32 Feet Up: A Single Mom and Her 15 Kids Hike the Appalachian Trail
Newsflash: There’s a huge family on the trail!
One day in early March, I stumbled upon a Facebook page called “32 Feet Up,” headed by this introduction from September 26, 2022: “I’m a 46-year-old single mom to 15 kids, ranging in age from 23-3. All biological and all from one past marriage. And yes, I know what causes it!”
The author, Nikki Bettis, wanted to take her family for a thru-hike. I later learned that the family trail name, 32 Feet Up, derived from 16 people—32 feet in all—going up the Appalachian Trail.
When I heard that she and her children had already begun the trail, from this point on, I just knew I had to meet up with this family to get their story.
I messaged her, and Bettis agreed to meet with me at my sister Maria’s hostel, Standing Bear, in TN.
The following story comes from this interview and Bettis’s extensive Facebook posts.
The Birth of a Dream
Bettis read an article about the Appalachian Trail in National Geographic when she was just 12 years old. From that moment on, she dreamed of someday hiking it for herself. That dream lingered in her mind throughout her adolescence in Texas, but it took a backseat to the realities of life as she reached adulthood.
The Birth of Children: Many, Many Children
At the age of 23, Bettis had her first child: Grayson. A year later, she got married.
“He wanted two, I wanted four, and we settled on three,” she said with a shy grin. “And we ended up with 15!” Fun fact: All 10 boys’ names begin with the letter G, and the five girls’ names end with an “ie” sound.
The family grew over the years, first in Texas and eventually, after a cross-country move, in Virginia.
The oldest kids, Grayson and Evye, attended a traditional school for the first few years, but after that, Bettis homeschooled all 15 kids using a Montessori-style curriculum. None of the 13 youngest kids ever set foot in a traditional school.
“I got tired of going to school and getting sick all the time,” Evye said in disgust. She also shared with me how much more she can get done in less time being educated at home, whereas in a traditional school, she feels the teachers spend more time disciplining and enforcing the rules than on actual teaching.
As for their time on the AT, Bettis said she has no plans to homeschool the kids during the hike. “The trail is in and of itself school enough.”
Resuscitating a Dream
It was a long journey from where Bettis started to where she is today. Unfortunately, after many years of marriage, Bettis and her husband parted ways, and for the last few years, they have been separated.
Bettis had been concerned about her children for some time. The last ten years have been tough on them as a family, and the breakup of her marriage has taken its toll.
With many getting caught up with social media, she felt they were beginning to drift apart as a family—something that distressed her greatly.
As the children continued to grow older—five were already adults—Bettis yearned to do something to hold them together a little longer. Last June, she had an idea: why not fulfill her childhood dream of thru-hiking the AT and take her children for the adventure of a lifetime?
Her goal was to “leave social media behind and reconnect as a family… Let’s just go to the trail and remember who we are as people.”
A Healthy Hiking Lifestyle
During their years in Virginia, Bettis often took her children hiking and camping all around the state, visiting unique geographical features like Dragon’s Tooth and McAfee Knob.
She tried to instill her love for the outdoors in all her children and feels that this gives them a unique advantage when it comes to thru-hiking. They were already accustomed to hiking and camping, understood the gear, and knew how to live out in the elements long before they ever set foot on the trail for their thru-hike.
Getting Ready for the AT
Bettis has been setting money aside for an eventual AT thru-hike for years. In the months leading up to the hike, she was even able to get Teton Gear to sponsor them, supplying the entire family with backpacks.
Since they had been hiking and camping for many years in Virginia, they already owned most of the gear they were going to need—tents, clothing, cooking equipment, water filters, sleeping bags, etc. So when it came time for their thru-hike, they were, for the most part, ready.
Not all the kids were keen on the adventure. “I would be somewhere else, but I’m just stuck here,” 17-year-old Garret told me during our interview. “So I might as well make the best of it.”
His younger brother, Galax, is also among the dissenters. “Say, ‘I hate the AT!'” I coaxed, trying to get the kids to smile as they posed for what would become this story’s cover photo. The redheaded six-year-old came up to me afterward and said with a bright, toothy grin, “I hate the AT—because I do!”
