Can a 16 Year Old Hike the Long Trail? A Reader Asks for Advice

North End of the Long Trail - Vermont & Canada Border

North End of the Long Trail – Vermont & Canada Border

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).

Dear Philip,

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,

Auntie Rox

[Reply from Philip]———————-

Auntie Rox,

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,

Philip

What do you think?

Please leave a comment.

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24 Responses to Can a 16 Year Old Hike the Long Trail? A Reader Asks for Advice

  1. FredT4 April 30, 2014 at 3:22 am #

    My experience is that most 16 year olds don’t have the experience to deal with adverse weather unless they have been outdoors a bit. The hiking part is trivial and with good weather it’ll be no problem. The question is will they make wise decisions when things get nasty. The danger is that they’ll make rash decisions about leaving their gear and work themselves into trouble. The skills needed are minimal and can be learned in a day. It’s the decision making that would be the biggest concern. How will they react to things going wrong? What will they do if they get off the trail? Can they find their way back to the trail? Without ditching their gear? The ones I seen get into trouble were the ones that tried to physically overpower the trail (mother nature). Youth and energy usually overcome most scenarios but occasionally power won’t win against mother nature, for example when crossing a swollen stream. If they are able to avoid becoming frustrated and making rash decisions then the battle is won. Are they able to stay dry in adverse weather? (Possibly the only real skill necessary.)

    The second part is dealing with other people. Encounters with law enforcement officers? People offering drugs and or alcohol? While most trails are generally safe and one is unlikely to encounter criminal types on a trail, especially a long trail, they should be prepared to deal with a negative situation. (Usually walking away in the opposite direction from trouble will work.)

    As to the question of whether a 16 year old is old enough, my experience is yes, but it depends on the individual.

  2. Tara April 30, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    I think breaking the trail into shorter sections and building to longer hikes is an excellent solution! I know I’d have been able to hike the trail as a 16 year old, but I was raised camping and hiking in the woods. Probably the biggest area I’d fault my younger self on (and many younger folk) is planning. When I was younger, I was far too prone to thinking I fully grasped the trail conditions in my enthusiasm. My older self knows better. So, my advice: Research, Research, Research! Read any and everything you can get your hands on, troll the web for blogs – particularly pictures of difficult sections. Get as good an idea as you can about the trail, and then realize you still don’t fully know what you’ll face. And then, Plan, Plan, Plan! Make an itinerary. Make certain you’ve thought out potential exit points if something goes wrong – just because your trail doesn’t cross terrain is no reason to be ignorant of what’s there. It’ll go a long way toward easing the minds of your loved ones, and it may just save your life!

  3. Dan Smith April 30, 2014 at 7:24 am #

    As you indicated, Philip, the best way to learn skills is to join an established club that represents those skills. It’s also a way of learning by watching others and by doing under the supervision of able mentors. For a young person, it’s a powerful sampling by exampling. Just as you did, by joining the Appalachian Mountain Club, you learned about the skills and character traits necessary for hiking the Long Trail (a metaphor for successful, positive life skills). The Boy Scouts, the 4-H Club, Jr. ROTC, even church groups all teach these skills and have been at this business of molding boys and girls into responsible adults for many years and with great success.
    Auntie Rox’s question is a good one that she should be able to find in her own community.

  4. Kevin O April 30, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    When I was a kid, I was a risk taker. I had an unbridled sense of adventure and I took every opportunity to exercise those emotions.

    In my teens I lived in the woods of Maine and CT, at 18 I drove cross country and fairly deep into Mexico. At 21 I spent 8 weeks backpacking Europe.

    My Mother was worried sick and I took every opportunity to throw her past in her face (she was an adventurous youth, and it was hard for her to tell me not to backpack Europe or drive cross country when she had done the same at my age).

    The Mountains, woods and desire for adventure still call me and I spend as much time outdoors as is reasonable for a parent of an 18 month old. I can’t wait to get him on the trails with me and teach him skills, but at the same time I’m completely terrified he’ll turn out like me!

