Superior region of North America.

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