The Crawfords: A Family of 8 Takes on the Appalachian Trail
On March 1, 2018, Ben and Kami Crawford, of the Cincinnati area, and their six children, ages 2, 7, 11, 13, 15, and 16, set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. As far as anyone knows, they are the largest family to ever make the attempt. The Crawfords chronicled it all on their YouTube vlog, Fight For Together.
The Beginning of a Dream Come True
The story of Ben and Kami Crawford started in Seattle. At age 20, when most young people are trying to figure out what they are wanting to do with their careers and their lives, Ben and Kami got married, and right away started a family.
When their now 17-year-old daughter, Dove, was just a year old, Ben and Kami rode their bicycles across the country on the Trans Am bike route. It was very bold of them taking a one-year-old on such a long trip, but it is part of their family character to always include their kids in everything they do. While they were in Damascus, VA, they stayed at a place with a type of people they’d not met before: thru-hikers. Spending an evening with them, Ben learned all about the Appalachian Trail and became hooked on the idea of doing such a hike himself.
Their love for hiking grew as their family grew. Since the 93-mile Wonderland Trail was just a few hours from where they lived in Seattle, Ben and Kami and their children hiked it when their children were small, even when their youngest child was only two years old. They hiked the WT five times over the years as the children were growing, gaining experience hiking long distances with small children, all of whom were exceptionally physically fit.
In the intervening years, Ben ran a successful blackjack gambling business. He amassed a small fortune, enough to allow him to retire in his 30s.
At 38, Ben had all but forgotten about the AT until last year, when Kami brought up the subject of hiking the trail as a family. They realized that since their children were home schooled and doing well in all the standardized tests, there would be no problem for them to take six months or so out of their schooling to hike the trail. Plus, though much of their money was tied up in fixed assets, they calculated that they had enough to swing the cost of the hike.
So, they gave it a lot of thought and decided to follow their dreams.
The next thing they knew, they were on their way to Georgia.
“We Already Want to Quit”
From the moment they set foot on the rounded stone slabs that make up the summit of Springer Mountain, with its embedded plaque signaling the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the Crawford family was beset by a driving rain that quickly turned to sleet. They were a cold, wet, miserable lot as they stood where others before have stood in excitement and jubilation; not a great way to start such an epic hike.
After their less than brilliant start to their thru-hike, they returned to the Springer Mountain parking lot, wet and miserable, and climbed back into their van. Huddled together in the warmth of their family van, they sat there, wondering what they had just gotten themselves into.
Finally, with everyone wearing various dour expressions, they gathered up their courage, suited up, and headed back out on the trail.
Over the next few days, the sporadic morsels of sunshine made them hopeful for better conditions in the days ahead, but their optimism couldn’t have been more wrong.
Trials and Tribulations
Their videos show that mornings were the hardest for them—many starting out so cold that nobody wanted to come out of their warm sleeping bags. Plus, they were so preoccupied dealing with the problems of sore legs and blisters, and the management all their gear, that the lofty heights of Katahdin seemed so far away as to be nonexistent.
After the first four days of hiking, they treated themselves to what was supposed to be a one-night stay in a cabin. Thinking they’d had it made, they settled into eating frozen pizzas, soft drinks, candy, and an assortment of other goodies. Some time into the evening, one of the children began to throw up… a lot. Later in the evening, another child, then another, fell ill to the same nausea. The violence of this sudden illness had Ben and Kami and the rest of the kids worried. Once the sick kids got it all out of their systems, they settled down to sleep.
The next day, Ben and Kami made the decision to stay another night, allowing everyone to recuperate from the stomach issues and get their strength back. Though they don’t exactly know the cause of the nausea, the speculation was that they been eating too much junk food too fast.
At one point in the video, Ben, looking tired and worried, stared into the camera and said, “Going through something hard like this… it’s not about who we are, it’s about who we are going to become… Every hard thing we’ve gone through has made us better and stronger and softer and more loving and more humble.”
As they got ready to return to the trail, Ben looked in trepidation at the weather report on his phone, showing the days and nights trending colder and colder in the coming week. They made the decision to hike a few more days, then take a zero in a hotel in Hiawassee, GA.
Making short-term goals was good for the children’s morale, and an effective way to keep their spirits up. This would prove to be instrumental time and again throughout the majority of their hike.