    I don’t regret any decisions I’ve made in life. I’ve always preached that the world is a playground and it’s our responsibility to play in it (while respecting and taking care of it). But as a parent, I barley let me son walk down the hall way without hovering over him. I worry when he sleeps, I worry when he’s at day care and sometimes I just worry for the sake of worrying. To imagine he’ll one day say to me, “I want to hike the long trail” is terrifying!

    My advice? Go with him on a section hike. Kids are fearless! At 16 he may not think about rain, lightening, finding appropriate spots to pitch a tent, making sure you don’t burn down the forest, but as an adult you will! You will research this stuff and together you can put these skills into practice. I think seeing him in that environment will increase your confidence. Also it will make you feel more comfortable about the experience and the type of people he will encounter.

  5. eddie s. April 30, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    When I was a kid, 10 years old in fact, I was doing mult-day overnight hikes a few times each Summer and that was before I joined the Boy Scouts. I also did a large number of over night fishing trips with my little brother every summer. My longest hike at 11 was following part of the “indian trails” that criss crossed up State New York. I followed one for over 70 miles having to bushwack here and there but the remains of those trails were still there having been used for a couple of hundred years. With the availabilty of Cellphones and now the Satelite Emergency Notification Systems like “Spot” I feel kids are even safer now than in my day. At 16 many Boy Scout Troops have Patrol Leaders that used to lead their Patrol on multi-day hikes. I don’t know if they do today or not and I still have my Merit Badge Manual from 1962 listing all the things the Patrol Leader needed to do prior to the Hike and during the Hike. But I believe the kids of today are not as “mature” mentally as we were in our day because of the life styles and the type of “play” of today, mostly indoors in front of a screen. Most of the 28 year olds I meet today are only maybe 18 mentally as far as life experiences after meeting with dozens of them while doing Church business and at Church events. The real problem of today are the number of child Predators loose within Society, many are on Parole because our Society hasn’t the courage to deal with them in the proper manner. So I might, as I did with mine, invovle them in the Martial Arts where they learn to attack, more than defend, which usually sends these predators running. They only want to hurt, not get hurt. I prefer a Martial art that includes Stick Fighting, since we carry Hiking Sticks, Staffs, or Poles as a matter of norm now, Learn how to use the Pole as a weapon. Even in the old stories of Robin Hood using his Hiking Staff or what they called a “Quarter” back then was popular when I was a kid. We kids tested each other all the time with our “Staffs”. In the Military it was Pugil Stick defense and fighting that I learned. Also if one looks at the amount of crime on the hiking trails, it is usually against women and girls not so much boys and men, again Society refuses to deal with these predators in the proper way otherwise we would not fear them so much. In my day Dad’s took care of business, now you are taught and trained by the Government to dial for the Government to help you and they are usually 20 minutes after the fact or act..Clean up crew. So it comes down to “How well prepared” is the Boy? and his parents. Buy him a GPS unit, Cellphone and a “Spot Satelite System” makes sure he knows basic First Aid and bit of self defense and let him go…..Support him all the way, meanwhile you have sleepless nights yourself, but that is called being a parent and it never ends…

  6. chainsawkiller April 30, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    He might want to chat with some of the GMC’s Long Trail Mentors. Every 16 year – old is different and an impartial mentor might help this young man determine if his plans are realistic. I know one guy through the AMC who did it at that age. I think the GMC includes both you and I in their stable of mentors

    • Philip Werner April 30, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      Chainsawkiller? You’re definitely a Long Trail Mentor (like me). LOL!

      • chainsawkiller May 1, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

        Every time I buy a chainsaw I kill it by the end of the season.

  7. JCarter April 30, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    It all depends on the person. Would it be a good idea as a “first overnight”? Totally no. But if he has hiked multiple multiday backpacking trips in the past, it’s a possibility.

    When I was growing up, I camped, hiked, and backpacked with the Scouts in the Southern Appalachians all the time, year-round,

    When I was 14, a (14-year-old) friend and I did a 2-week-long hike on the AT in Virginia with no ‘supervision’. But we both had several years of experience, and spent months planning the logistics (including food drops at Post Offices, etc). I wonder sometimes whether my parents were a little touched in the head letting us head off into the wilderness together, but it all turned out fine.

