Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: Leaving Family Behind During Long Hikes
The Trek Editor’s Note
Welcome to our fourth Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis. In case you missed it, we’re taking hikers’ questions and passing them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis.
JPD has solo thru-hiked the AT and PCT, set the self-supported FKT on the Long Trail, and the supported FKT on the Appalachian Trail. Her AT FKT landed her the honor as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year. She has authored multiple books, most recently The Pursuit of Endurance. But the real reason we love JPD and ask for her input? For such an accomplished hiker, she is “relatively normal” (her words) and incredibly humble. She has figured out how to have a life off-trail as a wife, mother, and professional… and continue hiking. She has kept it classy amid the negativity and tense confrontations that can be part of the hiker trash community, and she has always found ways to give back to the trail and conservation organizations.
Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on.
What would you say to those of us that have the itch for long-distance hiking but have families (ie young kids at home)?
Wow… this hits home—both personally and figuratively, in case you haven’t had your coffee.
To begin, I want to give a shout out to the men (and particularly the women) who decide that they are not going to be parents. It is a very difficult choice to make and one that is not always socially accepted. No one should feel the pressure or obligation to have children when they do not want to spend a large part of their life devoted to family.
From a conservation standpoint, not contributing to the increase of the world’s population is one of the best and biggest ways to limit your impact and Leave No Trace. It also gives you the time and energy to nurture a cause other than the next generation. The most accomplished conservationists and inspiring adventurers are often the ones who are able to fully devote themselves to their outdoor passions without the responsibility of raising children.
But, that’s not me. I’ve always hoped that I could be a mother. And I am grateful to have two adorable and exhausting children—my Instafeed is evidence of that. And I know all too well how challenging it is to try to be a good parent… and a long-distance hiker.
My first suggestion is to try to surround your life… and children… and other parents with as much grace as possible.
Taking 10-15 years away from long-distance trails does not remove your identity as a long-distance hiker.
The trails and opportunities for extended adventure will be there when your children are older. It’s okay to be out of shape and not keep up with all the latest backpacking gear; it doesn’t make you less of a hiker.
There are parents who accomplish incredible hikes with small children, but you don’t have to hold yourself to their standard. They are superheroes who set the bar incredibly high. I am exhausted after even a short hike with our daughter Charley (age 5) and son Gus (18 months). A two-mile outing takes two hours and numerous strategically placed M&Ms.
Being a hiker is not defined by your speed or distance, but a love of moving through nature. Don’t let anyone make you feel like less of a hiker for taking your kids to National Parks as opposed to tackling a long-distance trail. Consider staying connected during this time by supporting or volunteering for a local trail club or conservation group.
There are also plenty of “shorter” long trails that are more family-friendly than a Triple Crown footpath. In the southeast we have the Art Loeb Trail (30 miles), Foothills Trail (77 miles), Benton MacKaye Trail (300 miles), and the Pinhoti Trail (340 miles)… just to name a few! And if you have your heart set on the AT, you can complete it by section hiking—hit the trail for a few days at a time, or maybe even a few weeks if you get the chance.
If you are able to put on your pack and head out for a family-approved solo, try to not carry guilt along with your actual gear. Each year, I take two weeks away from work and family. It is my time for a long-distance trail and it is excruciating to leave my children.
After spending a week backpacking through the Wind River Range, I used my cell phone to FaceTime my daughter. When I saw her face I started sobbing. There was an ache in my chest from missing her. She was smiling and laughing and couldn’t understand why I was crying. After blowing me a kiss she went back to watching PBS Kids at her grandparent’s house. She was fine. I was a wreck.
Yet, as I hiked out of Dubois, Wyoming the next day, I also felt the importance of finding joy and purpose apart from motherhood. When I traveled home a week later, it was obvious that I was a more patient, affectionate, and appreciative mother. Every member of our family benefited from my hike.
The trail teaches us about hiking in all different seasons. There will be seasons of life for parenting young children and other longer periods that allow you to hike long-distance hike. Try to embrace the place you are in right now.
I know several individuals who have left their families (including young children) for several months to complete a long-distance trail. More often than not they quit because they miss their families too much to continue hiking. I have also seen thru-hiking create resentment and tear families apart. There are occasions when hiking 2,000 miles can be therapeutic for an individual and their family, but they are few and far between.
So, think about whether or not you want to have children before you have children, and remember that you are still a hiker even if you don’t have time for a six-month hike. Identify shorter adventures that are healthy for you and your family. And if you still can’t satiate that itch with family hikes or abbreviated outings, rub some jewelweed root on your rash or slather some soothing cream on the irritation. Children are more important than the trail and being a parent is its own a pursuit of endurance. It is a time to help your children learn how to dream dreams and pursue goals, even if you have to put yours on hold.
See why it’s so hard to leave them?
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