For kids who want to thru-hike

Whenever my schooling horse, Zippity, took off at a full gallop, my heart hammered with wild glee. A former race horse, he ran like the wind; it was the closest I’ve ever come to flying. I was a lucky kid. My mom sacrificed a lot to pay for those horseback riding lessons during my childhood, and I am grateful.

My mom gifted me and my sister with tons of amazing enrichment experiences as kids, but she loathes camping. We went car camping a couple times when I was a kid, but not backpacking.

Annie Nelson rides her schooling horse, Zippity Do Dah.
Annie, aged 17, rides her school horse, Zippity Do Dah.

I wish now that I’d discovered my passion for backpacking and wilderness trips as a kid. I didn’t start backpacking until I was 30 years old. I wonder how my life would’ve been different if I had started backpacking at a younger age? Would I have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail after high school or college? Would I have chosen a different college major and career?

Many parents consider extracurriculars like sports and clubs to be a crucial part of their child’s education, not just what they learn in school. I invite parents and kids to add a wilderness trip, not just car camping, to the list of basic life experiences every kid should have as part of a well-rounded education.

What do I wish I had known and done as a kid to become a thru-hiker at a younger age? This blog post tries to answer those questions, and offers some tips and advice for young hikers who are starting to dream of thru-hiking some day.

What are backpacking and thru-hiking?

Many kids have gone “car camping” with their families or friends already. You load a huge tent, a bunch of sleeping bags, and a cooler full of food into the car, and off you drive straight up to your campsite. With backpacking, you load your tent, sleeping bag and food into a backpack and hike miles to your campsite. During a week of car camping, you get to know one place very well. When backpacking, the whole forest is your playground.

Thru-hiking is backpacking an entire trail. Some trails are incredibly long, more than 2,000 miles, and take months to backpack. Some trails are shorter, a couple hundred miles, and can be thru-hiked in a couple weeks.

Annie with her backpack 1,200 miles into her long-distance hike on the North Country Trail.
1,200 miles into my long hike on the North Country Trail.

Where’s my owl?

As a kid, I read every adventure story I could get my hands on: Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Earthsea” series; J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books; and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. I knew these books were fiction, but I secretly waited for an owl to show up outside my window with my Hogwarts acceptance letter. I never got to befriend a dragon or become a wizard, but I did find a way to go on epic, magical adventures in real life: thru-hiking.

It is delightful to come face to face with a porcupine, skunk, or a curious garter snake. I’ve learned many animals are just as curious about me as I am about them. When I stand beneath a giant tree hundreds of years older than me, it casts a spell of awe. When I climb up a mountain, I feel like if I just knew the right words to say I could grow wings and fly. Real life magic.

A curious garter snake on the Superior Hiking Trail.
A curious garter snake says hello on the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota.

Four-Step Checklist

Now that I’ve convinced you thru-hiking is magical, and you’re determined to do it someday, here are four steps for making a thru-hike happen during your life.

Start backpacking now

Thru-hiking is a skill like any other that gets better the more you practice. The more backpacking experience you get now, the better your chance of thru-hiking later in life.

If you have never backpacked before, start with an easy to follow trail at a state park, as there will be rangers on staff 24 hours a day in case you need help. In Minnesota, several state parks have backpacking trails campsites including Afton State Park, Wild River State Park, Cascade River State Park, and many others.

Start small: Rent gear from a store like REI and take a weekend trip to a state park. Plan to hike only a few miles per day your first trip, maybe four to six miles. Your goal for this first trip is just to figure out whether or not you enjoy backpacking. Your second goal is to learn the basics: using your maps and guides, how your pack feels, how to hike with a heavy backpack, how to set up tent and use your other gear. Parents, the American Occupational Therapy Association recommends a child’s school backpack never weigh more than 10 percent of their body weight. Applying the same weight ratio for outdoor backpacking is probably a good idea.

Once you feel comfortable with the basics, next try a week-long trip on the Superior Hiking Trail or a more rugged, backcountry trail in your area.

If your family doesn’t go camping or backpacking, there are many youth groups that offer the opportunity. Consider joining the Scouts BSA or Girl Scouts of the USA, both of which teach many outdoor, camping, and backpacking skills. There are also a bunch of backpacking camps. In Minnesota, YMCA Camp Widjiwagan and YMCA Camp Menogyn offers several backpacking camps. Another organization, Outward Bound, offers many incredible trips all over the country that range from 4-day trips to an entire semester in the wilderness. Overnight camps can be very expensive. Most camps offer a scholarship program, meaning you can qualify for financial assistance with the cost of camp. The YMCA and Outward Bound offer scholarships for their backpacking programs.