Meanwhile, some of the older kids are balancing their enthusiasm for the hike and family time with other aspects of their lives. While 18-year-old Garrison decided to thru-hike, his twin brother, Grant, took a job and is meeting up occasionally to section hike with the family. The eldest child, Grayson, also chose not to thru-hike, though he has been instrumental as the family’s chief support person.
So most of the time, only 13 of Bettis’s children are on trail.
When they reached the Smokies, the family shuttled around them, picking up the trail again at I-40. Bettis felt that her family wasn’t quite ready to take on the national park, which is known for its severe weather this time of year. They plan to come back and finish it later on when they become better hikers.
In the long months leading up to their hike, Bettis had a zillion things to do. From endless to-do lists and doctor checkups to setting their house and affairs in order while they are gone, it must have seemed overwhelming at times. But, when the time neared, they had all their ducks in a row and were as ready as they would ever be.
The Hazards of Just Getting to the Trail
Before they could even get to the trail, the small bus that they were driving to Springer lost brakes in the town of Gainesville, GA, ending up in a small crash. Fortunately, Grayson expertly maneuvered it downhill, avoiding obstacles along the way, and eventually managed to wedge it between a telephone and a thickly shrubbed embankment. Nobody was hurt.
Bettis enthusiastically praised the Gainesville PD and Hall County Emergency Management for the assistance they rendered.
With their only mode of transportation now incapacitated, three different shuttle companies—Western Carolina Shuttle, Appalachian Shuttle, and Airport Shuttle—sprang into action and got Bettis and her kids the rest of the way to Amicalola Falls State Park.
A Slow Start
When the family first set foot on the Approach Trail on March 6, they had many things to learn: hiking as an organized group, working with their gear, setting up and breaking camp, staying warm and dry, figuring out how much food to carry and how best to do resupply were the first things they had to learn—and learn fast!
Bettis brought their trained German shepherd (trail name Circles) for protection. They also brought another little dog (trail name Q-tip) for company.
On many of the early days of their hike, they were only hiking five-mile days. Some people following their hike told them that at this rate, they would not reach Katahdin in time. But Bettis believed that succeed or fail, it was good for them to be out there trying as a family.
Grayson: Master of Logistics
Though not hiking with them on the AT, Bettis’s eldest son has been an instrumental part of the family’s journey.
Grayson not only regularly brings resupply but also arranges lodging and coordinates with trail angels who want to help the family. He’s even pinning locations on a trail map of people who want to help out when the family passes through their area. Without his efforts, a hike of this magnitude would probably not last very long.
The Trials of the Trail
Hiking in March is often like hiking in the dead of winter. The weather is often cold and rainy, with nighttime temperatures in the teens or even single digits. This March was no different.
Fortunately, the family was prepared for the cold. Their gear protected them from the worst of it. But what they were not prepared for was the miserable cold, wet rain; the kind that goes on for days, where with fog in the air, nothing ever completely dries out.
One evening while camping amid cold, icy rain, they were running low on food. With 7-year-old Grisham sick, Garrison (18), Ivye (14), and Graham (12) slipped and slid down two miles of wet trail with empty packs to Tesnatee Gap. From there, they got a ride to the nearest Dollar General, where they filled all their packs with food, stuffing one huge, 90-liter pack with ramen noodles (and they said it still wasn’t enough).
It was the most spontaneous and challenging resupply they’d done. “It was a steep climb back up,” Graham recalled. “Not fun at all.” He went on to add, “I only went so I could pick out what I wanted.”
Out Come the Trolls
From the moment they set foot on the Approach Trail on March 6 at Amicalola Falls, the hiking community took notice. Word of the huge family attempting to thru-hike spread on social media like wildfire. And, like wildfire, it got out of control fast, causing rumors and accusations to flare.
Some have accused the family of damaging the trail each night when they camp because of their large group size. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) does have guidance suggesting that group sizes be limited to ten people or less, but Bettis contacted the ATC before starting the trail to discuss the possibility of hiking with a larger group.
