This fall, Jennifer Pharr Davis is walking across North Carolina, and she’s taking her family with her.
Her intention is to hike all 1,200 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and each day husband Brew Davis and children Charley and Gus will join her for a portion of the trek. For this Asheville family, it’s a realistic goal: Jennifer is an accomplished hiker who has logged thousands of miles on foot and who once held the Appalachian Trail’s speed record. Children have hardly slowed these two down: she and Brew have hiked in all 50 states with 4-year-old Charley, and infant Gus seems destined for the same.
Yet Jennifer maintains that you don’t have to dedicate yourself to epic, three-month hikes like her Mountains-to-Sea adventure to enjoy trails. In fact, she and Brew have made it their mission to demystify hiking.
“You can go to your local county park, you can go to a greenway, you can walk on a beach, and it’s all hiking,” she says. “That’s a great way to gain confidence or maybe set bigger hikes or trips you would like to eventually take as a family.”
To that end, Jennifer and Brew wrote “Families on Foot: Urban Hikes to Backyard Treks and National Park Adventures.” They work together at Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which Jennifer founded, and draw from their collective experience as dedicated hikers and adventurers to explain why anyone can hike.
You don’t have to go to Colorado or be some superhuman trekker who walks 45 miles a day, Brew explains. “Families on Foot” is written with children, older family members and those with differently-able family members in mind.
“Even with young kids, you can find ways to get on trails,” Brew says.
Getting past the intimidation factor
There’s not one perfect way to hike as a family, either, says Brew, so parents don’t need to be intimidated. What parents can do, though, is adjust their expectations before hiking with kids. The weather might not cooperate or the kids might not be feeling well, so parents need to be adaptable.
“If you go into it with high expectations, with lofty expectations that things are going to go perfectly, then you’ll be sort of let down,” says Brew. “It’s important to go into it and say, ‘We’re spending time outdoors. We might not make it to the waterfall that we’re aiming for, but we’re just going to have a great time for however long we’re out here.’ ”
“We’re also all about baby steps, pun intended,” Jennifer adds. “With our family, we camp out in Alaska, but most of our hikes are on greenways or local trails. Hiking, by definition, is a walk in a natural setting. You don’t have to go to grizzly country to feel like you’re hiking as a family.”
Hiking with (and without) kids
“Our hiking has definitely changed,” says Jennifer. “ When we go into the woods, it’s not about how far we want to go as individuals.” Yet this hard-core, accomplished hiker has learned to appreciate hiking even more as a parent – it’s free, for one, and Charley and Gus get a lot out of it.
“(Hiking) helps to really wear them out, and they’re very entertained in the forest,” Jennifer says. “Gus, the baby, he is really into touching and textures and there’s lots of things he likes to do – touch a tree, pull a leaf, all those things.” As she approaches her fifth year, Charley is starting to appreciate hiking and camping on a big-kid level, which Brew is excited to witness.
The Davises are happier when they’re outside, and being able to hike has helped them stay grounded as working parents. The two still make time for individual hikes: Brew has hikes in Maine planned, while Jen’s ambition is to section-hike the Continental Divide Trail in the western United States.
It’s OK to turn around
At one point in “Families on Foot,” Jennifer writes about a time she hiked with Charley several weeks after knee surgery. After about an hour out, Jennifer’s knee started to hurt. As confident as she is on the trail, she knew this was not the time to push her limits – especially not with her daughter in a child carrier – and she turned around.
“That’s one of the reasons I love hiking. It’s a very forgiving activity,” Jennifer says.
“Our culture is so competitive and fast-paced already that it’s so nice to go to the woods and say, ‘I’m going to appreciate whatever trail we cover and however far we get, and when we need to turn around, we turn around,’ ” she says. “It doesn’t make it less of a hike.”
What you need to hit the trail
You don’t need to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars at your nearest outfitter to go on a day hike, say Jennifer and Brew.
“Most of what you need you already have at home,” Jennifer says. “So many people waste money and buy things they don’t need or don’t want just because they think they need a lot of stuff to go outdoors. Our family, we hike in sneakers and use the same first-aid kit we use at home.”
You need the basics, says Brew, things like water, a rain jacket, sunscreen and snacks. Comfortable shoes are essential, too, rather than brand-new hiking boots that are more likely to give you blisters than shoes you’ve already broken in. “You can use the things that you have, for the most part,” he says. “We hope that makes the introduction easier and smoother for people.”
Brew also recommends checking out the American Hiking Society’s “The 10 Essentials of Hiking” list.
‘Families on Foot: Urban Hikes to Backyard Treks and National Parks Adventures’
By Jennifer Pharr Davis and Brew Davis. $17.95 paperback; $16.99 ebook