Thru-Hiking with Two Kids, One Dog, and Very Little Experience
After months of pandemic-induced isolation, one Vermont family dove headfirst into a 272-mile adventure
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I stood on the trail and watched in horror as my eight-year-old son, Asha, somersaulted down the side of a mountain. I shouted, “Grab something! Grab something!” The 12-pound backpack he was carrying gave his little body momentum, and the slope had no end in sight.
Finally, about 20 feet below the trail, he stopped his tumble. My husband, Marco, bounded down to save him. A few seconds later, Asha looked up at me and smiled. I felt a rush of relief. I pulled out my phone to snap a picture of the rescue effort, but as I did it slipped out of my hand and rolled down the hill. “You’re supposed to throw us a rope, not a phone!” cried Marco. He and Asha climbed up the steep slope and brushed themselves off. We hiked on, belly-laughing for the rest of the day.
We were unlikely thru-hikers—a biracial, bilingual family from Brattleboro with two kids, ages eight and 12, and a quirky dog. We had zero backpacking experience, but we made up for that with our ambition. When the pandemic squashed our plans to visit family in early 2020, we began day-hiking different mountain trails in Vermont. After months of outings, we set the goal to thru-hike the Long Trail, a 272-mile path through the Green Mountains.
The minute our plans became real I googled “thru-hiking with kids” to get advice. I scoured every article and blog post, listened to podcasts, asked questions on social media, contacted former Long Trail thru-hikers. I was eager to absorb any wisdom on how to adventure with children. Many thru-hiking parents seemed to have backpacking experience. We had none, but we knew we needed this adventure. We had lost six family members to COVID, and the pandemic had reminded us how important it was to live our lives to the fullest.
The thru-hike became a light at the end of a dark winter tunnel. My bedside table became an altar of thru-hiking memoirs stacked high. We began training. Each week we hiked with weighted backpacks. We stopped driving the kids to school and instead walked the three miles, so that daily mileage became a new norm. We didn’t underestimate the challenges of a thru-hike and we wanted to be prepared.
Marco worked at a school and I was a jeweler; we were able to negotiate a month off work in the summer. We had read advice about doing “shakedowns,” or practice backpacking trips, and we had hoped to fit in lots before the big hike. In the end, we were only able to squeeze in one overnight, two weeks before our departure. Undaunted, we knew we needed to believe in ourselves and jump into this adventure.
The Long Trail is the oldest recreational long-distance trail in the U.S. and one of the more technically difficult. While it is shorter than the famed Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, the Long Trail has no switchbacks—instead it goes straight up and down each mountain. It follows the main ridges of Vermont’s Green Mountains on traditional Abenaki land. Our route covered nearly 300 miles and approximately 67,000 feet of total elevation gain, and we hoped to hike ten to 15 miles a day, with a few rest days in between. We had a window of a month to complete the trail. We strategically began our hike on July 19 to coincide with the end of blackfly season; we also wanted to avoid the springtime mud season, when hikers are asked to stay off the trails.
A few weeks before our hike, we posted a request on Facebook for friends to bring us resupply boxes containing our dehydrated food. Our community overwhelmed us with support, and friends agreed to meet us at road crossings to deliver the supplies we would need for the next sections.
On the first day, after hiking six miles through thick mud and spending an hour trying to set up our tents, Lucas, our 12-year-old, found our location on the first panel of our eight-panel map. “We’re going so slow!” he said. “We’ll never even get to the second panel of the map. We’ll never finish.” We knew the kids were physically capable of hiking the Long Trail. Our biggest parenting challenge was keeping them motivated.
Asha hiked slowest, and we were initially worried he might not be able to hit the daily distance. Marco and Lucas led the way, with Asha and me lagging behind. On day three, we put Asha up front with Marco and the dog. In a stroke of brilliance, Marco pretended to be a car-race announcer and began narrating, in Spanish, a race between a Lamborghini (Asha) and a Ferrari (our dog, Mashi). Lucas and I, behind them, didn’t see Asha for the rest of the day. For the rest of the hike, whenever we needed Asha to speed up, we put him in front with Marco.
We discovered that playing trivia games also motivated the kids. We asked them multiple-choice questions about their Ecuadorian heritage. But there were times when our games didn’t work. On our 11th day, we hiked 14.4 miles to Killington Peak, which was our longest day so far. It was supposed to rain, so we pushed ourselves to get off the mountain before the bad weather. But the downpour came before we were down, soaking us to the core.
Our goal was to make it to the next shelter to avoid setting up our tents in the rain. But with two more miles to go, Asha slipped on a wooden board and sank into knee-deep mud. We pulled him out, and the tears welled up and spilled down his face. He was so exhausted, he just couldn’t handle it anymore and sobbed for those last few miles. My heart broke for him, and I wondered if we were pushing the kids too hard. We finally made it to the shelter. Everything we owned was soaked, except for what we had kept in our drybags—our quilts and long underwear. We changed, laid our sleeping pads on the floor, and huddled together to keep warm until we fell asleep.
The next day it was still raining, and morale was low. We felt miserable and decided to backtrack two miles to a road we had passed the previous day, to head into town to find a hotel. It was the best decision we could have made. We took warm showers, ordered pizza, lay on soft beds, and watched bad TV. My parents even drove up from Brattleboro as a surprise to see us.
Our one night in a hotel provided a much needed reset. We had originally planned to stay in a hotel only once during the monthlong trek, but at that moment we decided to embrace the humility and flexibility parenting requires, and to use hotel stays as a way to keep our enthusiasm up. After that night, we planned hotel stays every four or five days—after completing a hard section or a big mountain or to avoid a thunderstorm.
There’s a fine line between giving your kids a challenge to build resilience and making them suffer. We hiked the Long Trail as a family to have an adventure and to bring us closer together. We wanted to show our kids that we can do hard things, even when they seem impossible, while at the same time keeping them safe. We knew that to find that balance, we had to take calculated risks.
During the second half of the hike, we saw personal growth, both in Lucas and Asha, and also in ourselves. Our bodies got stronger, and we began each morning by ascending a mountain before breakfast. The boys often led the way. One morning, we brought out the map and showed them our route for the day. Studying the map and the elevation gain, Lucas said, “But that’s only ten miles. We can make it farther. Let’s camp on this mountain, at mile 14.” He knew we were capable of more than we thought we were.
Another day, after hiking 13 miles, Asha said he wanted to keep going so we could night-hike with our headlamps.
We started the trip with no backpacking experience. And yet there we were, hiking through magical forests, basking in painting-worthy sunsets, and resting on mountaintops while gazing at distant peaks where we had been only a day before. We couldn’t believe our bodies had carried us so far. It was an overwhelming feeling.
During the last few hours on the trail, as each step brought us closer to its end at the Canadian border, we felt a mix of many emotions—relief that we were almost done, pride that we had accomplished an amazing feat, sadness that we would leave the trail soon, and excitement that we were taking the last few steps of our trek.
We all jogged that last mile, gleefully belting out silly songs. For 30 days, we had experienced a multitude of extremes. And we had been with our kids for every minute, encouraging them when they felt they couldn’t take another step, holding them when they cried, listening to their stories, singing with them, taking alone time when we couldn’t stand it anymore, and trusting them and their amazing abilities. When we set out, we didn’t know what was in store for us. In the end, we learned that anyone, even without experience, even with kids and a dog, can accomplish the extraordinary.