    He’s hiked in the Smokey’s, but didn’t say how much. And more importantly, has he done any in New England? The terrain and climate can surprise us Southerners.

    So yes, do some long weekends with supervision. It wasn’t stated whether Mom or Auntie are themselves hikers, or what other adults would be available to do the warm-up/training. The suggestion of a club or Scouting to gain skills is a great thing if there is no family member able to do this. If they are not currently involved in Scouting, tell them to look for a Venturing group, as that would be a closer age-match than most Boy Scout troops.

    I think 16 is completely doable. The way for him to convince Mom is to show that he has the planning skills.

  8. Mike Spalding April 30, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Can a 16-year old thru-hike the Long Trail? Some can, some can’t. We don’t know your nephew well enough to know which group he belongs to. However…. the odds are that he is not prepared to do it at this time. Apparently “hiked part of the Smokey’s with his friend’s dad” is his only backpacking experience, and we don’t know how many days, in what kind of weather, what they carried, or how they camped.

    When I was in my mid-twenties, I led backpacking trips for a YMCA camp in the Adirondacks. A mother brought her son to camp at the beginning of one session, and asked to meet with the camp director and me regarding her son’s readiness for the trip program. “Do you know any reason why my son can’t succeed in this program?”. I won’t bore you with the events which followed, but the point is, she knew her son much better than we did, and she knew plenty of reasons why he would definitely not succeed.

    I’m not saying your nephew won’t succeed; I’m saying you and his mother know him much better than we do, and there are some questions you both need to ask yourselves. Not just about your nephew, but also about his friend, since they will be doing this as a team. Include the friend’s parents in this discussion. Others have already mentioned several necessary character traits, including perseverence, resourcefulness, judgement under pressure, etc. How do you feel about him doing other things without adult guidance? Alone? With his friend? Is his friend more skilled and experienced in the outdoors? Has he ever hiked all day in the rain, set up a tent in the rain, gotten up the next morning and hiked in the rain? They’ll have to do it on the Long Trail.

    Odds are the boys are not yet ready. Yes, they should have had instruction in wilderness first aid, map and compass navigation, leave no trace, maybe even basic camping and backpacking skills. But more importantly, they should have earned their parents trust that they can handle themselves in a variety of situations without adult supervision. You know them, we don’t.

  9. Anthony April 30, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    It depends on his maturity and experience, it is a hard trail but what is hard for some may not be hard for others. As long as he does not go ultra-light (unless he is experienced at it) and takes his time and is in good physical condition he will be fine. I’ve hiked it twice its a great trail and thru-hiked the A.T. with zero experience in 1999 I simply got out there took my time and loved it.

  10. Stinkbug April 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    He’s 16 people, not a child. If he thinks he’s up to it let him go, only make sure he has an experienced adult hiking partner. He’ll make mistakes, and learn from them for next time. Ensure he understands it’s easy to place oneself in an unsafe situation and err on the side of caution, and always know where the next off-ramp is. The boy is ready to man-up. We need more young men like him.

  11. Steve M April 30, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    The difference in my kids’ ability to act responsibly and self evaluate between the age of 16 and 18 was material, and between 16 an 20 even more so. When I was 18 I hitchhiked from Philadelphia to Homer, Alaska, camping out most of the way ( it took most of the summer). I could not begin to list the risks I unknowingly took. But kids these days are more mature – just look at Justin Bieber for instance.

  12. Kyle O April 30, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    I can comment on this from first hand experience. I was 17 at the time that I finished the Long Trail and my hiking partner was 16. We did it in sections, ranging from overnights, to a week-long trip. Our parents trusted us and we used our best judgment the entire trip and never ran into trouble. If the parent thinks he is prepared enough, physically, mentally, and gear wise, he will be just fine.

  13. Daniel Fogel April 30, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    I think it depends on the kid. Some 16-year-olds can handle this, others can’t. If he wants to hike a long distance trail this summer, he can check out JMT Adventures, an adventure camp that leads teens on a 22-day, 210-mile hike of the John Muir Trail.

