Words and photos by Tim Swale
If you are reading this, it is likely that you already have a strong interest in the outdoors and understand the benefits of spending time recreating in a natural environment. I count myself lucky to have had a father who introduced me to outdoor activities at an early age. As I went through my teenage years other adults also gave their time freely to encourage young people to participate and develop their skills in canoeing, hiking, caving, rock climbing etc. It got me out of the house, challenged me, and created strong social connections whilst developing some lifelong skills, but above all – it was fun. The energy of youth was channeled in a very positive direction.
Despite living in one of the best countries in the world for outdoor activities, young people in New Zealand today in many ways have fewer opportunities to experience the outdoors than previous generations. They have a multitude of sporting and leisure options to choose from, parents often need to work at weekends, organizations such as Scouts and Guides are less prevalent and the health and safety requirements for schools taking students into the outdoors have become quite onerous. Having been a teacher in both the UK and New Zealand for over 40 years I have seen this increased emphasis on risk management curtailing the number of staff willing to take students on adventurous activities. The lucky ones have parents who will take them on outdoor adventures or understand the benefits of giving their children the opportunity to go tramping and will often enroll them in schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award (DofE).
Unfortunately, life is not equal and there are large numbers of kids who never get opportunities to explore outdoors, unless someone is prepared to step in and help.
The members of tramping and outdoor clubs are a rich source of knowledge and experience in the outdoors. We can often see the benefits of activities such as tramping for young people but are unsure of how we can help. Not everyone enjoys their company. They can sometimes be seen as loud, impulsive and selfish, but in my experience, young people given the right experience in the outdoors thrive and give back the effort that you put in many times over. Fewer things can be more rewarding than getting to the end of an adventure in the hills to have young people bubbling with enthusiasm, eager for the next trip and knowing that you have given them some really good knowledge and skills that will last them a lifetime. So how can organizations such as tramping clubs help?
A group of youth, navigating their way though the bush off-track near Ruamahanga Forks, Taratua Forest Park.
The most obvious way is of course to plan and take your own children or grandchildren on an outdoor adventure. Kids like the company of other young people, so finding other caregivers to come along with their children is a good option. Enjoyment is the top priority when youngsters are starting out. It is far better to do an easy tramp with lots of fun activities on the way than to push the limits of their endurance and risk putting them off for life. Overnight stays in huts or under a fly always go down well. However, once you start taking other people’s children into the outdoors things become a little more complicated and it is often preferable to help out through an organization such as a school, youth group or Outdoor Training New Zealand which will cover all of the safety and compliance issues.
It is far better to do an easy tramp with lots of fun activities on the way than to push the limits of their endurance and risk putting them off for life. Overnight stays in huts or under a fly always go down well.
However, once you start taking other people’s children into the outdoors things become a little more complicated and it is often preferable to help out through an organization such as a school, youth group or Outdoor Training New Zealand which will cover all of the safety and compliance issues.
Outdoor Training New Zealand (OTNZ) was formed after the Mountain Safety Council withdrew from training courses to concentrate on safety messaging. Run entirely by volunteers OTNZ has branches in many parts of the country and provides a range of training opportunities including delivering bushcraft courses, river safety courses and shadowing services for students doing their DofE Award. Participants are taught the basics of travel in the backcountry such as clothing and equipment for tramping, navigation, campsite selection, river safety etc. usually with a day walk on Sunday to practice many of these skills. The river safety day courses, run by OTNZ, cater mainly for adult groups including Te Araroa walkers, hunters and SAR personnel.
Several members of the Manawatu Tramping and Skiing Club have enrolled with OTNZ and are providing a valuable service to the community and schools, especially in supporting their DofE students in completing the Adventurous Journey section of their Award. So, if this sounds like something you would be interested in, get in touch with your local OTNZ branch. I am sure they would be delighted to have you come along and get involved.
The skills needed as an OTNZ instructor are very much the skill set that most members of a tramping club who have been tramping for a few years would already have. Because of the level of accountability involved in taking other people’s children into the outdoors, the organization has a few extra requirements to ensure that activities are conducted safely and appropriately. This involves a police check, obtaining a first aid certificate and for many roles obtaining an outdoor qualification (which OTNZ will pay for). The basic qualification is Outdoor Leader which entails doing a risk management course, a bit of paperwork, keeping a logbook, a training weekend, helping out on bushcraft courses, and then an assessment weekend. It sounds like a lot, but none are particularly onerous and if you enjoy the outdoors and the company of good people it is a lot of fun and likely to further develop your own skills and safety knowledge.
