Hiking the AT, sailing the world, and letting kids be outdoor kids

After reading this month’s story in Backpacker Magazine on Christian Thomas, aka Buddy Backpacker, the youngest person to complete the Appalachian Trail, a friend asked me what I thought of a six-year-old hiking 2000+ miles. As an outdoors columnist with backpacking kids, did I think Buddy’s trek was inspiring? Was he pushed too hard? How much ‘free range’ should kids be allowed?

My reaction was as follows: 1. Yes, 2. Maybe, and 3. Buddy’s parents do not practice what I’d call free range parenting.

Here’s the deal: when a young person’s accomplishments are self-driven, I’m 100% behind it. Take Laura Dekker, who decided to sail solo around the world at age 15. I’d have fought for her right to attempt this feat (as her father did in Dutch courts), too. At age 5, I’m not convinced Buddy’s goal of through-hiking the AT was his own, but if his parents’ ‘agenda’ was to seek an active, alternative lifestyle that combatted the trap of sedentary or otherwise unhealthy habits, I hardly think Buddy’s been hurt by the experience. Anyway, I’m not in the practice of flinging judgements at parental decisions without knowing the family in question. As parents, we all place our own agendas on our children’s upbringings.

The only thing I’m sure of, when it comes to Buddy Backpacker, is that Christian is not experiencing what is commonly known as a ‘free range’ childhood. This is a free range childhood:

It’s open-ended fun. Freedom to make one’s own mistakes. A blank slate, on which to write one’s own goals, not on which to record the goals assigned by parents, society, or a record book. In many ways, I had a free range childhood, filled with acres of woods, sharp sticks, dirt bikes, and ponies. Literally…there were ponies. And we rode them bareback, hair in the wind, in packs. Our faces dirt-smudged, our skin tanned, we’d gallop between clumps of sagebrush and down gravel roads, clouds of dust in our wakes. The only rule was usually ‘be home by dark’.

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My own kids live in suburbia, and they’re free range in many ways, parent-driven in others. We encourage fort-building and bike riding, solo exploring and neighborhood wandering. Our kids still gather in packs as we did, armed with Nerf weapons or hand-made bows.

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Our plans to hike 100 miles of the Northern Oregon section of the PCT this coming summer was my 15-year-old son’s idea, not mine, though I’m sure the fact that he’s backpacked since age one has a lot to do with it. My kids aren’t setting any world records, but they’re learning self sufficiency in the form of, ‘what do I do when my bike tire goes flat?’, or ‘I wonder where this drainage ditch leads’. My sons have camped out with friends, hiked with teen buddies, and traveled abroad without parents.

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I’m sure we’re criticized. I’ve heard the passive-agressive, ‘you’re more brave than me’ and the more direct, ‘what about safety’? comments. But I truly believe that when you give kids some slack on the leash, they are capable of extraordinary things. And so yes, I am happy to give the Christian Thomasas and Laura Dekkers of the world their props, but am just as supportive of the more ‘average’ free range kids of the world…the ones picking dandelions or climbing trees or gathering stones to dam the creek by their house. The adventures they have prepare them to be confident, self-reliant, outdoor-loving adults. And don’t we need more of those in this world?

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One thought on “Hiking the AT, sailing the world, and letting kids be outdoor kids

  1. Yep. You nailed it. I wasn’t super convinced Christian Thomas instigated hiking the AT either, but I love when any kid gets outdoors and accomplishes something. I let my 14 year old son go backpacking by himself for the first time last weekend (just 2 nights) and I got one “you’re crazy”, several “you’re brave”, and dozens of “aren’t you worried?” comments. But my teenage boy spent 3 days in outdoor solitude, totally self reliant, and without electronics. He’s already dreaming of hiking the whole PCT when he’s older.

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