  14. Paul Mags April 30, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    I hiked quite a bit with a 17 yo when I did the Appalachian Trail. As others said it depends on the maturity and experience of said 16 yo. (And the friend is this case, too). The 17 yo I knew grew up hiking and backpacking in Maine and was very mature.

    Any 16 yo who can plan and execute a hike is mature enough for sure. Do they have any backpacking experience is the question? If not, nothing a few backpacking trips between now and then will only help.

    This is the Long Trail after all. Hard climbs? Yes. Wet weather? Absolutely. But it is a well marked trail with good logistics overall and you aren’t exactly in the middle of Utah or even Maine.

    • Beardoh! May 1, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      I’d have to agree with Mags and Stinkbug here. The LT doesn’t have the sustained danger risk and inaccessibility of some of the western trails. Coming down off an exposed peak is typically quick. There are other hikers that will pass by within half a day during most of the summer season….if something really tricky comes up.

      So much can be learned by getting out there alone at any age. A lot of growing can happen for the 16 year old and his friend….stuff that may not happen with a chaperon. He will rise to his challenge or call for a bus ticket…but I am guessing he will keep walking.

      Everyone is a little different at that age, but I am glad that my parents let me take a week long canoe experience in a fairly remote area when I was 17 with a couple friends that were 16 & 17. Early adventure like that helped me forge a bond and love for the wilderness rather than trepidation or fear. The clarity that comes with that is necessary if something goes bad in a more remote or wild place than the LT.

      It may be helpful to sit down with the 16 year old and talk through some of the different scenarios that could happen and have at least a rough plan of action, even if it is just in his head….something to recall if the unexpected happens.

  15. M.Pearl April 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

    Age is just a number. Everyone is different even at the same age. What matters most is experience. From what I read sounds like just one trip “under the belt”. I would recommend a 30 year old gain more experience before attempting to do the LT in one shot.

  16. Dominique April 30, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

    http://www.rei.com/outdoorschool/wilderness-medicine-classes.html
    I agree with you Phil that A NOLS class would benefit anyone attempting to complete a wilderness trip, regardless of age. Many REI stores offer the 2 day course.

  17. Dolores Struckhoff April 30, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    Yes! I spent a week on the trail with seven women from 2001 to 2008 each summer. We called ourselves the Wandering Burdocks. The experience was incredible and I wished I had been able to do it when I was a teenager. Throughout the trip we met wonderful people, all ages. Two 16 year olds who stay in touch with home through a cell phone should do just fine. They can register with GMC before they head out and sign in at every hut. It’s an experience that will change their lives.

  18. Jim C May 1, 2014 at 4:50 am #

    Outstanding response, Phillip

  19. Simon O'Rourke May 1, 2014 at 8:03 am #

    I would absolutely permit and encourage him to do it. It will set him up for life. Be grateful that you have a child with such aspirations!

  20. Jack May 9, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Of course he should be allowed! Get him a SPOT beacon, make sure his kit is in check and that he’s in proper shape and send him off. Attitudes like his should be encouraged, how many other 16 year olds are seriously considering hiking the trail? The parents should be thankful their kid can look towards a goal like that at 16!

  21. Birch May 12, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    Have him sell you his plan. Lay out your concerns (inexperience, weather, check ins, food, etc.) and have him put together a plan for your review. If he’s got a solid start, he’s probably sufficiently mature. If he comes back with “I was just going to wing it, hunting deer with my bare hands,” he’s not ready yet. But I wouldn’t shut him down. Work with him to get a plan everyone]s comfortable with, even if it involves postponing the hike until further learning occurs.

    I took a long solo motorcycle trip at 18. My parents provided safety gear, made me take a class before I started riding, and gave me a credit card so I was in hotels (they didn’t want me camping in fields). I called home every night to report my aliveness and location. They had my planned route. I crashed. Strangers helped me. I got wet and cold when my rain gear shredded. I learned a lot.

    Letting kids grow up is hard. Make sure he’s prepared, but don’t hold him back just because it’s scary to you. If you trust him, he’ll live up to it.

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