OTNZ and tramping club members are supporting youth on their Duke of Edinburg’s Adventurous Journeys as shadows.
Most of the work that we do is around shadowing young people whilst they do their DofE’s Adventurous Journey. Depending on whether they are doing the bronze, silver or gold award they are required to plan and complete a self-supported backcountry journey of two, three or four days in groups of between four and seven young people. OTNZ members will volunteer to accompany a group on agreed dates and are there primarily as safety backup in case difficult decisions have to be made regarding river crossings, ridge travel in poor weather, medical events, injuries etc. We always go out with an in-Reach so that we have two-way communication and tracking. Whilst many DofE’s journeys take place with just one adult as a shadow, my personal preference is to have two, particularly as many groups are female only and as a male it is good to have a female adult along as well. This is where our tramping club has been especially helpful as I can always put out the call for an assistant shadow to come along for the walk.
The young people involved are invariably sensible, polite and thoroughly good company. On most trips, there is nothing that needs to be done other than to pass on a few tips.
Very occasionally you have had to intervene by feeding the group with the information they need to make a good decision when you can see that their plan is not totally safe. An example was when on one occasion a group had planned to cross an exposed ridge between Powell Hut and Jumbo Hut in the Tararua Range. It was late in the day, there was snow on the ground, the wind was getting up and we found that one of the members had forgotten her over-trousers. We went up onto High Ridge so that the group could get a feel for what it was like in such an exposed location and they subsequently made the decision to retreat to Powell Hut for the night. The next morning the wind had dropped, most of the snow was gone and it was completely safe to make the crossing. The rest of the journey was completed without incident.
Creek crossings after heavy rain can be dangerous. The shadow ensures no undue risks are taken.
The benefits of spending time in the outdoors cannot be underestimated. It is good for the body and soul, involves planning and teamwork, develops resilience, gives an appreciation of nature and can be a great vehicle by which to build self-esteem. I have been very aware for many years that many young people are never given the opportunity to get involved with the outdoors, often because they come from a very disadvantaged background. The DofE Award Scheme tends to cater for a very middle-class demographic and is expensive to access. It is a great scheme but is out of reach for some young people. Other ways of getting kids outdoors are of course possible and I have been immensely grateful over the years for the help of tramping club members in accompanying me on trips with youth where a good ratio of adults to young people is essential.
Pahiatua has a thriving Blue Light group, a police initiative to get kids involved with a range of activities where they are able to interact positively with police and other adults. Through this group, we have organized many tramps, bike rides, orienteering events, a CACTUS (The Combined Adolescent Challenge Training Unit) programme and even a “resilience programme” for at-risk youth. Quite often these young people have been made to feel inadequate at school because they don’t do well academically, but put into the outdoors and suddenly finding that they are good at something brings about a whole change of attitude. It may be navigation, clearing trap lines or finding a geocache. Success breeds success. The benefits of the activities have been recognized by local groups such as Lions who have donated considerable funds to purchase rain jackets, and safety gear and provide transport for activities. But above all, it is the support of tramping club members who have been there to go on walks and rides with kids and provide those positive role models that have been so important.
Quite often these young people have been made to feel inadequate at school because they don’t do well academically, but put into the outdoors and suddenly finding that they are good at something brings about a whole change of attitude. It may be navigation, clearing trap lines or finding a geocache. Success breeds success.
The benefits of the activities have been recognized by local groups such as Lions who have donated considerable funds to purchase rain jackets, and safety gear and provide transport for activities. But above all, it is the support of tramping club members who have been there to go on walks and rides with kids and provide those positive role models that have been so important.
Over many years of supporting young people to participate in outdoor activities (even with Alternative Education groups), I have only ever had one occasion where challenging behavior was an issue and needed follow-up measures. For the vast majority of trips, the kids have been absolutely awesome. It is heart-warming to hear the enthusiastic chatter in the minibus on the way home, the enquiries as to when we will be going again and even years later, young adults stopping you in the street to reminisce about an adventure you had organized for them. Yes, it’s a bit of work but extremely satisfying and I would urge anyone with the skills needed and a desire to help others to give it a go.
Tim Swale is a president of Manawtau Tramping and Skiing Club and has worked with youth through OTNZ, Blue Light and Alternative Education Programmes for years. FMC thanks Tim for sharing his experience of working with youth in the outdoors and contributing to highlight Youth Tramping as a celebrate activity of 2023/24.