Imagine, if you will, your first trip adventuring in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s the first time you’ve strapped on a backpack, and the first time you’ve dared to enter the mountains with the intent not to return home that night. You leave your friends and family behind, as well as your phone, and meet eleven complete strangers that will join you in spending most of the day hiking 3-5 miles uphill to someplace you’ve only seen on a map.
If those challenges were not enough for day one, you soon realize that when you arrive at your destination, you will quickly learn to filter the lake water for drinking. There are no tents, so you are put in charge of finding the perfect location to “cowboy camp” in the wilderness. Now imagine once more that you are a teenager. Sounds like fun, right?
Since 2007, the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA) has been growing these challenging, yet rewarding youth backpacking experiences on the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Thanks to the support of Heavenly Mountain and the Vail Resorts EpicPromise, the TRTA and Zephyr Point are strapping packs on 200 teenagers this summer to embark on four-day, three-night adventures along the Tahoe Rim Trail. Through this one-of-a- kind program, Youth Backcountry Camps, teens are challenged to experience new heights and learn new skills.
For most campers, this is their first-ever backpacking trip. They don’t know what to expect, but they’re eager to learn and have a little fun with other teenagers seeking a similar experience. They come in all shapes and sizes, all with different skill sets, experiences, and lifestyles from back home. Despite these differences, they find commonality and community among the adventurous spirit that each teen brings to the trail. Fears about being in a new environment and sleeping under the stars fade away as they discover more about each other, themselves, and Tahoe’s backcountry spaces.
This past month, I had a chance to sit down with two lead crew members, Julia Kaseta and McKayla Bull, and I enjoyed hearing the stories they told of this booming program and its memorable nights on the trail. Julia Kaseta, Youth Programs Manager with the TRTA, explained how the program has
grown over the years. “In 2022, we doubled the number of campers thanks to generous donations and the financial backing of our grantors. With this community support, we were able to accommodate an additional 100 kids on the trail last summer and we’re excited to keep this momentum going in 2023,” she explained.
This summer, the Tahoe Rim Trail Association is inviting youth, ages 12-17, to join one of these trail adventures regardless of experience level. Each four-day trip is designed to teach teens everything they need to know about backpacking and camping to feel confident in the woods. These important backcountry lessons help youth gain the skills needed to overcome physical and mental obstacles that present on the trail, as well as life challenges experienced outside of the program.
Publisher side Note:
I remember growing up in the Cascade mountains with my family, constantly being outdoors and exploring the woods behind the house for miles without parental supervision and care. We would camp all summer off some forest service road with dad and hunt on the weekends while I was in school. But I don’t recall cowboy camping ever. Could I have done it at the age of 12 or 14?
McKayla Bull, Lead Youth Backcountry Instructor with the TRTA, expands on how the program supports these challenges. “For most kids, this is the first time they’ve ever spent an entire day without a phone or gaming system to keep them distracted. Besides the physical challenge of a good day’s hike, socializing with new faces on the first day is always one of the most complex obstacles for kids,” she informed me. Of course, McKayla and the other instructors are well-versed in keeping kids’ minds stimulated and engaged on the trail. They utilize fun games and camping tasks aimed at helping kids
interact while developing an awareness of their surroundings.
Learning the Leave No Trace Principles on the trail is a major component of the Youth Backcountry Camp curriculum and includes fun games like the “poop relay race” to drive home the importance of minimizing all impacts in the wilderness. Learning to filter water and keeping a clean camp are all lessons that come in extremely handy quickly while on the trail.
These wilderness ethics concepts are especially important to preserve the natural and cultural history of the Tahoe region. This heritage of the Sierra Nevada is something I, and most of us who travel throughout the Sierra, have a hard time comprehending. However, as I spoke with McKayla and Julia, it was reassuring to know that youth are learning about the indigenous peoples of the region, the Waší∙šiw Tribe, and that young members of the Tribe could participate in the program to understand the significance of their own heritage and connect with their ancestral lands.
In the TRTA’s Winter Edition Trail Blazer magazine, McKayla tells a story of the Waší∙šiw Tribe youth trip she was privileged to lead. These youth had the opportunity to identify tools used by their ancestors to grind grains in the granite rocks of the Sierra, creating a deeper connection with their heritage. A snippet from this article stands out to me,
“By the next morning, the increased comfort and joy these young people were experiencing were palpable. They knew how to unlock bear canisters, ignite
backcountry stoves, and cook dehydrated mac-and-cheese. They jubilantly skipped to the lake’s edge to fetch “dime” (water in Waši∙šiw ), setting up gravity filters like seasoned backpackers while giving thanks to the creator for the life-giving element. You could see them starting to feel their power.”
This moment from McKayla is from a morning with a group of the Waši∙šiw youth that had come to experience the land of their ancestors.
These magical experiences for youth in Tahoe are second to none in value. Teens make new friends, swim in alpine lakes, sleep under the stars, and climb the region’s highest peaks all in four sweet summer days. This summer, the TRTA and Zephyr Point are partnering to offer six trip options, ranging from a climb up Freel Peak and Star Lake to a scenic beginner loop through Big Meadow and Round Lake. Registration for these
popular backpacking trips is live at the Youth Backcountry Camp webpage at tahoerimtrail.org/youth-backcountry-camps. If you’re interested in sending your child on one of these camps, sign up before it fills and get your teen ready for the adventure.
Registration for these backpack trips started March 1st. They are popular, so at the time of this story, they may be a hard tick to achieve, but if you are interested in sending your child or if you happen to be a teen and think this is exactly what you want to accomplish with your summer, reach out to Julia to Tahoe rim trail and let her know that you’re ready for the Poop Relays!