The next time you think about a family backcountry camping trip, consider Barbara Egbert.
Back in 2004, the Sunol, Calif.-based outdoor enthusiast and her husband set out to hike the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that stretches from the U.S. border with Mexico up to British Columbia, Canada. They took their 10-year-old daughter, Mary (who is now a freshman at Stanford University).
All told, Egbert and clan spent six months on the trail. In 2008, she published a riveting narrative book about the experience. I recently chatted with her about the experience of thru-hiking with a young child, and the rigors of managing family vacations involving outdoor adventure.
Q: How did you decide you wanted to do something like this?
A: We had taken Mary backpacking with us from the time she was an infant. It was one of our favorite activities. When she started first grade, we hiked for a week on one of the more rugged sections of the PCT—mostly in Yosemite National Park. On that trip, we realized that Mary was capable of doing a lot more than we thought she could. When she was 7, she and her dad climbed Mount Shasta. That’s when we started thinking about something more ambitious.
Q: How do you prepare a 10-year-old for a 2,000-mile hike?
A: Lots of practice. We did the Tahoe Rim Trail, which is 165 miles, and that was good preparation. We also spent weekends doing a number of two- and three-day hikes around the [San Francisco] Bay Area.
Q: On the trail, what was Mary’s role?
A: She would help get the tent up, help with meals. Sometimes she’d help my husband with water filtering. No matter what task we gave her, we always made sure she had time to be a kid and play. She arranged pinecones and rocks to make little cities, or dressed up her stuffed animal with a bandana. She also always had drawing materials and a paperback book, which we had family members ship to us at various spots along the trail.
Q: What did you learn about your daughter in the backcountry?
A: We learned that she is a very independent thinker, and very strong physically. We knew this stuff before we left, but I’m not sure we really understood the extent of these aspects of her personality until we were on the trail.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of thru-hiking with a little one?
A: Definitely looking out for her. Most people would say it’s tough enough to look out for themselves on the PCT, but my husband and I had to make sure we were always looking after Mary first. This was especially hard on days when our 10-year-old acted her age. Just because you’re out in the wilderness, family dynamics don’t change. Kids are kids—in the house, or in the backcountry of Oregon.
Q: What was the biggest reward?
A: Seeing the trail through our child’s eyes. So many times, she’d look up at something and marvel. To her it was all fresh and new. That sense of wonder makes everything better.