Because the upcoming weather forecast looked pretty bad, one zero turned into three. Though it slowed their pace, this respite allowed everyone to rest up for better days to come. However, as March slipped on toward spring, it seemed like the weather was going backward. Instead of getting warmer, the following weeks were to bring more snow, subfreezing temperatures… and misery.
Just When You Think It Couldn’t Get any Worse: The Smokies
Over the next few weeks, as the Crawfords got their trail legs and trail organization down, they began increasing their miles and working their way inexorably toward the first big feature of the trail: the Smokies. At first, Ben and Kami did many of what they thought were the adult responsibilities: making camp and cooking the meals. However, seeing how much of a burden it was on their parents not only having to carry the bulk of the weight on their backs but to cook and make and break camp, on their own the children started taking on many of these responsibilities. Pretty soon Dove and the older children began going on ahead of Ben and Kami, with Dove preparing the meals, while Seven would set up the two family tents that held this family of eight. By the time Ben, who was slowed down carrying the 45 pounds of the child carrier with Rainier and several articles of gear, and Kami arrived at camp, the kids would often have the tents set up and supper cooked.
Day 19 brought them to Fontana Dam, with the start of the Smokies just a stone’s throw away on the other side.
At first, entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was deceptively benign. The weather was mild and dry; everyone was wearing shorts and T-shirts as they started the long, uphill climb. Though they were mentally braced for severe weather, thanks to the daunting reputation of the Smokies, it wasn’t long before they let their guard down.
Not too many miles in, it started to rain. Just a drop, then two, then a light sprinkle. The rain would come and go all day, as the temperatures remained cool, but not cold. The first night in the shelter wasn’t bad, as they got to take up a section of the sleeping deck inside, instead of outside in tents.
The next day the Smokies continued to hold off on their springtime reputation, but the weather forecast on Ben’s phone warned of impending snow, with the prediction that the road to Gatlinburg would be closed the next day—a game changer as they were expecting Ben’s parents to pick them up at Newfound Gap.
The next day, they woke up to snow and subfreezing temperatures. All of their belongings—shoes, socks, and anything left out overnight—were frozen. All day, the snow became deeper and the temperatures dropped lower. To protect their weakest member—two-year-old Rainier—they modified his child carrier by lining it with their down quilt. They got him settled in, completely protected from the frigid temperature.
It wasn’t long before they reached Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, where they stopped momentarily to record a greeting on their YouTube channel (worth watching). Afterward, the children all moved along swiftly, seven-year-old Filia leading the way.
Trudging on through a full-blown winter snowstorm, with snowdrifts of up to two feet, they hiked over 12 miles to reach their destination: Newfound Gap parking lot, where they had hoped in vain to be picked up, but at least they knew there were heated bathrooms where they could camp out in until the road opened.
“Someone Called Child Protective Services on Us”
The road crews worked throughout the night. The next day, just as it began to look like Ben’s parents would indeed be able to make the drive up and take them to Gatlinburg, the family was suddenly greeted by a sheriff’s deputy, accompanied by a couple of social workers from Child Protective Services (CPS). They were there to investigate an alleged child abuse call they received.
Unbeknown to the Crawfords, a hiker posted a disturbing report on Facebook, falsely reporting that Rainier was in critical condition and had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital for treatment, leading to someone calling CPS. Because of this, the social workers braced against the brisk, icy cold wind in the Newfound Gap parking lot and interviewed the children and the parents. After the brief but traumatic episode, the CPS workers made the determination that the children were in no danger of child abuse and they went on their way.
In a later video , some of the children recorded an episode about how upsetting this event made them feel, knowing that they could possibly be forcibly removed from their parents. Though the job of CPS workers is absolutely necessary, as they often intervene in horrific abuse situations, the Crawford children were upset because false reports on social media could have potentially led to the breakup of their family.
Immediately after the authorities departed, grandparents Papa and Hominy pulled up in the van to whisk the family to Gatlinburg.
As the weather became less harsh, and their bodies became more accustomed to hiking, the Crawfords began moving along a lot faster, making more miles per day.
It wasn’t long before their reputation proceeded them and people all along the trail began to eagerly look out for them. One such person was Jim Gregory, owner of the recently opened Boots Off Hostel, where he had several nice tiny cabins awaiting them.
