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Trail as Teacher: Thru-Hike Reflections with the Bennett Family

Pro parenting tip: take your kids on long-distance backpacking trips.  


Get them outdoors and away from screens as early and as often as possible. They will experience Type 1 fun (in-the-moment fun), Type 2 fun (in-retrospect fun) and Type 3 fun (not fun in the moment or even fun to think about).  


The best of humanity will be your associates when a kind soul known as a trail angel feeds you fresh fruit at a trailhead. Your kids will meet people from all over the worldbright, vibrant, exciting people who have a passion for nature and exploration. There are a lot of teachers on the trail, like professors of geology who teach your kids in just a few sentences things that textbooks cannot. They will meet people from all walks of life, from different social circles, and that will probably be their very favorite part.  


Observe the natural wonders of the forest and listen to your children’s questions. Be sure to take pictures of wildflowers and look up their names. You’ll find the juxtaposition of life on trail, versus that at home, to be delightfully stark.  


You and your children will always remember witnessing the joy of curious hummingbirds, of scouting out the best campsite for the night and of town food after too many days of trail food. Your kids will never take hot showers for granted again. They'll see trash that others have left behind and want to pack it out (bring disposable gloves). You'll walk through blown down trees cleared by handsaws, and they'll aspire to be a volunteer on a trail maintenance crew one day.  


Turning a corner of the trail, you’ll be surprised to see a wild animal (hopefully from a safe distance), and everyone will scramble to get a picture. Of course, you will just have to treasure the memory instead.  


You'll climb to a high peaksometimes the highest point in the state you are inand your kids will decide they want to hit all the high pointers (maybe not Denali—you’d better have a serious chat about that one) 

Treasured memories will be formed when you stop for a lunch that turns into a several-hour siesta with everyone’s shoes and socks off, drying out in the sun. They’ll be trading candy and snacks while belly laughing about funny things that happened that day or a joke someone told.  


You'll experience the positive discomfort of being way too hot or way too cold and wet or being pushed way out of your comfort zone, but the vistas and the memories will make it all worthwhile. On very cold and wet nights, you'll worry your kids aren't warm enough and check on them several times. If your gear is good and you've kept your sleep system dry, your fears will be unwarranted.  


You'll have discussions with your kids about food in ways you never would at home. Let them choose their own food for a day or a week, staying within your budget and caloric needs. Be sure to mention that protein and complex carbs are better fuel than sugary treats. They'll learn that on their own though, if initially they don't want to take your word for it.  


Hearing one sibling ask another if they are okay when they catch their shoe on a root will be a testament that the trail is working wonders in developing empathy. Organizational skills become survival skills when your children learn that misplacing essential items while on this journey could be life threatening. You'll meet day hikers on the trail and when you explain what you are doing, they will exclaim, "WE’RE NOT WORTHY!" just like Wayne and Garth did in front of Alice Cooper.  


Long-distance hiking will most certainly not solve all your family's problems, but weeks or months on the trail will keep you humble. Mother Nature is oh so powerful and she’ll remind you of that fact daily. 


The wilderness will tease out the characteristics and strengths in your children that will help them solve all problems. These tools just cannot be found in front of a screen, so invest in quality gear, hit the trails and open a whole new vista of experiences for your family. 


—Mindi Bennett, her husband (Adam), four children (Sierra, Kaia, Tristan, and Ruby), and trail dog (Muir) have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (‘19), Pacific Northwest Trail (‘20), and are currently attempting a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike (‘21). Follow their journey at @kidsoutwild


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