Kim McMullen was an unhappy teenager.
“Low self-esteem, body-image issues, unhealthy relationships… I struggled with all of it,” McMullen remembers. “And throughout those years, I was extremely unkind to myself.”
As these burdens plagued her into adulthood, she finally found something that helped her cope and find true joy. It was spending time in nature—specifically, in the mountains.
“When I discovered the mountains, I discovered myself,” McMullen recalls. “In the mountains I was never ‘not enough.’ I was the opposite. I was capable and strong, resilient and free. And I never worried about the size of my pants. I just was. And it felt so good.”
This feeling inspired her to follow her heart to the mountains near Golden, B.C., where she lives with her son. In 2018, she founded a not-for-profit organization called Girl in the Wild, to provide free confidence-building camps in remote and wild spaces to teenagers who self-identify as girls.
“I don’t want a single other girl to ever feel the deep self-loathing that I did as a teenager,” McMullen says. “The mountains gifted me space to find and celebrate my self-worth, so that seemed like the logical place to do the work with our next generation.”
Into the wild
McMullen envisioned a week-long outdoor camp in a remote alpine environment where teenage girls would tackle physical challenges, find their inner strength, have meaningful conversations, support each other, and emerge with a new sense of confidence. The ultimate goal: the young women would leave camp with love for themselves and for each other.
This vision became reality in 2019. The first-ever Girl in the Wild camp was held at a remote lodge in the Kootenay mountains in British Columbia, with eight teenage participants and four adult leaders. The 2020 camp had to be postponed due to the pandemic, but in August 2021, a new group of campers hiked into the wild for an unforgettable week of self-discovery.
Sixteen teenagers have been accepted to participate in two camps this summer. Funding the camps is a year-round endeavour, as McMullen has always been adamant that there would be no cost to the participants. So far, this has been achieved through fundraising, charitable donations, and the support of business partners.
“This isn’t a campfire-singalong, arts-and-crafts kind of camp, although we have been known to belt out a few tunes and roast a few marshmallows.” McMullen explains. “This is an immersive experience—both physically and emotionally. We hike, climb, camp, explore, and swim in alpine lakes. We meditate, talk about tough stuff, support each other, cry, laugh, and stargaze at night.”
Oh, and don’t forget the yoga sessions at dawn. “Every morning, we woke before the sun rose and hiked up the narrow path to the meditation pad,” says 17-year-old Ruby, a participant in the inaugural camp. “Despite our grumbles about getting up so early, it was totally worth it.”
In addition to the confidence that comes with new physical skills, other valuable takeaways from the camp are a renewed appreciation for nature and a sense of solidarity with the other campers.
“I found new sisters, new love, and a new sense of myself,” says Ruby. “I loved the raw beauty of the mountains. Sometimes I dream that I’m back in the alpine meadow among the wildflowers, and I hope I can go back someday.”
A natural choice for teens
The success of Girl in the Wild demonstrates how risk-taking and outdoor exploration can be life-changing for young people. Active time in nature can help alleviate the stress, pressure, and self-doubt that teens will inevitably face. Even without access to a far-off mountain retreat, teens can benefit from the fresh air—and fresh perspective—that come from being active outside.
Here are a few ideas to encourage your teen to spend time in nature:
- Explore as a family. You may have to provide the initial motivation by making it a group activity. Ask your teen to search Google Maps for a prime location (such as a nearby park, nature trail, or environmental reserve) for a family hike.
- Send them solo. Sometimes the best part about nature is the solitude. If your teen seems agitated or moody, suggest an independent walk to calm down. Tip #1: Offer to accompany them, which will be so potentially embarrassing, they’ll gladly go on their own to avoid it. Tip #2: Dig out an old music player (with audio only, no internet connectivity) to provide a walking soundtrack.
- Work it into their job. When researching summer jobs for your teen, consider positions that involve outdoor, nature-related elements—for example, a golf course, city park, or landscaping service.
- Introduce technology. If your teen likes numbers, let them collect data about their next walk on a GPS watch or activity tracker. If they’re artistic, loan them a nice camera so they can photograph scenery, plants, and wildlife. Or try one of the many innovative apps designed to connect young people with nature.
Positive experiences in nature can have a transformative effect, especially during the impressionable teen years.
“The girls who walk off that mountain on day seven are not the same girls who arrived on day one,” McMullen says proudly. “It’s incredibly inspiring and hopeful. It makes you feel like anything is possible. Teenagers need that.”
Photos: Bobbi Barbarich