Intercepting a Special Family
Over the next few weeks the Crawfords sailed along, increasing their mileage from the upper teens to the occasional 20-mile day. During this time I decided to set up an interview with this amazing family. A few e-mails and phone conversations later, Ben and I set up a time and date for an interview at Angel’s Rest Hiker Haven, in Pearisburg, VA.
I arrived in Pearisburg the night before they were due to arrive, checking the map for a scenic spot along the AT where I would be able to intercept them and serve a trailside snack. The next day, I climbed Pearis Mountain and hiked one mile along a scenic ridge, stopping at a picturesque spot on a cliff overlooking the bucolic Virginia countryside.
I heard them a few hours later: the lively chatter of children and adults coming from the south. Soon the family, all eight of them, came single file toward me with surprised smiles of excitement at the goodies. It didn’t take long for them to shed their packs as they fell upon the sugary snacks with the intensity of a school of piranhas.
As soon as they finished, they silently and efficiently saddled up and departed, disappearing down the trail and toward town. But first they assembled on a cliff line for a quick photo op.
I caught up with The Family at Angels Rest Hiker’s Havenl a few hours later. They invited me to join them at the local Chinese buffet, where I was able to see them in a relaxed social setting. First thing I wanted to know was what the children thought of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. Ben told me that he gave the two oldest children, Dove and Eden, the choice to remain home with their grandparents, but that the rest of the kids had to go along with them.
Dove, 17, spoke up first, saying that she really liked having the option to stay home, but decided to go along to support the family. She told me it was really discouraging when they started, but she’s since learned to accept the journey. Her duties include shopping for and cooking the supper meal, going ahead to watch over the younger kids, helping with the baby, and helping with the editing of the videos.
Eden, 15, said that she also liked that her parents gave her the option to remain behind but, like Dove, decided to go. She said that at first, the trail seemed endless, but that since then there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s nice having something to look forward to now.” Eden’s duties include shopping for and cooking the midday meal, and taking care of the laundry.
Seven, 13, said: “At first I was about ten percent to 20 percent into the hike, but now I think I’m more like 55 percent into it.” He is a fast hiker, and his duties include setting up and breaking down the tents, filming, producing, editing, and uploading the videos.
The rest of the children didn’t have much say about the hike, but all agreed that it is much nicer hiking now that the weather is better and now that they see some hope of reaching the end of the hike.
Memory’s duties include shopping for and making breakfast for the family.
Filia is usually is in the lead, no matter the weather or terrain. She even led the entire way when they took time away from hiking to run a marathon in Cincinnati.
Rainier is doing a great job hanging in there during this time. He’s full of zeal and excitement at everything he’s experiencing on the trail. He especially likes it when he sees a town, for he knows he’s going to get some good “Nom Noms.”
Meet the Father, Ben Crawford
The Ben Crawford I met in person was different from the jocular character in their videos. This Ben was a serious man constantly keeping watch over the entire family. He was not your usual father figure. He didn’t go ordering his kids around. Rather, he and Kami managed their family like a board of directors. Though Ben assumed a position comparable to chairman of the board, he still included the children in most of the decisions they had to make on the trail. I watched him calmly explain the upcoming challenges and asking his wife and children for their input on how to meet those challenges.
We got back to the trailer that Doc Peppa, owner of Angels Rest Hiker’s Haven, had reserved for The Family. With the kids sprawled all around the living room watching TV, Ben finally relaxed his guard across from me at the kitchen table, sipping on a craft beer, and gave me his undivided attention. He asked if it was OK that Kami didn’t get up for the interview, as she was reclining on the couch with Rainier asleep across her body.
Some questions for Ben:
Q) Why do they call their YouTube channel “Fight For Together”?
A) Ben said that there are so many things in the world that are fighting to tear families apart. “Family relationships are really important to me and I believe that intimacy and family relationships are worth fighting for,” hence the reason for the title.
Q) Why did they want to take the family on this long hike?
A) He said that many other people are taking their hikes away from family and friends–the people they care about. He thought, “If hiking the AT is so great, why not experience this thing that is so great with the people you love.” Since exercise is such a big part of their lives, there was no doubt in Ben’s mind that they could handle the rigors of the trail.
Q) How are they able to hike with a large family and still keep a video log?
