Photo: Josh Sutton

Family Backpacking Lessons from the AT

What Josh Sutton learned over the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail with his wife and 5-year-old son.

Not all parents measure outings equally. For Lynchburg, Va., parents Josh and Cassie Sutton, going big with their son, Harvey, meant the storied 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. After starting last January, the family of three spent seven months backpacking from Georgia to Maine. Their August 2021 completion made Harvey, who was 5 years and 4 months old when they finished the full AT, the youngest person to thru-hike the trail by backpacking. (Sutton says an African girl, age 4, may have day-hiked all segments during 2020 but details are not confirmed.)

Both working in real estate, Josh, 36, and Cassie, 34, decided to start taking “mini retirements” after Cassie read the Tim Ferris book, The Four-Hour Work Week. They’d done a three-week trip hiking to Everest Base Camp before having kids, and once they had Harvey, had their sights set on hiking with him on the AT.

“He started walking at nine months, climbed a 4,000-foot mountain near our house when he was 2, and did a 50-mile backpacking trip with us when he was 4,” says Josh. “On Day 6 of that trip, he didn’t want to go back to the car and said, ‘No, let’s go camping again tonight!’”

Still, says Josh, “We were second-guessing our idea the entire four years.” But they stuck to their goal, camped in the cold of winter with Harvey twice in the months leading up to their January departure, got their affairs in order (“It’s expensive to not work for seven months!” Josh notes), and took their first trail steps on January 13, 2021.

The mid-winter start posed challenges, like needing to posthole through snow and stay warm (they had 10-degree sleeping bags for the winter section). The season at least offered some upsides, helping limit rattlesnake encounters in the Southern states with a then-4-year-old. “Kids stick their hands in everything,” says Josh. “I didn’t want to be a day away from a hospital if he got bit by a rattlesnake.” And about the cold, Josh says that Harvey “always did better than us,” and would curl up in his sleeping bag and watch Paw Patrol on one of his parents’ smartphones before comfortably falling asleep.

What parents—and kids—learn about each other, themselves, the trail and the natural world experienced while hiking every day for seven months is immeasurable. Sutton has plenty of hard-earned wisdom to share about hiking and backpacking with kids, as well as a few tips on how to go the distance with your brood on the AT, specifically.

Photo: Josh Sutton

Lessons on Hiking and Backpacking with Kids

 

Don’t carry your kid.

Sutton says how even when they first started taking Harvey to parks when he was younger, they got him used to walking on his own instead of being carried. They’d take “really long breaks” when they needed to, stopping to throw stones in creeks or do whatever Harvey wanted—just not being picked up and carried. “We’d get that expectation out of his head,” he says, which translated to time on the trail on day-hikes. “He knew when we went hiking, he walked.”

Only carry one trekking pole.

While most hikers on the AT use trekking poles, Josh and Cassie only carried one each because, says Josh, “We hold his hand a lot.” (The couple also shot a lot of video footage for their YouTube channel and needed a free hand for that.)

Go on three-night backpacking trips.

Sutton disagrees with the “start small” approach and instead suggests three nights out at a minimum to get kids into backpacking. He says the first two nights can be uncomfortable. “By the third night, you’re so tired that you sleep well, nothing is new anymore, and you can really start to relax and have a lot more joy.” Plus, he says, the first night or two, kids want to get back to their favorite video game. “By the third night they kind of forget about it,” he says. 

Play pretend…while hiking.

On the trail, Josh says the family played pretend “all day long.” Josh and Cassie would pretend they were Paw Patrol characters, and Harvey was himself. “The trick was that when we took a break, we’d refuse to play pretend. He’d get so bored that he’d tell us, ‘Break’s over, let’s go!’” The game would resume. “For 10 hours a day for seven months, we would just play pretend,” he laughs.

Be enthusiastic.

Sutton says the family’s mileage was 100% due to their attitude. “Our enthusiasm dictated our pace,” he says. “You’ve got to keep it fun and keep hiking.”

Family Hiking Info to Know For the Appalachian Trail

 

It’s technical.

“It’s a lot more technical than the trails out West, which were designed for pack animals,” says Sutton. “The AT goes straight up a mountain sometimes, and can have lots of roots.”

Sections of the trail vary…a lot.

The north/New England area is rugged, and the trail stops doing switchbacks. “From the White Mountains into Maine, you’re actually climbing, versus hiking,” he says. “And you use your hands a lot.”

The southern part of Pennsylvania—it’s farmland, while the north is sharp, jagged rocks. “It's like the gnomes came out at night and sharpened the rocks,” he jokes.

In Georgia, “the mountains are massive,” Sutton explains. “The trails are graded a lot better, but easy trails mean you get a lot more tired because you’re going up the mountains fast.”

Footwear matters.

Since Josh and Cassie carried 40- to 50-pound packs because they shouldered most of Harvey’s gear (he carried a 6-pound pack), they opted for shoes with more of a running shoe upper and a hiking boot sole (from Merrell). “A lot of people who hike the trail with lighter packs opt for trail running shoes because they’re lighter weight,” he says, “but we needed the support.”

Layers, and rain jackets, also matter.

He’s a huge proponent of layering to avoid sweating too much, and he swears by having a good rain jacket. “It’s also a good layer to protect from the wind, and staying dry is important.”

Now that the Suttons have returned home, with parents working and Harvey in kindergarten, Josh can see how much his son’s reading and math skills took off on the trail over seven months, from reading trail signs to calculating miles and time. “He can count up to 1000 and do math in the hundreds because of the mileage and figuring out things like, ‘How many miles until lunch?’ or ‘If we hike until a certain point, where will we be at noon tomorrow?’”

The biggest change the Suttons noticed? They watched Harvey transform from a shy little boy to someone who’d approach other hikers and ask to play freeze-tag. “He learned a lot about community and people and not being shy,” says Josh. “And he learned so much in general just being with his parents on the trail all day long.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.