Think back to your first camping trip. The first memories that hit you will probably be of ghost stories, s’mores or wildlife sightings. Maybe you learned to pitch a tent or build a fire or how to leave your campsite or trail better than you found it. That first trip probably put you on a trajectory to become the person you are today.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Jenny Abegg talks about her experience volunteering with Big City Mountaineers and why it might be the best trip she’s ever taken.

Sparks fly from the fire as the late-summer light begins to fade into the pine trees surrounding our camp. Ten of us sit nestled on sleeping pads around the flames, our crisscrossed legs scratched and sun-touched, hair freshly wetted by river water, clothing streaked with dirt and food stains. Empty bowls sit beside us, spoons dangling out the sides. A pot of hot chocolate begins to steam, ready to be served.

We began the trip as strangers, five adult women and five teenage girls, clean and reserved in our street clothes, meeting at the local community center. We gathered in a circle, women on one side, girls on the other: both groups hesitant to mingle. A round of hopes and fears broke the ice, with girls expressing fears about bears, about carrying a pack, about spending their first ever night in the wilderness. Hopes of making friends, seeing an eagle, or not dying were tentatively shared. Now, on our sixth and final night together, we sit intermingled as close friends and seasoned backpackers, beautiful in our tangled hair and wiser in our layering choices, transformed by the wilderness and the family that sits around us.

The ten of us hold pieces of paper, pages we poured over before dinner, responses to the prompt, “What do you want to leave in the woods, and what do you want to bring home with you?” One by one, we share our hearts: low self-esteem, drug use, and an abusive relationship are torn off and burned in the flames. Deep friendship, a knowledge of my ability to persevere, and hopes to join the school soccer team are folded up and put back into journals: mementos of the week to keep for the journey home.

It’s these moments in the woods with youth that define why Big City Mountaineers exists.

Each summer, Big City Mountaineers (BCM) “transforms the lives of under-served youth through wilderness mentoring expeditions that instill critical life skills.” Each summer through BCM, close to 1,000 youth from Denver, Oakland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Madison are given the opportunity to experience the outdoors on a week-long canoeing or backpacking trip. And each summer, BCM recruits adult volunteers to serve as mentors on these trips.

I guided BCM trips for a summer, partnering with four volunteers each week to lead groups of five youth through the wilderness. I can say for certain that BCM trips stick close to their mission statement; on each expedition I saw lives transformed. Not only that, but the adults who donated a week of precious vacation time to mentor youth in the wilderness, myself included, were incredibly moved by the experience. For a glimpse into the life of a volunteer on a BCM trip—and for my two cents on why everyone should give a week of his or her life to join with BCM—follow along below.

Infuse Your Vacation with Meaning 

Why forgo yet another summer vacation to the beach or the lakehouse? This video will answer your question in three minutes.

Discover Their World

On my first BCM trip, I watched as a 17 year-old Bhutanese girl built our evening’s fire, explaining that it was the first fire she had experienced since coming to the US as a refugee a few years prior. As she squatted knowingly by the flames, she told us about cooking dinner on the fire for her parents and younger siblings every evening in their refugee camp in Nepal. You’ll encounter a whole new world on a BCM trip: fifty percent of participants are from single parent homes, 83 percent from families living below the poverty line; ten percent have experienced homelessness, and 14 percent violence at school. Not only is this the students’ chance to develop positive role models and life skills, and experience a new way of doing things, it’s also an opportunity for volunteers to become aware of communities that exist in their own cities that they might not otherwise know.

Endless Mentorship Opportunities

It’s hour seven on the trail. The girls are tired, and one in particular is doubting her ability to keep going. The group rallies to share the weight of her load, but still she lags behind, shoulders sagging and feet dragging. A volunteer hangs back on the trail beside her, encouraging her onward. They talk about what she needs in order to get to camp, what her self-talk is saying, and reflect on events in their lives at home that feel similarly impossible. They exchange tears and laughter, stop for breaks, experiment with tightening and loosening straps on their packs, and soon they arrive in camp with the rest of the group. Nothing offers metaphors for life quite like the wilderness, and volunteers have the unique opportunity to literally walk alongside youth as they encounter their limits – on the trail and in their lives at home – and in turn, discover their strength.

Put Your Time Where Your Mouth Is

These days, there is much chatter in our little outdoor world about increasing access to the outdoors and enabling others to experience the wilderness and themselves in a new way. Our outdoor pursuits have given us so much, and many of us have the desire to give back. Volunteering with Big City Mountaineers is one of the most tangible ways I can think of to do this, and a great way to test the waters for a week before committing to volunteering year-round or starting your own organization. BCM has been taking under-privileged youth into the woods since 1989, and provides a wonderful and time-tested model for wilderness mentorship.

Free Week-Long Backpacking/Canoeing Trip!?

Not every BCM volunteer is a seasoned outdoor enthusiast. In fact, I could generally break my volunteers into two camps: those who had experience working with youth (and little outdoor experience), and those who had experience in the outdoors (and little experience working with youth). Of course, the ideal volunteer possesses experience in both camps, but those with any combination are welcomed. For volunteers with outdoor backgrounds or for those without, a week with a BCM group is a great chance to learn about what it takes to spend a week in the wilderness, including Leave No Trace practices, how to pack and cook food, and what to carry in that great big pack. And just for the record, BCM does ask each volunteer to donate $125 to help cover trip costs.

 Therm-a-Rest is proud to be one of Big City Mountaineers partners. To learn more about their mission visit All photos credited to Big City Mountaineers.