Two first-aid kits are spread on the hood of my friend’s car and we’re trying to decide what we should pull from each for our three-day hike along the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut into Massachusetts. Julia, my friend’s 7-year-old daughter, and I are looking at a rolled-up ACE bandage.
“Do you think we’ll need that?” I ask.
“I don’t know how crazy this [trip] is—I’ve never done this before!” she says, slightly exasperated by my question.
I’ve never done this either—if “this” means backpacking with kids. Julia and her sister Charlotte, who is about to turn 6, have car-camped before, and they did a one-night backpack a year ago. But three days, two nights, and 15 miles on the AT will be a challenge.
The girls are slow to warm up to the hike, frequently asking when our next break will be. I’m not sure we’ll ever cover 5 miles—let alone repeat that each day. But then they start to find a rhythm and tune into their surroundings. “It’s a mushroom!” Charlotte says, pointing to something growing on a tree trunk. “FUNGUS!” her sister affirms. We approach a downed birch tree and Charlotte says she thought it was a zebra.
We snap smart-phone photos of wildflowers and salamanders, and that night at camp the girls try to sketch them. On our first night, Julia and Charlotte want to write a story about the trip, which began a day earlier, shortly after their mom left town on a business trip. “How should we start it?” one of them asks.
“The moment Mom’s car left, we got so excited!” Julia says. “We sprang into action!”
“Mom’s not going to like this!” my friend says.
I ask them if they have any advice for other hiking families, and they quickly rattle off a mixture of textbook hiking tips and wonderfully youthful observations. Here’s a list of their advice, compiled on the trail and in a conversation following the trip:
I’m amazed by how much they’ve picked up from their dad—or simply figured out on their own. He’d told them about Leave No Trace, generally, and here Julia was already extrapolating that into the impact of her hiking poles.
Over the three days both girls have moments of fatigue and conviction that they have to stop—but within minutes they are usually on the move again. Those incidents are easily outnumbered by their mature observations. And as we spend more time in the woods, it’s interesting to see which experiences they most often bring up. They’re the seemingly small ones, seeing the salamanders, or spotting a new variety of wildflower. These tiny moments seem to captivate their imaginations even more than summit views and waterfalls.
On the final day, along the last stretch of trail, we talk about kid stuff. Their favorite cartoons, which I’ve never heard of; my favorite cartoons, which they’ve never seen. Candy. Toys. Movies. Finally the parking lot comes into view through the trees. We’re all eager for a real meal and our own beds. Julia sums things up perfectly: “That was fun and hard at the same time,” she says.