July 13, 2016
Hiking Sans Parents
By Amy Whitley
Photo at right: Preparing to hike the PCT on their own, Oregon teenagers Ben Vaughn (left) and Nate Whitley test weight and gear while also breaking in their boots. Photo by Amy Whitley
My 17-year old son hikes and camps every chance he gets. It doesn’t matter whether a weekend is rainy, snowy, hot or downright impractical, he throws his gear in the back of his car, finds a buddy and hits the trail.
The famed Pacific Crest Trail cuts right by our town near the Oregon-California border, so I wasn’t surprised when, around age 15, he became obsessed with hiking the PCT.
Our family backpacks often, but we’re rarely outside for more than a long weekend. Knowing he needed to see what long-term hiking would be like, we started with a mom-and-son 70-mile stint along the trail in the Three Sisters Wilderness of Central Oregon the summer after his sophomore year of high school.
He loved it so much, he immediately turned around and hiked a 50-mile section closer to home with a few of his closest friends.
After that, he was determined to hike the entire 453 miles of the Oregon section before his senior year of high school. Without Mom or Dad.
Knowing our son is an experienced outdoorsman and hiker, we supported this dream. This past spring the family began the planning process in earnest to prepare him and his hiking partner for 30 days on the PCT this summer. Throughout this complicated process, we’ve learned a thing or two about assisting a teenager on the PCT.
Six months before the hike
The winter before the hike, we met with our son, his hiking partner (a buddy the same age) and parents. We made a list of the gear the boys would need for 30 days on the trail. By referencing a PCT map of Oregon we marked all the locations where the trail intersects with a highway or resort where we could meet the boys. The parents looked over schedules to ensure someone could meet the kids at every major juncture.
Four months before the hike
We bought a PCT Data Book, which breaks down every mile of the trail, listing water sources, roads, campgrounds and resorts, and landmarks ranging from lakes to mountains and rivers. The boys sketched out their estimated daily mileage and overnight camping spots using this information. They marked food resupply locations, knowing they’d need new food stashes from the parents or from a resupply box every 4–5 days.
We also researched permits and other legal issues during this time period. Section hikers do not need a permit to hike the trail (shorter distance permits start at 500 miles), and our son already knew how to fill out backcountry permits enroute. However, to be safe, we also drafted and notarized letters giving our minors permission to be on the trail without adult supervision.
Three months before the hike
The boys already owned most of the gear needed for the hike, however, still we went through their equipment to ensure they had everything. We upgraded to a JetBoil stove for fuel efficiency, downgraded their packs to smaller sizes to ensure they could hike lightly, and outfitted them in trail shoes they could break in before-hand.
We splurged on a satellite phone/GPS system (despite the boys’ complaints that it was heavy), so they could check in nightly and give their GPS coordinates. With this daily information, we would be able to more efficiently meet them at determined locations.
One month before the hike
The boys attended first-aid courses for the outdoors and shopped for the food and items they wanted in their resupply boxes. They mailed these boxes to post offices along the route. They also did quite a few long day hikes during this period to break in their shoes and become accustomed to the trail.
As parents, we finalized plans to meet our hikers at determined points along the trail using the itinerary they’d created to estimate which day they’d pass each location. Some of these meet-ups were day trips for us, such as greeting them at Fish Lake and Howard Prairie in Southern Oregon, and some were overnights.
The overnights were harder to plan. Since we knew the boys’ schedule could—and probably would—change as they hiked slower or faster, we made plans to pack our own backpacking gear and meet them on the trail itself (hiking in from the opposite direction, starting at the meeting point). This way, we could hike with them for some miles, perhaps even overnight with them, and have resupplies ready in the car. If the boys were in need of an overnight break, we could always drive to a motel.
One week before the hike
The boys packed up all their gear to make sure everything fit and that they had everything they needed. Their goal: a pack weight of 15 pounds each before food and fuel, and a weight of no more than 25 pounds each in total.
As long-term hikers, they also only packed one pair of zip-away pants, one hiking shirt, and one light layer for mornings and evenings. To this wardrobe, they added one waterproof, insulated jacket, two pairs of wool hiking socks and one pair of lightweight camp shoes.
The day of the hike
On Day 1, we dropped the boys off at the California-Oregon border, with plans for a final pick up at Bridge of the Gods on the Washington-Oregon border. It will, no doubt, be a long 30 days for Mom and Dad!
To read more about the adventures of Nate Whitley’s journey along the PCT follow the Facebook page Pit Stop for Kids: www.facebook.com/pitstopsforkids
Amy Whitley is an outdoor travel writer and family travel blogger at Pit Stops for Kids. She makes her home in Southern Oregon, where she rafts the Rogue, kayaks and backpacks with her husband and three boys.