Though the organization has no enforcement powers when it comes to this rule, they gave her advice on how she can minimize their impact on the trail. The rule assumes groups of up to ten adults, each with their own tents and cooking systems. Bettis figures her family of 15 has less of a footprint than the model group: many of the kids are small, they share tents, and they cook communally.
The ATC also helped them minimize their trail impact by recommending they set up camps on forest service roads and other open spaces farther from shelters. She feels that though they don’t perfectly follow the letter of the ATC’s rule, they still conform to the spirit and intent of it.
When they get ready to go through the three parks that enforce large group rules—Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Baxter State Park—Bettis plans to split the family into smaller groups headed by herself and the adult children. She has satellite communicators so that they can still stay in touch with each other.
Another complaint raised by some in the hiking community is that the family takes up all the space in shelters and hostels and, similarly, that they eat up all thet rail magic at hiker feeds, leaving little for other hikers.
But Bettis claimed they always camp away from shelters so they won’t inconvenience other hikers. The same is true of hostels, which the family has avoided for the first 300 miles of their hike. As far as wiping out the food at hiker feeds, Bettis only allows the kids to take one item apiece. She said they always carry ample food and do not need to rely on hiker feeds.
Parents thru-hiking with young children often face accusations of child endangerment and abuse because they are exposing their kids to the dangers of the trail. While the trail is potentially hazardous to her family, Bettis has taken steps to minimize this risk. She has also brought along a trained German shepherd for additional protection from unruly hikers. The biggest risk they have faced thus far was when their bus lost its brakes.
Others have taken issue with the size of the family on a larger scale. Besides contributing to overpopulation issues, some worry that Bettis’s hike will encourage other large families to take to the AT, resulting in further crowding and damage to the trail.
But US Census data indicates that the American birth rate is on the decline and that families with more than ten members are rare. Rarer still is the ability for any large family to have the time, money, and physical ability to bring everything together to attempt such a hike, so it’s extremely unlikely that huge families across the country are going to start stampeding the Appalachian Trail.
Some criticisms are even more personal: people have called Bettis an attention seeker who just wants to make a name for herself while looking for handouts. Bettis brushes these accusations off. She feels many of them are designed to hurt and shame her into taking her family off the trail, but she said she just doesn’t pay attention to them.
“Until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes, don’t talk to me,” she said with a dismissive gesture.
For the most part, Bettis and the kids planned well when it came to their gear; their tents kept out the weather, and their clothing and sleeping gear kept them all toasty warm. But one small item—their Sawyer Squeeze water filters—threatened to be the undoing of their hike.
Bettis said that some of the kids did not take care to keep their Sawyers warm on the sub-freezing nights spent on the trail. Not realizing the filters had been damaged, all but four of the family contracted giardia. By the time they reached Franklin, NC, most of the kids were experiencing mild symptoms. Four reacted more severely.
Bettis was grateful to the Franklin Police Department for the logistical help they freely gave during their time of suffering. It truly made the difference in their hike.
Though this episode caused the family a lot of misery, after a few days of healing, they sucked it up and got back on the trail.
Later, some of them contracted norovirus, which has been running rampant on the trail this year. Fortunately, the symptoms were mild and didn’t interfere with their hike.
After the first few weeks of trail life, the family began to get a feel for how much food to carry, how much gear they needed, and how to make their hike more efficient. The first thing they learned was that four-year-old Opye (trail name Not Oatmeal) was not good at hiking with a backpack. This was the first of the things they sent back on one of Grayson’s visits. At her young age, she was better off capering down the trail unencumbered.
Bettis has been amazed at how quickly the children have adjusted to trail life. Everyone except Opye has a duty. Many of the older kids have naturally fallen into leadership roles, organizing the children into a tent crew, a fire crew, a cooking crew, and a setup and pack-up crew. The chore system has helped them to become more efficient as time goes on.
Their daily mileage began to increase over time. They developed their “trail legs” and pulled their first 15-plus-mile day as they neared Hot Springs. Since then, they’ve hiked many high-mileage days.
