Talking About My Generation
Youth are a powerful force for trails.
by Rachel Wendling
I’m a fairly young hiker. I’m also short and have a round face. It’s not uncommon for me to be mistaken for a high school student while out on trail. And for the most part, I’m fine with it — who wouldn’t want to be mistaken for the generation that brought us Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and the cast of “Stranger Things”?
But all too often, that perceived youth goes hand in hand with several other assumptions. Inexperienced. Unprepared. Hiking for the wrong reasons. The cause of “overcrowding.” These are just a few that I’ve heard on trail, in trip reports or on social media.
Dealing with these assumptions can make a hike feel less like a refreshing outdoor escape and more like a proving ground — putting pressure on young hikers to break down stereotypes with every step to the summit.
I spent the first years of my 20s thru-hiking across most of my home state, climbing my first mountain, sleeping solo under the stars and becoming a WTA assistant crew leader, working to keep backcountry trails from falling off the map.
And I’m not alone in these accomplishments. I’ve worked with many young(er) hikers, both on and off trail. And, despite their youthful faces, I am constantly in awe of their knowledge and thoughtfulness. They’ve regaled me with stories of their solo backpacking trips, impressed me with their handmade gear and taught me how to win a round of camp cribbage.
In addition to their on-trail skills, local youth are speaking up for public lands in Congress, pitching in to restore our fading trail systems and helping to build an inclusive trail community — and that is on top of the stress of finals, SATs and college applications.
Young people are not just our future land stewards — they are today’s land stewards. And they are doing incredible work for our trails and public lands every day.
In 2019, youth participated in more than 16,000 hours of WTA volunteer trail maintenance on our public lands. Since 2012, our Youth Ambassador Program has worked with more than 100 youth from across the state who have become strong outdoor leaders in their own communities. On any given weekend, our youth ambassadors might be leading a local outdoor club on their first snowshoeing experience, thru-hiking across the state or carpooling to Olympia for a meeting with their legislator. Program graduates have gone on to become engineers, wildland firefighters, and search-and-rescue professionals.
Our trail system would not be what it is today without them. They are, and will continue to be, a powerful voice in the fight for trail funding, maintenance and conservation.
The experiences that today’s youth have on trail can set the stage for their future with outdoor recreation and conservation — the same way those experiences helped you and me grow into the hikers we are today. It’s my goal to make that experience a welcoming one.