A) “Vlogging is a hell of a lot of work,” Ben said, and he told me they even considered quitting the vlog during the hike but, “After we got on the trail, I thought that we could do the videos five days a week and not compromise our hike.”
Q) Are they doing this hike to instill better character in the kids?
A) He said that while they receive many compliments about how well-behaved the children were, having successful, well-behaved children is not what he’s trying to achieve. He told me: “My responsibility as a parent is to get my children ready to meet God.”
Q) How have the children taken to the challenges of the trail?
A) Ben said that when they started, he and Kami were doing many of the adult responsibilities, and that he was super-impressed by how each of the children have stepped up and taken on more responsibility. He said that not only is their help essential while on the trail, they are just as helpful off trail. He said that when they enter a town, they have a precise operational plan, each kid doing their part. For instance, he told me that when they enter a supermarket, he says to the older kids, “Food for four days. Go.” Each one who has the responsibility for their meals for that amount of time goes and picks out the kinds of foods they think the family will like, and meet up at the registers to pay. When they get to the hostel, clothes are being washed, and videos are being edited and uploaded. From what I saw of them while hiking with them out on the trail, they sort of remind me of an elite military expeditionary unit; each one seamlessly doing the right job at precisely the right time–but with child-like laughter and smiles!
Critics and Supporters
Throughout the years, the Crawfords have opened up their lives to the public through hundreds of videos they’ve produced, showing every aspect of their daily lives, from their dynamic family life, their Christian faith, their finances, even to honest discussions about Ben and Kami’s sex life. Because of this, they have encountered a lot of support from people they inspire, but also have come under fire from critics.
This has continued since starting the AT. The negative comments consist mainly of what terrible of parents they are for endangering the lives of their children, especially Rainier. Both Ben and Kami have explained in their videos that statistically their children are actually safer on the trail than they would be in the back of a van driving 70+ miles per hour on highways to Orlando for vacation. Couple that with people who fabricate stories of children in distress, and soon concerned citizens are calling the authorities on a regular basis. So far, Ben said it’s happened three times. For that reason, they are glad that their vlogs are about two to three weeks behind, so online alarmists don’t know exactly where their family is located.
Another criticism against them is that they are doing this for fame and/or for money. They also explain to their viewers that they have not and will not be activating the commercials on their YouTube vlogs, so they make zero money from that outlet. They do have a Patreon account to help cover the cost of producing the videos. In one of his videos, Ben shows how much electronic gear they carry to produce the high-quality videos. Everything from a 13-inch laptop to a small drone, plus a few cameras, and all the associated cables, batteries, chargers, and chips. Plus, it takes a lot of time and skill to plan, execute, edit, and upload the dozens of hiking videos they’ve produced thus far, so it’s only fair they make it possible for viewers who want to contribute.
As for the supporters, The Family has found that they greatly outnumber the detractors. Many places they have had their entire restaurant bill anonymously paid, been offered free places to stay, and even had some of their gear supplied for free, as in the case of Altra, who supplied shoes for Kami and the children after Ben had bought a pair and raved about how good they were on one of his videos.
Though the Crawfords have a healthy net worth, much of their assets are fixed and not available for hiking expenditures. The costs associated with funding a hike for eight people are enormous. Just that three-day stay in a Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee cost over $750. Then there are the costs of food, shuttles, and replacements for backpacks and other worn-out gear. Because of this, they still have to watch their spending on the trail, and though they don’t expect it, they gratefully accept the help trail angels show them along the way.
During the first few months on the trail, Ben mostly carried the 45-pound pack with Rainier. But now that summer has arrived and they are able to pare down some weight, Seven, Eden, and Dove step in, taking turns carrying little Rainier for many miles, which pleases Rainier immensely and gives Ben a little break.
They’ve had many adventures since our meeting in April. They’ve had to detour around a 20-mile stretch of trail that was closed due to a forest fire. They even took time off their hike so that the entire family (minus Rainier) could run a marathon back home in Cincinnati.
Back on the trail, The Family gets up every day and continues pressing on toward Katahdin, often hiking back-to-back 20+ mile days. If they finish, they could go down in trail history as the biggest family to have ever thru-hiked the AT.
If you are lucky enough to meet this family while out on the trail, hopefully you’ll walk away inspired by seeing ordinary people, just like you and me, doing extraordinary things.
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