Peter Brown Hoffmeister is a writer, a veteran rafting, climbing and orienteering guide, the father of two and the cofounder and director of South Eugene High School’s Integrated Outdoor Program. His latest book, Let Them Be Eaten By Bears: A Fearless Guide to Taking Our Kids Into the Great Outdoors (Perigee, 2013), teaches why kids need nature in their lives, and how to cultivate adventure. We spoke with the Oregon resident right after his book hit shelves in May.
You say you had an unconventional childhood, which inspired your book. What was it like?
I went to first grade for all of one day before my parents pulled me out. We were living in Tucson at the time, and they homeschooled me in the desert outside the city. We’d load books into a backpack and hike into the canyon. After that, we lived in a few different places—Switzerland, Oregon, Washington. I spent the majority of my time outdoors and did a lot of unsupervised exploring. I actually didn’t attend school full-time until my freshman year. That same year, the year I turned 14, I had a goal to camp 100 nights in a row. I broke it. I did 102.
Your book cites a fair amount of research on the benefits of the outdoors. What are some of the more compelling reasons to get outside?
I found out that having dirt on your skin releases natural anti-depressants, specifically serotonin. So getting dirty on a regular basis will actually make you a happier person. Sunlight, even a half hour of filtered, winter sunlight, helps us sleep better, digest better, and fight off viruses and perform better on mental tasks. So if you want kids to be successful, in school or in their future lives as parents and co-workers, they need sunlight. There’s real measurable value in going outside.
You were a self-decreed troubled teen. How did getting out in nature help?
When I was 16, I went to Colorado and did Outback, which is a wilderness camp for troubled kids. We spent 16 days in the backcountry. I remember we climbed a thirteener and didn’t see anyone the entire time. It was phenomenal. For me, nature is just really honest. There’s no manipulation, and there are really clear answers. A river is a river, and a rock is a rock, and a tree is a tree. I think a lot of troubled kids are in really complex social situations, and the natural world offers them a different experience from that. Out there, what matters is if you’re adaptable and curious and creative. In the social/school environment, sometimes curiosity is valued, but conformity is valued more. And creativity isn’t valued as much as knowing the right answers.
As the father of two young girls, you admit it’s scary to send your kids unsupervised into the outdoors. What guidelines do you follow?
I know that if I over-shelter them, I’m wrecking their childhood. And I would feel really bad about that. As parents, you have to get outside of your comfort zone and remember that scrapes and bruises are a part of childhood. Those catastrophic disasters that we fear, like our kid getting abducted while riding their bike or getting mauled by a bear after going into the woods, are in reality, very unlikely. And accidents happen indoors too. You can’t protect them from much of anything, really. My twelve-year old, who is a serious rock climber and soccer player, fractured three ribs when she slipped in the kitchen while baking cookies. I expect both my daughters to come out of childhood having had broken bones and stiches. Actually, neither one has had stitches yet. But they still have plenty of time.