Of everything she experienced, the bison most intimidated Ava Vitali as she pitched her tent in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Road-tripping to Yellowstone National Park for a backpacking trip with her Girl Scout troop in summer 2015, the group camped along the way. Thus, the shaggy, brown beasts loom large in her memory of the adventure.
“There were bison all around us, maybe 30 feet away. It was very nerve-racking, especially when we realized we were going to sleep there with the bison,” recalled the now-15-year-old sophomore at Como Park High School. “It might scare you a little at first, but it’s very cool to sleep outdoors overnight. You think, ‘Hey, I heard new things and saw new things that I might not hear or see in everyday life. I persevered and it made me stronger. I might even want to do it again.’ ”
This is exactly the type of experience the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys are hoping its young people will garner from its “Every Girl in a Tent” initiative. The program, which has girls as young as 5 camping, aims to immerse them in the outdoors for the adventure of it, but also to teach skills and environmental stewardship. They camp everywhere from Minnesota state parks to locations such as the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone. Since the program’s launch in October, more than 350 Girl Scouts already have participated.
“Tent camping is a core part of the Girl Scouts program, and we wanted to elevate it even further with this initiative to encourage troops to go further than they have before, whether they love camping and go all the time or this will be their first campout,” said Breanne Hegg, the regional Girl Scout organization’s vice president of programs. “The skills you need to run a business or run for office, you can learn from sleeping in a tent — pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, gaining leadership skills, learning to take initiative.”
Indeed, inspiring youth to get out in the wilderness for a night or two under the stars is part of a larger trend. The National Wildlife Federation encourages families to camp during the Great American Campout each year. In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources organizes one- and two-night outings in a program called “I Can Camp!” to introduce families to basics.
Research from Plymouth University in the United Kingdom found parents of kids who camp in the outdoors at least once a year reported their children perform better in school and are healthier and happier. That is on top of reams of existing research touting the benefits and even necessity of time in nature, including an improved ability to pay attention, higher confidence and creativity, and lower occurrence of anxiety and depression.
Eric Pelto is special programs coordinator for the DNR and leads “I Can Camp!” He’s seen the benefits firsthand. With programs starting every June, the DNR had 700 people participate in 2018.
“Camping provides this superdose of nature — to really immerse yourself and disconnect from the hyperconnected social media world we live in — to reset in the natural world,” Pelto said. “It is a way for families to take a break and rest so when you get home you feel refreshed.”
The lack of distractions naturally fosters teamwork among campers. This is key to building character, said Maura Marko, who with her husband, Bobby, publishes the travel blog WeFoundAdventure.com about experiences with their family. They have two young children.
“You work together as a team to set up the tent and give kids tasks to help prep food or clean dishes,” she said. “So often in everyday life I’ll just do it myself because it is faster, but when you’re camping, you slow down and let them do it so they start to feel a sense of responsibility and they realize what they are really capable of.”
Over the years, Vitali, the Scout, and her troop have learned to make fires, put up tents, and navigate the geography of complex trail systems. Getting accustomed to the idea that things don’t always go according to plan is just a signature part of the experience.
“You learn to be flexible because you never know what Mother Nature has in store — rain, wind, bugs,” said Vitali. “I think it’s made us all a lot tougher and taught us to think on the bright side, knowing, for instance, that the bugs could always be worse.”
Perhaps more significant are nature’s teaching about humans’ place in the world — an especially important lesson during childhood.
“Nature is the best teacher,” said Maura Marko. “When you’re out camping you realize how interconnected every part of the forest is and how every action we take affects the entire ecosystem around us. Kids learn that they can choose to be a kind and caring human being who is gentle with the plants, wildlife and people around them.”
Plan ahead for summer
The Markos started camping with their kids, now 4 and 2, when they were infants. She insists it’s never too early to get out with children.
“It can be intimidating,” she said. “As parents of young children, we live and die by schedules, but we tell parents to forget the schedule for the weekend. Generally kids are so wiped out from playing in the woods, they go to sleep in the tent pretty easily.”
Even though we are far from peak camping season, it’s worth thinking about logistics now. For an initial outing, Marko suggested choosing a campground where you have an exit strategy — a nearby hotel or an easy drive home — in case disaster strikes. Just knowing you have an out can help you persevere. With that said, she advised against backyard camping in the beginning because it’s simply too easy to give up and go inside.
The threat of bugs, weather, and other hazards can be particularly worrying for the uninitiated. Marko said that camping presents some teachable moments about safety, whether it be sticking close to the campground or staying away from open water unsupervised.
This is where programs like “I Can Camp!” reach people. They typically get families with kids between 4 to 15 years old. With camping trips planned between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year, most within an hour or two of the Twin Cities, groups are led by DNR staff. Adults and children are treated to lessons on everything from how to set up a tent and build a fire, to cooking demonstrations, canoeing and fishing. The DNR even provides most of the gear.
Pelto said by taking the guesswork out of planning and executing the trip, families are introduced to camping without the stress.
“It’s all about getting away from the distractions and spending time together,” he added. “Camping allows you to lay in the tent talking to your kids, to sit around the campfire singing songs and roasting marshmallows. Kids are allowed to just be kids — to explore, to look up at the stars. Even a weekend outdoors can make all the difference.”
With a goal of 15,000 campers by next fall, Girl Scout leaders in the region are doing their part to introduce girls to a quintessential Minnesota experience.
“Girls especially are often told not to get messy, take risks or make mistakes. Challenging experiences are exactly what girls need to grow and gain confidence and grit,” Hegg said. “Every Girl in a Tent can help a girl change her narrative about herself and collectively, inspire a generation of girls to own their space in the outdoors and to use it as a springboard to success in whatever venture they choose.”
Mackenzie L. Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.