It is a mantra on the Appalachian Trail: Hike your own hike. On some level it’s just a way to encourage everyone to mind their own business. But as my wife and I found out when we hiked the Maine section of the AT a number of years ago, hiking your own hike is the only way for everyone to succeed.
We all have different reasons for taking to the woods, and different abilities on the trail. To get the most out of a hiking experience, we have to match our pace and distance hiked to our abilities. This becomes especially evident when hiking with a multi-aged group.
Recently, I had the opportunity to hike in Acadia National Park with my extended family who were visiting from out of state. On the first day, all 14 of us, ranging in age from my daughter Emma, 5, all the way up to my father, 73, hiked up and over Acadia Mountain.
The older kids and several adults jack-rabbited out in front, typical behavior of young and inexperienced hikers. When they do this they usually tire sooner than if they started more slowly and maintained a steady pace. It’s not uncommon for my wife, Ann, and son, Henry who’s 9, to leap-frog each other several times during a hike; Ann maintaining a steady pace, while Henry speeds ahead and tires himself quickly. Of course, in a few years, he’ll be able to keep up that quicker pace all day, presenting whole new challenges.
Emma wanted to be carried from the beginning — in part because the trail began with a climb up from the road and partly because she still remembers being carried in a Kelty pack for her first three years. It has been a challenge to convince her that walking is more fun than riding. For the first half of the hike she alternated between my shoulders and walking with my wife. She enjoyed the steepest, rocky sections where she felt like a mountain climber. As a parent it can be a real challenge to remember that small children aren’t very goal oriented; hiking is fun when the moment is fun, not because the mountain top will have nice views.
Kids also get distracted by things along the way: streams, pine cones, mushrooms, insects, blueberries, etc. It’s important not to discourage their exploring. Try to keep them moving as part of that exploring, not by replacing exploring with some distant goal. Even a short, flat hike that is boring or rushed will be more difficult for many children than a steep climb taken at the child’s pace.
For Emma the lure a the next blueberry bush is a strong motivator to keep hiking.
On flat return hikes — such as along Man O’ War Stream Brook Fire Road back from Acadia Mountain — we often turn the hike into a moving game of hide-and-seek. Emma can almost run a couple of miles without even realizing it. In the fall we often have mushroom counting contests to the same effect.
Climbing Acadia Mountain, my parents walked slowly with Emma and me, because, let’s face it, they’re getting old. Sometimes it’s hard to remember — even for them — that they have problems with uneven footpaths and steep climbs or descents. On many steep spots up Acadia Mountain we lent them a hand or spotted them in case they tripped.
For older folks — and younger children — frequent rest stops for water and snacks — can be important. On the mile up Acadia Mountain, we stopped at least three times. That’s three more times than I would have stopped, but sometimes hiking my own hike means helping others and enjoying their experience. If I had been the first to the top, I would have had less fun.
Unlike Emma, my parents justified the struggle by looking forward to the view of Sommes Sound and the outer islands from the summit. In time we all sat together on the summit eating snacks, enjoying the sunny day, and catching up with each other. It seemed to me that everyone was glad to have done the hike up.
Emma and her cousins sat picking blueberries; my brother-in-law took picture after picture; Ann and my sister-in-law leaned into each other talking quietly, eating M&Ms. Just as we all have different motivations and abilities, we each enjoyed the hike in different ways. Part of hiking in a group is making space for those differences. Everyone had more fun because Emma was picking blueberries as we hiked and sharing them. My guess is that most of us would not have stopped for blueberries on our own. Emma’s distractability was a gift to us all.
On the descent my parents required even more assistance. In general, descending is where people of all ages are more likely to fall. Climbing is work, but descending is dangerous. By the time we reached Man O’ War Brook, the others had been waiting for quite a while. While the group headed back to the cars, my brother and I hiked up and over St Sauveur Mountain, racing them to the trailhead.
An hour later, we all sat in Bar Harbor eating ice cream, foot-sore and tired to various degrees, glad to have hiked together. The next day my brother and I took our five kids up the Goat Trail on Norumbega Mountain, but that’s another story.