After weeks of hiking, the family became like a well-oiled machine. A few hikers I met on the trail said the Bettis family was quick to move out of the way when they encountered the group on-trail. As soon as a hiker nears their party, one of the older kids yells, “Hiker Line!” The family quickly falls into a neat line, allowing other hikers to easily pass. I witnessed this firsthand at Standing Bear Hostel. At first assembled on the road in a large gaggle, the entire family fell into a neat line well off to the side of the road at the first cry of “Hiker Line!” with all the efficiency of a military unit.
Three months before they started their hike, one of Bettis’s adult daughters, Aubrey (20), underwent bariatric surgery, which has so far been a happy, life-changing event.
She had reached 257 pounds before the surgery but has since gotten down to 175 and is continuing to lose more each week.
This weight loss has helped her physically with her hiking. And though the AT is tough, Aubrey said it is nothing compared to the time before her surgery when she completed the Virginia Triple Crown. “There were many tears shed on that trail.”
Aubrey said she hadn’t been under 200 pounds in so many years that she began to take notice of little things like, “My hands are just so small right now.” Bettis later wrote of her daughter’s journey in her blog. “To watch her rediscover life and herself through new eyes is like watching her take her first steps all over again. She is so full of life, laughter, and happiness.”
An Avalanche of Support
Though streams of harsh criticism continue to trickle in from a few of their critics, Bettis and her family have experienced an overwhelming outpouring of support and love from the hiking community.
From the moment they embarked on their journey, numerous people made a special effort to come out and help the family: from shuttle driver Bobby the Greek, who often comes out to shuttle them around to the numerous trail angels who feed them on the trail. Trail Angel Ms. Janet Hensley met them with pizza and snacks at Devil’s Fork Gap and slack-packed them for a week when they neared her hometown of Erwin, TN.
They even got a visit from the legendary Warren Doyle, trail angel, writer, and educator, who has hiked the AT 18 times over his lifetime and founded the Appalachian Trail Institute. Bettis said that Warren wants the family to speak at this year’s Trail Days festival in Damascus, something that they are considering.
Ever since embarking on the trail, Bettis and her family have been learning firsthand the old trail adage, “The trail provides.” Because of the sheer size of her family, she didn’t think this would ever happen to them. Yet, time after time, kind, caring people would seemingly come out of nowhere for the sole purpose of helping them out.
The outpouring of love and support from the trail community caught her completely by surprise; it was the inverse of what she had always been accustomed to. Although the belief that “the trail has restored my faith in humanity” has become almost cliché over the years, Bettis and her family found themselves living this reality daily.
She’s written passionately about trail angels in her blog. “Each of these people know the importance of the trail. They don’t know why you’re here, but they know it will heal and teach and love. Because of this they will go above and beyond for someone else to know the secrets of the wild and the journey the heart, mind, and soul have embarked upon. These are the people that understand why you’re here without ever needing to say a word. They don’t question your life choices, your family size, your past. They just love, quietly and unconditionally.”
Bettis said she put a lot of thought into the decision to take her family on this hike. “It’s so much more than some kids and a family on the trail.” She wants to teach them about survival and the natural world, something she believes is a crucial aspect of their education. There’s plenty of time to teach them in a traditional setting, but what the trail teaches you, you cannot get in a classroom.
With all the obstacles and challenges the trail has thrown at them so far, Bettis and the children have been and still are learning valuable lessons that she believes will stick with them for the rest of their lives.
Hiking in the grandeur that surrounds them daily has given Bettis the ability to stand back and look at her own life’s problems from an entirely new perspective. She wrote of the mountains in her blog: “It has the ability to make the shittier parts of life not seem so big, the difficulties not so overwhelming, the ghosts of your past, only shadows that no longer have the power to haunt, discourage or snuff the life and joy from your being. Because life is bigger. The world is bigger. It’s so much bigger.”
Having fallen in love with the wilderness, Bettis is already lamenting the fact that sometime in the near future, they are going to have to leave the trail and return to their lives. But for now, they are living in and savoring every moment.
