8 Tips for Thru-Hiking with Your Son or Daughter
Giving your son a skill is better than giving him one thousand pieces of gold. ~Chinese Proverb
While most sons will probably not agree with this proverb, it is one I followed during a recent hike of the Appalachian Trail.
In 2010 I made a decision, no, a commitment to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Initially I had planned on hiking the trail alone and spent the three years reading, watching DVDs and attending training classes. It wasn’t until I finalized my plan and informed my employer that I intended to leave that I asked my son to join me.
His reaction was “yes, of course” but then I didn’t exactly inform him what the AT was or what a thru-hike entailed. It wasn’t until he mentioned applying for a three-month visa (he lives in England) that I told him he might want to think about a six-month visa.
So it was decided: we were to thru-hike the AT, a father and son team. Anyone that’s thru-hiked the AT knows it’s not that simple, and anyone that’s thru-hiked with a sibling probably knows it’s even less simple. There are complexities in hiking 2185.3 miles with a partner, whether that’s a significant other, a friend or, as in my case, my son.
In fact, I hadn’t spent any significant time with my son for 13 years or so; military service, my divorce from his mother, and moving to the USA all contributed to only getting to spend short periods together four times a year. Yet, here we were about to spend a six-month intensive adventure in the Appalachian Mountains.
So how did it go? It went great, we completed our hike as we started: together. We spent 5 ½ months in the woods together and both of us came out alive and still talking to each other. So what strategies did I learn to ensure we were successful in our adventure while maintaining a healthy relationship? That’s the aim of this post, to pass a few techniques I found helped us avoid major meltdowns on to anyone contemplating hiking with their sibling . You could use most of these if you were to hike with your significant other or even a friend, I would imagine.
1) Hiking Pace
It became apparent early in the hike that Callum was a lot stronger at hiking than I. No surprise, he is half my age, a lot fitter and stronger and has not gained “corporate office” weight around his midriff. I would plod at one step at a time, but go all day at a steady pace while Callum would hike fast but rest often and eat. Clearly it would be frustrating for him to hike slowly behind me and frustrating for me to sit and wait while he ate snacks. Our situation was solved in two ways. During climbs where he was faster, he would go ahead and we would meet at an agreed-upon point. As we progressed on the hike this was adjusted to include:
2) Daily Start Times
I woke early and would get up and ready to go by 8am, Callum is a late riser and would be ready around 9:30am. To save time (and reduce the risk of me getting stressed waiting on him), I would set off early in the morning and he would catch me at some point during the day. This meant that both of us rested as we like but could cover the miles needed during a day.
It’s easy for a father to think he should know it all and never be wrong. This pride can cause you to take a real fall, so lose it; this is the AT and everyone has something to learn. Twenty-two years in the military didn’t teach me everything I needed to know about long-distance hiking; OK, I could cook a meal, select a campsite, wear gaiters and use a backpack, but I didn’t know everything. It was day two that Callum took my tent so I could reduce some pack weight (I was way too heavy at the start). I could have been prideful and refused his offer to help me but that could have literally led to failure of our hike.
There will be times when your views don’t meet and you need to compromise. That is so much better than pulling the “I am the father” card. You have to accept that you won’t get it your way all the time and compromising is the best solution. Comprises could include how miles you’ll hike the next day, resupply locations, or even places to eat. It also may be in the best interest of the team to accept the other persons view and “suck it up,” it doesn’t have to be your way all the time. During our hike, Callum wanted us to go to New York City with some hiker friends. I really didn’t want to, but felt the bigger picture meant I agreed and went along with the trip. In the same light I know there were times Callum didn’t want to do something I did but he agreed to go along with it. What does that mean? Well, we both got to experience aspects of the trail important to us and neither felt we came away lacking something because of the other person.
5) Personal Space
Despite the vast amount of space you will encounter on the AT, it is way too easy to lose your personal space. Sharing hotel/motel rooms, sleeping in bunk rooms and shelters, even communal cooking each evening means you just do not get any time to yourself. Also, hiking one after another along the trail means you don’t get to be alone and experience some “you” time. Don’t be afraid to hike alone and allow some space. Callum and I each had our own tents to ensure there we could escape if we needed. Some days we would hike together, some days we would hike alone, whether for a couple of hours or the whole day.
6) Share the Experiences
It was important to me that this adventure was a shared experience, not just my experience with someone tagging along. I never wanted to be one of those parents that lived their lives through their child. We made sure Callum had a stake in the adventure and we would do things he specifically wanted to glean from it, such as the visit to New York City. We also agreed that milestones would be shared together, reaching the halfway sign, the ice cream challenge, Franconia Ridge, summiting Katahdin; these were important aspects of the trail to us and we ensured conquered them together and shared the experiences. We always made sure that if we had hiked alone prior to reaching a milestone, we would pause short and wait for the other person before proceeding.
7) Let Kids be Kids
I am double the age of my son and so grew up in another era. Just like any child/parent relationship there are aspects of life you just don’t understand about each other. I wanted Callum to experience as much as possible while on the AT; not just the experience of hiking through 14 states, but the culture, the people, and the community. If we happened to meet up with hikers in Callum’s age group I would take a step back and allow them to interact, often telling Callum to hike ahead with the group so they could spend some time together. Or, when we got into town, I would stay behind while he went socializing with them. This was important for several reasons; mainly he would experience America and Americans from a diverse background. Also he had a chance to talk about “his world;” the music, politics, issues and concerns that (to be honest) I just don’t understand.
This must be the most important strategy to utilize. Talk to each other in a meaningful way, I don’t mean chit-chatting as you hike, I mean communicate on a level where both people have a stake in the plan for the thru-hike; a day’s hiking distance, rest days, locations to stay, etc. We started in the planning stage, going over the plan for the hike (even though it changed almost as soon as we started), gear and even first aid training. Each night I would talk with Callum about where we would head to the next day, rest locations, start times, etc. We discussed issues as they arose, identified available options, and then came to a solution that worked for both of us.
So would I hike with my son again? Absolutely! It was an amazing adventure that wouldn’t have been half the experience without him. In fact, I would go as far to say I may not have succeeded without him with me. It was great for a father to spend quality time with a son and for me to see the man he has become. I am proud of him and all he overcame and achieved on the hike and know that it’s something we will share for the rest of our lives. I am pleased that when he has kids and grandchildren, he can talk of the time he and his dad hiked the AT together. But I also hope he has a close relationship with his children that I didn’t have with him. I hope that he takes his child on an adventure of a lifetime.
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