I got this email from a reader over the weekend and replied that I’d write a post on SectionHiker with my response . Feel free to weigh in if you have an opinion (with a comment).
You could be a real life-saver here. My nephew wants to through hike the Long Trail this summer with a friend (no adult). Is this a safe endeavor for him to do? He and his friend hiked part of the Smokey’s with his friend’s dad last spring. He has a passion for hiking, he is 16, there is sometimes a mismatch between aspiration and practical, safe follow through. HIs mom needs support to feel the venture is safe – PLEASE ADVISE – perhaps you could have a “Dear Philip” column specifically for the mom’s of hiking teens.
Most gratefully yours,
[Reply from Philip]———————-
As someone who “occasionally” suffers from a mismatch between aspiration and implementation, I think I understand your nephew’s motivations even though we’ve never met. I’ve survived my own impulsive adventure fantasies by having a healthy sense of self-preservation and a willingness to bounce back from failure, and hope that your nephew can cultivate the same energizer bunny fighting spirit. It’s served me well in life.
I have also benefited from having a cautious wife who has helped temper my enthusiasm and made sure that I have the proper skills and preparation before jumping off the deep end. When I started backpacking in my forties, my goal was to hike the Long Trail just like your nephew, even though I had virtually no recent hiking experience. While it is true, that some long trail thru-hikers can overcome lack of experience and complete National Scenic Trails, her insistence that I spend a year preparing for the Long Trail by backpacking with others thru the Appalachian Mountain Club and learning the ropes, gave me the experience I needed to complete the Long Trail by myself in the following year.
Not having children, I can’t really address the issue of whether a 16-year-old is mature enough to hike the Long Trail or not, and I’m not sure age is necessarily a good barometer of responsibility or skill. We give 16 year olds drivers’ licenses where they hold the lives of others in their hands everyday which seems like a greater responsibility than keeping oneself alive on a hiking trail.
If you and his mother don’t feel that your nephew has the necessary backpacking experience to thru-hike the Long Trail, I’d encourage you to help him get it. One way would be to ship him off to a NOLS course (National Outdoor Leadership School) if you can afford it, where he can learn backpacking and leadership skills that could be extremely formative for the rest of his life. NOLS has a new school in the Adirondacks which would be close to you if you live in New England, but I don’t know if they have classes for his age range yet. This would provide you and his mother with the reassurance that he has the backcountry skills and self-awareness required to complete the trail on a thru-hike and you can dangle the opportunity to hike the Long Trail as a motivation for him to take such a class. Delayed gratification builds character!
I don’t know of any other programs that can train a 16-year-old boy in the backpacking skills required to hike the Long Trail, although Scouting is one possible venue if you’re already involved in a local program and have a Scout Master who is a backpacking evangelist. You didn’t say where you lived so I can’t direct you to any local organizations.
Another option would be to let your nephew section hike the Long Trail starting out with single overnight trips and building up to longer outings when he develops more experience (trial by fire). I section hiked the Long Trail this way, mainly because I had a weekday job, but there’s no doubt that breaking it into shorter sections helped me survive the worst and wettest parts because I could get off trail and recuperate every few days. If he broke his initial trips into one night overnights and you were to drive the shuttle ends for him, he could hike the trail in 2-day/1 night increments. That’s not as sexy as a thru-hike, but it’s a way to mitigate the risks and hardships. The GMC doesn’t care whether you hike the Long Trail in one trip or 100. Everybody who finishes gets the same patch and joins the Long Trail Hiker community.
Hope this helps,
What do you think?
Please leave a comment.