As this intrepid family steadily makes their way up the trail, there’s no telling what adventures await as they reach for the prize waiting for them at the northern terminus sign on top of Mt. Katahdin. But, with their working together as a family, whether they make it there or not, they are already winners.
If you wish to follow Bettis’s journey and get insight into what it’s like to be a part of a large hiking family, look up 32 Feet Up on Facebook, where she posts excellent summaries of her daily thoughts and experiences every few days.
Featured image courtesy of Nikki Bettis.
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Too many on the trail, good luck.
I crossed paths with them many times early on in my hike. They were extremely well behaved, fun, courteous, and knew what they were doing. We were camped near them one night, and they did not take up a huge amount of space as some seem worried about. I am glad to see they are still on trail and wish them only the best!!
Loved this article and the story. We were planning a thru hike 2023 with our family of 5 and it fell apart due to medical reasons and other fun stuff.
I am proud of these folks. What an adventure for all of them, one that they will never, ever forget. The complaining and critical comments in the article were so hard to read… so painfully cringey or horrible to see anyone say anything to these people except: cool… and good luck.
Blessings and Shalom
Every single person complaining about them needs to get a life.
It’s not the family size that bothers me, it’s taking kids that keep saying they don’t want to do it, on a 2200 mile thru hike. That’s just bad parenting. It’s not like she’s encouraging them to take piano lessons or learn karate, this is something beyond commitment of a couple lessons or practice days a week. She shouldn’t force the kids that don’t want to do it onto the trail. You also don’t have a three year old who is still in an extreme physical and mental development stage hiking this much. And all of them getting giardia? This is absolute insanity.
THERE ARE AGGRESSIVE PREDATORS ON THIS TRAIL.THEY ATTACK SMALL CHILDREN FIRST.I HOPE THEY HAVE BEAR SPRAY.I THINK THE YOUNGER CHILDREN WILL HATE THIS.
The number of times I said I hate the trail when I was on it, I’d owe a million dollars to the swear jar 😂.
Let her be the mom and hike your own hike<3
Ran across these folks in March in Georgia. Thanks for the background. I had wondered who they were. Glad to hear they’re doing well.
I think it’s a great family adventure. What parent hasn’t had to exert some discipline. They aren’t home on the computer rotting away.
This is so cool. This mom must have nerves of steel and planning skills of a military operations because getting a family this size ready for school for one day would be a major project let alone several weeks of hiking together. Sounds like this family is really good at teamwork and communication which is awesome. No, I don’t think this is unsafe as long as was planned well which it was. In terms of the kids not liking it. Just take lots of pictures because they will have bragging rights and be glad they did this when it’s over. Food is also important. Kids will do anything if the food is good. I found this inspirational and thank you for sharing this story about a hiking family. 🦋
I totally agree with Rebecca that the kids will have amazing memories. Sounds like you’re all respectful of other hikers….HYOH 32 Feet Up.👏🏽🦵🏽✊🏼
I love this so much. Haters gonna hate. Best luck to the fam!
I think this is AMAZING!! I can’t even imagine what it takes to wrangle 15 kids – then get them on trail – what an awesome experience this will be for ALL of them!!
Even the teenagers who think they hate it – (so terrible to have to experience life NOT on a screen…boo hoo)
Good for mom for sticking to it and bringing them the gift of self reliance, group therapy, outdoor education, and SO many countless things –
I envy them and wish them ALL the success 🙂
Much love to you and your tribe 32 Feet Up!!
People always have an opinion on you parent, personally I’m super proud of you brave mama for taking this on and pushing your kids. They will always have this memory and should be proud of themselves. Who cares what people think! You all aren’t the parents and you don’t know her kids. She’s got this!!! Good job!
Wow,,, what an amazing family, and an even more amazing story. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must take for a mother and 15 children to thru hike the AT. I hope to do it one day a a solo hiker. GOD BLESS YOU GUYS,,, and you go for it,,, all the way. And for the naysayers and critisizers,,,, SUCK IT UP OR FO HIKE SOMEWHERE ELSE. Just a bunch of cry babies who want to rain on someone else’s parade.
What Do You Think?