Journey to the Appalachian Trail With Kids

Have you noticed all the incredible things families are doing outside? There are so many things to admire…and also so many things that feel unattainable for us regular folks. But you might be surprised at how close you are to doing things you never imagined! Here is our family’s story, of how we went from occasionally camping to making our final preparations to hike the entire Appalachian Trail with kids.

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Outdoorsy Families are Incredible!

I love following outdoorsy pages on Instagram or reading articles about outdoorsy families in the news. They are the coolest, and do things I can’t even imagine! But it can often feel like many of those incredible families were almost born into it, because of their family history or because of where they live.

Three teenagers wear backpacking gear while hiking in the Grand Canyon.
My oldest kids, backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

Regular Families, Like Yours and Mine

Our family didn’t grow up in the shadow of a mountain range. We did know how to start backyard fires–and the neighbors on our dense urban street called the fire department on us when we did. Living an impressive outdoor lifestyle from birth isn’t the only route to amazing things outside.

Take it from me, you can write an incredible outdoorsy story for your family even without it being a generational legacy! Everyone of the amazing families you stand in awe of has a story of how they started, and some of them are very humble. Ours certainly is.

Humble Outdoor Roots

My husband Will and I both grew up in Central Indiana, in urban neighborhoods. It’s basically the opposite of mountainous here, with a famous city landmark giving a “bird’s eye” view of the city, topping out at an elevation of 842 feet.

7 children pose with a sculpture of several children, outside the Indianapolis Children's Museum.
My kids making a favorite pose outside the Indianapolis Children’s Museum near our house.

Dabbling in the Outdoors

Neither of our families were what you might think of as overly outdoorsy. My family did take occasional Sunday walks and went to the YMCA pool 4 times a week in the summers, and we went to neighborhood playgrounds.

My husband spent his childhood biking around town with buddies, back in the olden days when kids came home at dark. Our families were no more outdoorsy than the others in our area, and we certainly didn’t participate in anything unusual or extreme when it came to nature.

Camping, Maybe

Camping was just a maybe. My mom did not enjoy camping, and the only time I remember going as a young kid, we went to the Smokies for a week…and left after one night because it never stopped raining. A long stint on the Appalachian Trail with kids would have been a definite no.

Will did camp a little more. As a cost-saving measure, his family camped en route to visit friends in distant states, but it was definitely more function than fun. He backpacked a couple of times with his church youth group, planting the tiny seed that eventually yielded fruit much later on.

A Tiny Step Forward

When we were in high school, family friends set up their farm field as a community camping location for a group of homeschool families. They hosted a handful of camping events each year centered around holiday weekends, and both of our families were invited.

It was a social event in high school, so no question we were going. There was no hiking, the parents were too nervous to let us help with camp chores, and most of the activities consisted of sitting around the campfire or playing field volleyball. But we did sleep on the ground and use a pit toilet!

A group of teens and young adults sit in chairs in a grassy field.
Our field campground and our main activity: sitting around.

Married Life

Not much changed when we got married. We did register for camping gear (my husband’s idea) and received some as wedding gifts, but honestly I thought that was kind of a waste. We didn’t really go camping, so why would we need that?

Part of our honeymoon was to Glacier National Park (also my husband’s idea–maybe a pattern developing here?), where we hiked the 13 mile Highline Trail, including the Grinnell Glacier Overlook. We took Capri Suns as our hydration, as adults! I’m not sure we owned water bottles.

Dispersed Camping

We did actually go on a dispersed camping trip as new marrieds, but I didn’t know what that meant, and was stunned to discover the site didn’t even have a pit toilet! It’s so funny to me now how rattled I was by the idea of one night without a bathroom, when we are now planning to hike for six months without one, but it was so far outside my wheelhouse at the time.