How to convince your parents to let you thru-hike

“Curiosity is not a sin… But we should exercise caution with our curiosity….”

Albus Dumbledore

Your parents love you. Their No. 1 job is to make sure you are healthy, happy, and safe. Even though I am in my 30s and a grown adult, during my thru-hikes I have met a lot parents who told me they wouldn’t let even their adult children go on a thru-hike.

Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you tell your parents you want to thru-hike someday, and they say no, at first. The idea of letting a child, even an adult child, go off into the wilderness for weeks or months, is super scary.

A Garmin InReach Delorme satellite communicator is pictured as an example of a good safety device for families concerned about a young thru-hiker's safety.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, when you thru-hike, your family will worry about you. One powerful tool that can help is an InReach Delorme, which uses satellites to send text messages. This devices allows you to message for help, and communicate with family, even if you don’t have cell service in the wilderness.

You probably won’t be able to thru-hike before you’re an adult. It’s dangerous. If you’re determined to thru-hike before you’re an adult, invite one of your parents or your entire family to come with you. More and more families are thru-hiking long trails together, like the Strawbridge family on the PCT and the Crawford family on the AT. If your parents don’t want to come with you, see if they’d be willing to let you thru-hike a shorter trail close to home once you’re a teenager. I believe the youngest person to solo thru-hike the Superior Hiking Trail was 15 years old.

You can also start improving your outdoor safety skills. Take classes with your parents so they can see you learning and mastering these important skills. Here are the basic skills I think every thru-hiker should have, kid or adult:

As you grow up, if you can demonstrate to your parents that you are taking your safety and wilderness skills seriously, this will improve the chances they will fully support your dream of taking a wild adventure someday.

Learn to make and save money
A stack of $20 bills.
Start stacking those bills!

Another reason your parents might hesitate to say yes to a thru-hike is because they can be very expensive. If you want to thru-hike a long trail like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, you should save at least $5,000; $10,000 would be better. While thru-hiking, you can’t work, and you have to buy food, pay for hotels, laundry, sending packages, going to the doctor, and more. You’ll also need to purchase gear, which can cost another $1,000 to $2,000.

Most states won’t allow youth to work until they are 14 years old, but there are ways to start making money when you’re younger: babysitting, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, yard work, dog walking, pet sitting, and more. Once you’re old enough to work, find a job and learn how to save money.

If you are 14 years old, and you want to thru-hike after graduating from college at age 22, you’ll need to save $1,000-1,500 a year specifically for your hike. You’ll have many other expenses in life too, so learning how to balance a budget and save money is crucial. This is also an important skill for your hike. One of the main reasons people end a thru-hike early is because they run out of money.

When to thru-hike

If you plan to thru-hike one of the long trails in America, you will need four to seven months. Once you move out on your own and start working a full-time job, it is very difficult to quit a job and go thru-hiking. Not impossible, but harder.

If you want to go immediately after high school and plan to go to college, you’ll have to delay your college start date by a semester, or even a gap year, which is taking a year off between high school and college. Delaying your college start date may make your parents really nervous. Developing a specific plan, and making sure you’re accepted to college, and your college or university will allow you to take a gap year without losing your place, may calm some of your parent’s fears.

If you delay your college start date by one semester, you still won’t be able to start your thru-hike until after you graduate high school, so you’ll probably need to do a southbound thru-hike on one of the National Scenic Trails for weather and safety reasons.

While you’re in college, build up your backpacking experience by thru-hiking a shorter trail of a couple hundred miles, which can be done during your summer break. There is even one college that allow students to earn college credit by thru-hiking. Maybe there are more?

Another good time to thru-hike is immediately after graduating college before starting your first job, or after graduating and working for a while to save up money. In fact, this is the most common age group to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, according to the Halfway Anywhere blog. Fewer than 2 percent of 2019 PCT thru hikers were younger than 20. About 30 percent were between the ages of 25-29.

More questions?

If you have any other questions about how to start planning a thru-hike, please leave a comment below. I found magic out there, and I will do whatever I can to help you find that magic too.

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