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I’m Fired Up: For kids, cell phones have no place in the backcountry

Each Big City Mountaineers wilderness trip begins with the same tough moment: when the urban teenagers have to relinquish their cell phones for the week. But by the third day something magic happens, which is why Bryan Martin, executive director of the Colorado-based nonprofit, firmly believes that the backcountry should be tech-free for kids.

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BCM executive director Bryan Martin and his son, TK.
BCM executive director Bryan Martin and his son, Soren.

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” This quote from John Muir is even more relevant today than when he wrote it in 1901. Unfortunately for many of us, we are not heeding his advice.

One thing we all know is actively tearing us away from nature, and all of its inherent benefits, is technology and the amount of time we now spend in front of screens. The issue is particularly stark for our nation’s kids. Their move indoors has profoundly impacted their health and wellness. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids 8 to 18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media in a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). Even preschoolers are not exempt. Most log an excess of 32 hours per week of TV, according to The Nielsen Company. By the time most children attend kindergarten, they have watched more than 5,000 hours of television—enough time to earn a college degree. It is a serious public health issue that all Americans need to care about. In the last 20 years, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled; the United States has become the largest consumer of ADHD medications in the world; and the use of antidepressants in pediatric patients has risen sharply. American kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: unstructured time playing outdoors.

In fact, what we have known intuitively among outdoor recreation enthusiasts since Muir’s day is now being researched by social scientists and mental health experts—that nature and experiences in nature (passive or active) have tangible benefits to human existence—physical, mental, and spiritual. We are only just scratching the surface in this field, but data collected over the past 10 to 15 years shows experiences in nature reduce stress, improve our physical health, lead to better education outcomes, and build civic-mindedness.

The conservation gains we have made and the outdoor recreation opportunities we enjoy today are in peril if the next generation is disconnected from nature and does not appreciate its benefits.

Twenty years from now when we need that open space measure passed in the county, who is going to champion it? Likely not the adult who spent his or her childhood watching cat videos.

Here at Big City Mountaineers (BCM), we believe that a meaningful experience in the outdoors has the ability to change a life.

On every one of our trips, we take away our students’ phones, iPads, and screens—and it kills them! For many of our kids, this is their first trip away from home and the conversation we have about leaving their phones behind is more difficult than them saying goodbye to their parents.

Photo courtesy of BCM
A group of device-free BCM teens in Wyoming’s Medicine Bows. Photo courtesy of BCM

We have witnessed the nervous moment when they turn over their gadgets before hopping on the bus to the trailhead. We have heard all the complaints about not knowing what their friends are up to or talking about. And we have had the confrontations when kids demand their phones back on that first day or second day. But on that third day….

That third day, the complaints die down, the kids settle into the routine of camp life. They’re sleeping better and opening up their senses to the amazing experiences the wilderness is providing. Conversations around the campfire aren’t so forced or muted. It’s on these third and fourth days where our breakthroughs with the kids begin. They’re settling into their new environment and, in this new environment, they’re opening up to new ideas and perspectives. It’s in this opening that our trip leaders and mentors subtly set in motion the strategies and tactics that will create a truly transformational experience for our teens.

By week’s end the kids are all encouraging each other; they’re leading the hikes, planning the meals, and consulting the map. They’re communicating and working together as a team. Slowly, the mentors fall to the back and allow the kids’ leadership and growth to crystalize in them.

We could not create these transformations and implement our youth development strategies if our kids were tapping away on their phones and buried in a screen. I don’t mean to come off like a luddite—my phone is on my nightstand while I sleep. Moreover, there is a lot of merit in using technology to connect people and inspire people to visit the places we play in. But for our work, being screen-free to allow the awesome power of nature to wash over our kids is an absolute must.

Clearly, getting outside and getting away from it all is beneficial because it gives us the space and the place to think, to reset our life, and gain a new perspective. We owe this to ourselves as much as to our kids. Do you really need to read that next tweet? Turn your phone off for an hour, pick your head up, and take a walk. Lead by example so our kids can see that they don’t have to search endlessly for entertainment in a screen but rather by get out, get creative, have fun on a trail or at a park, and, as John Muir said, “nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”

What are you fired up about? We’re looking to highlight people with strong, articulate opinions. If there’s something that really burns your biscuit—or conversely, something that revs you up in a positive way—email us at