Things Start to Change

It turns out that there is a state park just about a half hour from the farm field where we still spent some holiday weekends community camping with friends. When our oldest three kids were 6, 4, and 2, and we were planning to attend a night of field camping, my husband thought he would try taking them first for a night in the state park, and catch up with me and our baby for the next night at the farm.

Why not? It seemed pretty easy to add on just a little bit more, and if it went poorly, the family friends were right around the corner, or I was an hour drive away from picking them up. They gave it a shot, and had a great time. It started to become the norm.

Four young children in a wooded setting with many changing leaves.
Our four oldest kids during a camping trip.

Camping Family, For Real

The field campouts gradually came to a pause, but by then we were pretty well settled into camping at the state park, now including me and the youngest kids in our growing family. So we expanded our state park camping routine to include a few more locations, about 3-4 times a year.

Thriving Outside

Becoming a camping family was so good for all of us! The kids blossomed outside, learning skills like fire-building and local plant identification (gotta avoid that poison ivy!), and getting to climb trees and run freely in ways that aren’t always accessible in the city.

Hiking also fast become a favorite activity. Our favorite state park has several 1-2 mile trails, and we got to see our small children go from being able to do just one mile to easily being able to hike 5+ miles. What seemed almost impossible with our preschoolers and toddlers eventually became our routine!

Hiking kids on a wooded trail in a sandstone gorge.
My kids enjoying a hike that includes some fun obstacles.

But What is Backpacking?

I had never even heard of backpacking until several years into growing our family. My husband had mentioned in passing a couple of times that he would be interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail someday, but I thought it was a couple of weeks long and still didn’t really understand it–how do you find food? How does your gear get to your campsite?

Two girls wearing backpacking gear and holding trail snacks while on a trail.
Two of my daughters, understanding much more than I did about carrying food and gear.

We were deep in childbearing and rearing, and the thought of hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids was not even remotely on our radar. I told him maybe he could do a week once the kids graduated, but really had no clue what I was saying.

The Woods Start to Call

In the summer of 2017, I was expecting our seventh and last child, and we happened upon an upbeat musical documentary by the musical duo The Okee Dokee Brothers, called Through the Woods. The musicians spent a month on the trail, and they made it look so fun!

Our family watched it together, looked at each other, and I said, “Maybe we should all go!”

And honestly, just like that, we basically decided. We started to think about when it could work, and settled on 2025, when our about-to-be-born youngest would be seven and our oldest, eighteen. It seemed like the perfect window to spend six months hiking together.

On a portion of the Appalachian Trail with kids, near Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountains.
Testing out a portion of the Appalachian Trail with kids.

That next summer, my husband told me he had just found out about a family of eight that was on the Appalachian Trail with kids. We tracked the Crawford family as they finished the trail, and it was really encouraging to see that a family with several children actually could accomplish this goal.

Getting into Backpacking

Just one tiny problem–the kids and I had never been backpacking, and Will hadn’t been since college in the early 2000s. We had no gear suited to backcountry camping, and with nine of us to eventually outfit, that process would be expensive and slow.

First Time For Everything

The fall after we made our tentative plans, Will and two of our kids geared up and went to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a trial weekend of backpacking. It rained for 17 straight hours to wrap up their experience, but somehow, they didn’t hate it! The Appalachian Trail with kids seemed a teensy bit closer to possible.

A man and two children wearing backpacking gear in a windy-looking setting atop a mountain bald.
My husband taking two kids on their first backpacking trip.

Growing and Progressing

Over the next few years, backpacking gear and experience started to pile up. State park camping trips stayed as part of our routine, but we swapped out or added a backpacking trip for a few of us each year as well.

By the time we decided to attempt the thru-hike, we had 4-5 years of camping on our own under our belts, and backpacking didn’t seem that crazy different. I love the “easy + 1” model–camping had become our easy, and it felt like a plus-one to carry our gear on our backs.

I took my first backpacking trip in 2020, in the Grand Canyon, and our fifth child took his first trip later that summer. Our sixth took her first trip in 2023, and our oldest son passed 200 miles of experience that same year.

