Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: How Can We Help Our Families Understand Our Need to Hike?

Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now.

Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on. If your question is chosen for our next Mailbag, we’ll send you a signed copy of JPD’s newest book.

How do we get our family and significant others in our lives to support our desire to be outside and hike? How do we help them realize that we still love them and cherish them but this is just a journey we need to do or we might melt inside? I have dedicated my life to my three sons and 30 years to being a decent friend and wife. I now have a need to do something that will help me. Please tell all of us how to explain this to people who think we have a need for mental health support instead of food boxes. – Natalie Robison 

This Mailbag question is so compelling. Anyone wanting to hike and looking for support from their loved ones should communicate with this level of honesty. Telling a spouse, relative, or close friend that you might melt inside should relay a significant need for support. From the sound of it, this isn’t an ice cream cone drip that running down your hand and can be easily licked away; these are heavy tear drops of your soul that are reducing your identity and your dreams.

Fear is the most common reason a loved one will withhold support for an individual who wants to hike the trail.

Disclosing a need for help and a desire to find it on the trail should start a discourse with your significant other. It might not result in instantaneous support but by articulating your reasons for wanting to hike and the feeling of loss associated with not experiencing the trail it may help your loved ones realize that this is more than a spontaneous whim or a distant pipe dream.

The timing and words for any significant conversation both hold weight. Take the opportunity to think through what you want to say to your partner. Consider writing down your primary reasons and most compelling thoughts as a personal resource or to share with the other person. Set aside a specific time with your loved ones to have this important discussion. The more thoughtfulness that you put into your preparation and delivery, the more thoughtful the response will be.  

Fear is the most common reason a loved one will withhold support for an individual who wants to hike the trail. When I was 21 years old, my mom didn’t want me to hike the Appalachian Trail because she was worried about my safety. She was scared that I would get hurt or need help. The limited backcountry communication heightened her anxiety and feelings of helplessness. As an independent young adult, my mother’s fears were not enough to keep me from thru-hiking, but they impacted some of my gear choices and how I communicated on the trail.

I still hike (and my mom still worries) but her increased knowledge of the trail and a fuller understanding of the thru hike experience has served to reduce and limit her concerns. Plus, the innovation in GPS technology and enhanced cell service has helped my mother feel more at ease. Having a plan to communicate and stay accountable with your family can be co-beneficial. There are numerous backpackers who carry the weight of a SPOT, less for personal safety, and far more for a loved one’s emotional well being.

Sometimes the only way you can have both your family’s support and an adventure is to compromise.

If your friends and family are willing to do a little research in the form of reading a book, watching a trail documentary, or following along with a Trek Blogger or Trail Journals account, their perception of the trail will likely change and improve. I am surprised and elated when a hiker tells me the book I wrote about my first thru-hike, Becoming Odyssa, helped their loved ones better understand and support their thru-hike. It surprises me, because the adventure memoir candidly exposes risks and setbacks. Still, gaining knowledge about the Appalachian Trail and a greater awareness of thru-hiking can help dispel fear.  

The best way to persuade someone to support your desire to backpack is to allow them to share the experience and see it through your eyes. Inviting loved ones to join you as a hiking partner or support driver may help them to more fully appreciate the trail and feel more connected to you and your journey.

When I married my husband, he enjoyed day hiking and did not have any interest in completing a long trail. Ten years ago, he also had more hesitations when it came to my multi-day backpacking trips. However, after crewing me on the Appalachian Trail in 2008, he became a lot more enthusiastic towards my solo backpacking trips (because it meant he wouldn’t have to provide support to his tired, hungry wife). And, he also decided to experience the Appalachian Trail on his own as a section hiker. In the past 10 years he’s hiked and backpacked 50% of the trail.

Including someone in your adventure doesn’t mean that he or she needs to hike every step with you, or meet you at every road crossing. But planning to backpack or day hike a small portion or the trail together or enjoy days off in town together can help the hike feel like a family adventure as opposed to an independent journey. It will also serve to deescalate the fears and separation anxiety of your loved ones.  

Sometimes the only way you can have both your family’s support and an adventure is to compromise. For many individuals a thru hike is their ultimate dream, but it is not the only way to experience the trail. A willingness to section hike the trail or travel with a companion might allow you to meet both your needs and the wishes of your loved one.

Ultimately, you may never gain the support and understanding of the people who are the closest to you. Sometimes, it may be worth forging ahead without the backing of a loved one. Other times, what you stand to lose at home is greater than what you would gain on the trail. This mailbag question suggests that an individual’s desire to thru hike is a sure sign of needing therapy. But, for some folks, there might be a need for food boxes and mental health support.

Talking with a counselor as an individual, couple, or family can help validate your needs and emotions and allow you to better understand the reaction of your loved ones. In situations such as these there are usually issues that are much bigger and deeper than an individual’s desire to thru hike, such as an imbalance of work, appreciation, dependence, or communication. Putting in the time and effort to work through these feelings can help you have a better hike, relationship, and life.  

Looking for more? Find our entire collection of Jennifer’s sage wisdom here.

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Comments 1

  • Rob : Aug 30th

    I love hiking, and enjoy hiking with others. But I’ve figured out over the years that 3-4 weeks is the longest I enjoy being out. Not that that is a short time, but it’s not in the AT/PCT/CDT range.

    I admire folks that do those trails in one season but I’m sure it’ll never be me. If I had a “significant other” who was out for a long hike I’d join them for a section or two of the hike (and maybe provide a little unexpected trail magic elsewhere on the trail) but let them enjoy their own 3-6 month challenge. A win/win compromise.


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