4 Parenting Lessons I Learned Completing the Appalachian Trail With My Wife and Kids

We became the largest family to ever complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Here are four big lessons we learned along the way.

by Ben Crawford
Originally Published: 
man with son on shoulders hiking through mountains

In 2018, my wife, Kami, and I did a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT). It was a mammoth undertaking: 2,189 miles up and down mountains, through searing sun, pouring rain, and biting cold. Of those who attempt such a thru-hike each year, only about a quarter make it to the end.

Simply by finishing, Kami and I were in the minority, but there was something else that made our thru-hike unique. Our six kids — aged two to seventeen years old — completed the hike with us.

After 161 hard days, we became the largest family to ever complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

More than this record, our greatest accomplishment of the trip was our growth and connection as a family. Nobody completes a thru-hike of the AT without being changed in some way. For Kami and me, we learned four incredible parenting lessons that continue to define our approach to family and childrearing.

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#1: You Have to Hike Your Own Hike

There are thousands of ways to hike the Appalachian Trail. You can start and end in any number of places. You can do the entire hike in one go, as we did, or you can hike it in sections. You can do it solo, or in a group. You can spend thousands of dollars on the highest-quality gear, or do it on a shoe-string budget. The possibilities go on and on.

While some people believe there is a “right” way to do the hike (a.k.a., their way), there’s also a culture on the trail that you have to “hike your own hike.” You focus on your journey, and if someone else’s journey is different from your own, you respect it.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail with six kids, we really had to embrace the idea of hiking our own hike. Some people didn’t think our kids should be on the trail at all, and we had to learn to block out the critics’ voices. We also sometimes had to part ways with friends. As much as we might want to hike with them, we had to prioritize our needs, which were different than theirs.

If we’d attempted to hike according to someone else’s code, using someone else’s values, or at someone else’s pace, it would have ruined the entire experience. We would have had regrets, or gotten burned out, or even been injured. And for what? Approval?

The trail was a constant process of us learning to listen to our own voice and values and implement them for our family, and this is a philosophy that applies equally to parenting in general. Just as there are many ways to hike the AT, there are a million different ways to parent, and everyone has an opinion. Unlike the trail, though, they’re far more likely to give you unsolicited advice.

We’re constantly bombarded with the “correct” way to parent, but there is no one correct way to parent. You must hike your own hike, and you must parent your own kids.

#2: The Strongest Bonds Are Forged in Fire … and Snow, and Exhaustion, and Misery

There’s a reason most people give up before finishing the AT: it’s miserable. Our family hiked an average of 13.6 miles a day—half a marathon a day! We spent countless hours sweating under a blazing sun, fighting off swarms of bugs, and shivering in bone-chilling rain and snow.

Sounds great, right? It’s a wonder why more families don’t do this!

As miserable as it was in the moment, though, all that pain and discomfort was one of the greatest blessings of the trail. It was making us stronger and getting us closer to our goal, and it was also bringing us closer together as a family.

Many parents complain about not feeling close to their kids. Part of the problem is that we design our lives to avoid pain and challenge. We have air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, constant entertainment, and any number of other conveniences that make our lives easy and pain-free.

I don’t think comfort is morally wrong, but always being comfortable fundamentally conflicts with intimacy. It is getting through difficult moments together that brings us closest.

Shared pain is the great unifier. We see it in coworkers who commiserate over a bad boss. We see it in Olympic teammates who grow closer as they push through punishing practices and hard losses together. We see it in soldiers who become brothers through the anguish of combat. And my family saw it on the Appalachian Trail.

Hiking in the heat, rain, and snow completely sucked, but at least it sucked together. Every time our feet hurt, or we were exhausted, we could look at one another and know that they were going through the same thing.

Through the shared misery of the trail, Kami and I were able to develop the kind of relationship with our kids that we’d always dreamed about but had given up on.

#3: It’s Better When Everyone Carries Their Own Weight

As parents, we’re used to a dynamic where we do things for our kids, and not the other way around. On the trail, though, everyone must carry their own weight.

Total, our family’s packs weighed nearly 200 pounds. If Kami and I tried to carry all that ourselves, we never would’ve made it past mile 1. To complete all 2,000+ miles, we had to work together as a family. Each of our children (with the exception of our two-year-old, who had the luxury of being carried) helped carry the weight.

This philosophy extended beyond the literal weight of our packs. Every night when we rolled into our campsite, Kami and I simply couldn’t do everything that needed to be done. We needed our kids as much as they needed us.

We let our kids know all the things that needed to be done, and they stepped up. They would set up their own tent, fetch water, gather firewood, and cook meals. We didn’t have to badger them to do these things. They did them because they knew they needed to be done. We weren’t just a family anymore, but a real team, where every member mattered.

When you put yourself in a situation that you can’t handle by yourself, it naturally brings your family together. In those situations, you truly need one another, not just sentimentally, but practically. That’s what causes a team to become a team: a shared goal that can only be accomplished with everyone’s effort. And there are few things more empowering for your kids than allowing them to be a real, meaningful part of your team.

#4: The Trail Provides

“The trail provides!” is something we heard repeated often on our hike. The idea was that whatever you needed—food, shelter, emotional support, anything—the trail would provide it.

It was, of course, not the trail that provided, but the people of the trail. During our trip, forty families opened their homes to us—no small thing, considering there were eight of us! Even more brought us meals, gave us rides, and shared stories and conversation with us.

We found that the trail truly did provide, as long as we left space for it to do so—that is, we had to open ourselves to receiving help. And in the very act of leaving home, we embraced circumstances that would require us to accept—and even seek out—help from others.

You’ve no doubt heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Yet as parents, we increasingly try to do it ourselves. We create environments where we’re self-sustaining and don’t need to ask for help. We have the internet to answer all our questions, and if there’s something we can’t do ourselves, we can pay for it to be done instead of asking for help.

Opening yourself to help takes vulnerability, but there is also a cost to self-sufficiency: isolation. By letting go of control and letting the trail provide, we met so many wonderful people and built incredible relationships.

In a world increasingly defined by disillusionment, it was an important reminder that there is so much goodness and love around us. We simply have to open ourselves to it.

Transitioning From the Trail to the Home

Every day, it seemed the trail had a new lesson for us, but these four lessons were the most powerful for us—the ones we took home with us.

Here’s how we’ve translated these lessons of the trail to lessons of the home:

  1. Parent according to what your family needs, not what people say you should do.
  2. Instead of trying to eliminate all pain, work on getting through the hard times together.
  3. Empowerment is better than enablement.
  4. Leave your safe routine and self-sufficiency, and open yourself to receiving help.

On the trail, our family grew closer and stronger, not only to each other, but to the world around us. With these lessons, I hope you can do the same.

Ben Crawford is an entrepreneur, author, and influencer who, along with his wife, Kami, and their six children, set the record in 2018 for the largest family and youngest female (7-year-old Filia Crawford) to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. His latest book, 2,000 Miles Together, charts their adventure. He is also the author of Unleash Your Family, and can be found on YouTube at Fight For Together.

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