We were a little nervous about our youngest’s first time out, because, well, he’s the baby. He is used to eight family members being at his beck and call. But this spring, he took on the challenge with a 26 mile 3-day weekend, and had a wonderful time! A big hurdle cleared toward hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids.

Backpacking kids taking a break in a wooded setting, resting on their sleeping pads.
Our three youngest kids on a backpacking trip.

In June of 2024, we will take on the Foothills Trail of South Carolina, 77 miles long and our first time backpacking with all nine of us. It will be our major final test of our gear and our hiking arrangements before beginning the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail itself next spring.

Reflections on the Journey

Looking back, it’s crazy to consider the transformation we have made as a family. It’s honestly hard to remember that we weren’t always The Camping Family among our friends.

I can’t really remember life before camping and backpacking multiple times a year became our norm, but it did take us almost 20 years to get here. It wasn’t even close to an overnight change.

A dad and six kids stand next to a sign marking the entrance to a forest hiking trail.
Our family getting ready to take on a backpacking trail.

Why the Appalachian Trail with Kids?

We love camping and backpacking. They have been so good for our family. The activities themselves are fun–great life and survival skills, but even more, the character they develop is so meaningful to us.

I recently was pondering why we value hiking, camping, backpacking; why we want to spend six months hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids. The depth of relationships forged through doing something hard together was at the top of the list.

Three children wearing cool-weather backpacking gear take a hiking break by sitting on a log in the woods.
Three of our kids, taking a short rest on the trail.

Other reasons we chose this include developing resilience in our kids, and respect for what they can or can’t do in the face of nature! Learning when to push through and when to turn back on the trail translates to critical thinking and risk assessment in other areas of life.

Outdoor Life is Worth It

I’m so thankful for the series of little choices that led us here. The benefits of a lifestyle immersed in nature are innumerable. It doesn’t have to be backpacking, but if you want it to be, it can, even if you’ve never even heard of that word until now!

As is true for so many, it’s not one moment of dramatic decision that alters your life path, it’s just one little change after another. Anyone can become an outdoorsy family the way we did–one day hike, one camping overnight, one new experience at a time.

A mom and five children at the lookout atop Clingman's Dome in the Smoky Mountains.
One of the most popular day hikes in America, to Clingman’s Dome.

Writing a New Family Story

I didn’t grow up backpacking, but my kids are! I love that it feels normal to them, and if they show up to a surprise dispersed camping trip with their new spouse and there are no pit toilets anywhere, they won’t be fazed.

They are learning some great skills, but even more importantly, I hope they learn from our journey toward hiking the Appalachian Trail with kids.

In particular, I hope they learn a willingness to try new things and be uncomfortable. It’s hard to take a risk, but the mental benefits of trying something new are many! In an era where anxiety is rising quickly, taking a chance on something new can be really empowering.

I hope they learn the value of pursuing something hard. They will know they can accomplish something that my teenage self would have never even imagined attempting.

And I hope they learn that they can say yes to something without knowing in advance that it will work out. That a hiking journey of 2200 miles, or creating and living an outdoorsy life, is not completed overnight, but through putting one foot in front of the other, over and over.

Four kids, wearing backpacking gear, smile while sitting next to each other on a fallen log.
Four of our kids enjoying a beautiful day backpacking.

Write Your Story Too!

I hope you feel encouraged that you can do amazing things outdoors with your family too! It doesn’t have to be taking on the Appalachian Trail with kids, but clearly that wasn’t our initial goal either! Try something outside with your family, and who knows where you might end up?

If you want to start going on nature walks, or want to try camping for the first time, or want to teach your kids to ski but haven’t actually tried it yourself, go for it! One small step at a time, those goals can be reached and you can become the outdoorsy family you never dreamed you would be.

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Journey to the Appalachian Trail With Kids

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