Is Family Thru-Hiking like Family Bootcamp?

The rain had just let up when we came into the shelter clearing. It had been one of our longest days of hiking to date. In the late afternoon we crossed an exposed, rocky ridge with rain clouds threatening and we had hustled over the terrain. When we got to camp we were tired, wet, sore and hungry.

backpack and poles

There was no space left in the small shelter, the sleeping platform packed with middle aged people already cocooned in their sleeping bags. Damien started preparing supper on the picnic table which had been pulled under the shelter roof.

While he started our evening meal the rest of us got to work, making camp in the sloped clearing behind the shelter. Brienne fetched water, and Celine and I set up the three person tent while Laurent staked out the two person tent. We blew up air mattresses and laid out dry sleeping bags. I even managed to heat a cup of water to give myself a quick sponge bath, washing away the grime, mud and sweat from the day's endeavor.

AT cooking supper

When supper was done Damien called us all back into the shelter to eat. Whatever he cooked that night was delicious, it always is. The dry and cozy middle aged folks were friendly and remarked, as usual, what an amazing experience this was for our kids. One of the men commented to his shelter-mate approvingly that, "it wasn't till I was in the military that I experienced anything like those kids are". This was a compliment of sorts from someone who saw value in their own disciplined and rigorous military experience.

The comment was brief and off-handed. There was no following discussion about the rigors of backpacking as compared to boot camp, but it did get me thinking.

packing up Indian Grave Gap on AT

This family adventure is the most physically challenging thing our kids have done. It's the most challenging thing I've done. And a lot of discipline is required in our hiking days to pull it off. This is not a vacation.

I started to wonder how does family thru-hiking compare to bootcamp?

And the truth is, I couldn't say. I've never been to bootcamp. We're not a military family, nor do we have a military history.*

I was slightly taken aback with the man's military comparison to our adventure but it made sense. I have little idea of what happens in bootcamp but here's what happens in our day:

The kids are awoken before 6:30. They are responsible to pack up all their own gear and help take down tents. They then carry all that gear and some communal supplies on their backs for the rest of the day (roughly 9 hours with multiple breaks). The packs weigh between 18 to 25 pounds. Celine's pack, fulled loaded with food is at the high end. Wearing these packs, our kids "march" all day from one campsite to the next.

tent at Indian Grave Gap on AT

Our day is quite regimented, physical intense, and starts early. We have to work as a team. Our personal time to do "our own thing", whether that is writing, gaming, or reading, comes at the end of the day or early-early morning. And that time is not necessarily guaranteed, like on the rainy day we came to the shelter and it was all we could do to set up camp, fetch water, eat, and hang bear bags before it was time for bed.

thru-hiker otter

This is not to say there isn't time for relaxing and bodily rest every day, there is. But there is not a lot of self-directed time. How ironic.

I've spent the last fifteen years of family life creating a home environment that supports a self-directed, life long learning philosophy.

break on Unaka mountain

Our children have never had a morning bus to catch or uninspiring assignment deadlines.

Yes, there are chores and some lessons and other things I direct in our day but over all, the kids have a lot of freedom to direct their own interests and living. We give that to them because that's how we as adults like to live also, with freedom to create our own path.

Our family thru-hike is not like our home life, at least not in a the "direct your own day" kind of way. It's kind of like family boot camp.

leaving Erwin

Out here we're all for one and one for all in a way we've never experienced in our home life. We work as a team, hike as a team, and camp as a team. From the time we get out of our sleeping bags in the morning till we gratefully crash in them fourteen hours later the day is laid out.

Even though we have years of hiking and weekend backpacking experience, the pace and schedule of long distance hiking, the boot camp dynamic if you will, is completely new.

thru-hiker padawan

It was time.

It was time for a change in our days from "what's my agenda?" to ""where's the group going and what's my role in making that a success?". Developing a strong foundation in both is necessary.

I want our kids to grow into adults who live self-directed lives, having the creativity and conviction to do their own thing, to march to the beat of their own drum. I want our kids to grow into adults who live self-disciplined lives, having the character and courage to be leaders, serving their families and communities.

hiking pond mountain

There is a time and season for everything. A lot of our children's childhood has been focused around their individual needs in the context of a loving family environment. Our home life accommodates personal differences, we encourage our children's interests, and we educate them according to who they are are and what they love.

This season of our children's life, and our family life, is about the group. It's about the success of a team endeavor, not a personal mission.

I don't know how backpacking compares to bootcamp. I'm going to guess the natural environment of our experience is more beautiful, the "drill sergeants" are more loving, and the food is tastier (Damien's a great camp cook). We're not trying to recreate bootcamp, we're trying to have an amazing family adventure. Even so, I'm going to venture that after these six months in the woods our kids won't necessarily need to go to bootcamp to become disciplined, mission-focused, and team-contributing young adults.

at von trapp family

*I have been surprised how many military people we meet on the trail, ranging from recent war veterans to retired career army folks. A much higher percentage than I encountered in our urban American life when we lived in Maine.

This post was published from the hiker bunkhouse at the Holiday Motor Lodge in Pearisburg, Virginia. To follow the story of our hike subscribe to the Beyond our Boundaries video series (see family bootcamp in action).

See also FIMBY Facebook for thru-hike photo albums.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

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  • von

    von on June 2, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

    I love this!  Thank you so much!  This will stick with me for many, many, many moons.  -Mom of Littles


  • Jeanne

    Jeanne on June 2, 2014, 8:53 p.m.

    Renee - I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one is particularly thoughtful and beautifully balanced. Learning to live a self-directed life is important, but operating within a group dynamic is equally valuable. I neither have kids nor have I ever been to boot camp, but I can relate. Bravo to you and your family for taking this journey as one. 


  • Jacinda

    Jacinda on June 3, 2014, 8:10 p.m.

    Oh what a joy to read a post from you Renee. What will remain most with me is the sentence about the children growing into adults who have the character and courage to be leaders and to serve their families and their communities. What an amazing adventure you are on - the whole family is enjoying following along with your video series. Enjoy!


  • Francesca

    Francesca on June 4, 2014, 8:45 a.m.

    this is a beautiful post, Renee, and you and Damien are giving your family a wonderful experience.  your family thru-hiking couldn't be more different from bootcamp - the way I see it, there's only one aim to the discipline of bootcamp: armed fighting.


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