Think back to your first trip outside. The experience is nothing short of radical. The fresh air. The views. Learning to pitch a tent or build a fire. Digging your first cathole.

Now reflect on how that trip changed you as a person. The new perspectives or ideals. A sense of reliance or heightened self-esteem. Perhaps it awakened a passion for the outdoors that continued to this day. That first trip outside had a profound effect on who you are.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, Therm-a-Rest writer Keith Erps reflects on the importance of taking youth outside and our partnership with Big City Mountaineers.

Bear cans, Clif Bars, sleeping bags and hiking boots lay haphazardly around a fleet of vans. The final subtractions and additions are made and straps are cinched tight. The packs look enormous. I watch as one team member carries his gear to the van, his fully-loaded pack looking bigger than him. It’s the first day of our expedition and the packs will grow lighter as we eat through the weeks worth of food sealed inside our bear canisters.

While this might seem like a typical first day in the backcountry, it was anything but. For starters, the reason the packs seemed so big was that many members of my team were eighth graders that had yet to finish their growth spurts. It was also the first time I had ever seen a pair of Jordan sneakers shoved into the outer pocket of a pack bound for a week in the woods.

Our group was composed of five teens from the Boys & Girls Club, an adult mentor from their club, a Big City Mountaineers educator, myself and another adult volunteer. The plan was to head out for five days to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, spending the third day to scramble up a nearby peak with day packs.

When I volunteered to help guide a Big City Mountaineers (BCM) expedition I expected to be facilitating profound conversations with teens while on an uber-casual backpacking trip in a beautiful setting. I had painted mental pictures of hiking across sunny, Cascadian ridgelines and fireside conversations about navigating life. However, I quickly learned that this trip and my expectations might never align.

My idea of a relaxed backpacking trip never happened. My pack weighed more than usual, laden down with cans of tuna and full jars of peanut butter. Extra group gear was shoved into the remaining nooks and crannies before tossing it onto my back. Our pace was slow and breaks were frequent. Around the campfire, I never had the breakthrough moment I hoped for.

Despite my unmet expectations, the entire experience was eye-opening. Not because I was presented with any new information, but because an old lesson was drawn from the back of my mind.

I was reminded of the transformative power of life in the mountains.

In the humble opinion of a twenty-something-year-old writer, experiences in the outdoors are invaluable for all adolescents. They learned to value and care for the land. They learned to unplug and engage. They learned to be uncomfortable. I saw ownership, stewardship and decision-making presented to these kids while in a new and wild setting. These lessons had been taught to them before, but the backcountry provides an extra dose of reality to these valuable life lessons.

I saw ownership, stewardship and decision-making presented to these kids while in a new and wild setting. These lessons had been taught to them before, but the backcountry provides an extra dose of reality to these valuable life lessons.

I watched as one teen transformed from a timid observer into an assertive trail navigator after being handed a map and compass. There was nothing magic about the piece of paper covered in topographic lines. He saw the faith and confidence that our BCM educator placed in him. He remembered the lessons in backcountry navigation and he was reminded that he had the full support of the group he was leading.

Anytime you enter the backcountry, the wild asks you if you have what it takes. For teens, this question is so much bigger than if you have enough food or the necessary gear and skills. It’s a question of the soul. Through Big City Mountaineers, each kid in our group was supported and put in a position where they could respond to the “do-you-have-what-it-takes” question with a resounding “YES”.

Big City Mountaineers is well aware of the personal growth that takes place during a week in the woods. They believe that this experience is priceless for teens. All teens. This belief led the founders to realize a need: facilitating outdoor experiences for under-served youth.

Since 1990, the organization has taken over 8,000 teens into the outdoors. Each of these individuals left their trips with a set of new experiences and values that will have a compounding effect on their communities around them. With each passing year, BCM is adding more programs and finding more support from sponsors like Therm-a-Rest to keep growing and fulfilling their mission. As they grow, BCM is providing valuable life skills and unforgettable experiences to over 1,000 teens every year.

My experience as a trip volunteer won’t be my last. I know the self-esteem, responsibility and communication skills that BCM teaches won’t just improve our wild places, it will improve our world, one teen at a time.

To learn more about our partnership with Big City Mountaineers and their mission mentoring urban youth outdoors, visit