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.