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Take a Hike

By Phil and Jeremy Wood
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #91, 2009.

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The Appalachian Trail might just be the best kept family vacation secret in America. For families serious about their child’s education, few other opportunities give a more well-rounded training than hiking a section on the trail.

On the trail it is not uncommon to see bears, deer, snakes, frogs, and chipmunks. What is conspicuously absent, however, are young hikers who are going more than a few miles or a few hours.

Resting on a bench in front of an historic church in Harper’s Ferry, “Grasshopper” had earned the right to sit down. On a clear and bright July Sunday morning, this twelve-year-old Chicago native, who is also known as Jeremy Wood by his friends back home, was wrapping up a 500-mile trek with Phil Wood, his father. During the past 40 days we had hiked through seven states on the Appalachian Trail, slept in cabins, tents, mice-infested shelters, church basements, a jail, homes of strangers, homes of friends, a train station, hostels, cheap hotels, and a monastery. Our diet consisted of ramen noodles, peanut butter tacos, canned wieners, and about everything we could find when we came off the trail. While on the trail we met a retired New York City fireman, two Israeli officers, European men wearing kilts, retired executives, a professor, a lawyer, a doctor, school teachers, college students, and two women from Belgium.

Jeremy, resting by a trail marker

Education on the Trail

On our last night on the Trail, we camped at a shelter less than a mile north of the Gathland National War Correspondents Memorial in Maryland. In the trail register a home educator hiking with another parent and their children wrote, “This is the best homeschool outing we have taken.”

Many academic and life skills are reviewed as miles and elevations are tallied to determine daily destinations, unfamiliar plants and animals are discovered, history is unfolded as you walk the soil where it happened, and books are read and journals written as each day draws to a close under skies that seem unaffected by the typical big-city lights and pollution. Whether it is in honing skills needed for reading a map or in determining true north with a compass, every part of a young person is challenged on the trail.

History of the Trail

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,175-mile, 18-inch-wide trail extending 14 states between Georgia and Maine. Hikers have enjoyed the trail for about 80 years and almost 10,000 individuals are recorded as completing it. While most thru-hikers take about six months, the record time is just over 40 days.

For Purdue engineering student, “Peanut,” and his Hoosier pharmacist dad, the trail will take seven years. “We began when I was in eighth grade, hiking a section each year, and we should finish next summer.” With “Peanut” in college and schedules conflicting, father and son have resorted to hiking portions of the trail separately, but they are determined to meet next year in New Hampshire and finish together. “We started in Georgia together, and we want to finish in Maine together.”

A beautiful road shack for the tired traveler
No experience is necessary to hike the trail. For us Woods, except for an occasional backyard sleepout, most of our outdoor experience has included a stay at a hotel. Our trip began after a trucker friend from Chicago dropped us off at a bus station, just a few hours away from our Lee, Massachusetts, starting point. Though it was raining when we entered the trail, at 891 miles away from home, there was no turning back.

What You Need
to Begin Hiking

The key to hiking the trail is to keep everything lightweight. Extremely lightweight equipment tends to also be extremely expensive, but adequate gear can be found on sporting goods clearance racks or at department stores. A good, well-fitting backpack is a must. While most hikers use models with internal frames, the bulkier external frame backpacks are cooler and generally less expensive. Also needed is a small tent or hammock, since shelters are not always available and are occasionally full. Two aluminum walking sticks are recommended and one can sometimes double as the tent post at night. Equipment is needed for cooking, including utensils and pans, though many hikers use denatured alcohol or bottles of “Heet” that they burn in a makeshift tuna can as a stove. Also plan to take water bottles, some system for water treatment (such as iodine tablets for purification), several pairs of smart-wool socks, nylon sock liners, a sturdy pair of hiking shoes (we both traded in our boots after hiking northern Pennsylvania), a small first-aid kit, and some type of dry victuals, such as Ramen noodles or oatmeal. A typical hiker menu will include Pop-tarts for breakfast; a snack of nuts, jerky, or trail-mix for lunch; and meals such as macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Resting on the rocks
Many businesses are located along the trail for supplies and a thru-hiker’s guide is available on the Internet or at the Appalachian Trail headquarters in Harper’s Ferry. In addition to the guide, topographical maps not only show the trail ahead, but also identify nearby roads and towns in the case of an emergency. In most states, cell phone reception is regularly available.

Do not even consider cotton clothing, jeans, or any attire that is highly absorbent and dries slowly. Underarmor, or spandex-type materials, dry quickly and wick the water away from the skin.

Finally, while dogs are wonderful companions and are often seen on the trail, it is best to leave Fido at home.

How Far Should You
Plan to Hike?

To get a real feel for the trail, to gain respect from the hard-core thru hikers, and to achieve some semblance of “trail legs,” you probably need to plan at least a four to six-week hike. Anything less will be extremely exhausting and less enjoyable.

For us, during the first few days, hiking five or six miles of difficult terrain wore us out. By the end of our journey, hiking in the high teens or even over 20 miles a day was not unusual.

Most thru hikers will do upwards of 20 miles each day, taking a “zero,” or a day of rest on occasion.

We took a sabbatical zero every Sunday, finding a local church for worship, and getting an inexpensive hotel for the night. It was a way to not only honor God, but to take a shower and sleep in a real bed. Every Monday after lunch we were back on the trail. We also rested on July 4th, taking in a country fair and sleeping the night at a free hostel at a Presbyterian Church. One Sunday we took an early morning train into New York City from the train station just across the river from West Point Academy. After attending church in Manhattan, we ate lunch in the Bronx, and then spent the night with a Salvadoran family in Long Island. Taking the time to care for our blisters, we were able to take a bus back to the trail, refreshed and healed. Even off the trail, many lessons were learned. Some of the best aspects of the trail included the churches we visited, the people that gave us rides into town, and the folks we met along the way.

With childhood obesity on the rise, gas prices inflated, and quality time together as a family at a premium, a respite on the trail may be exactly what the homeschooled family needs to complete their living curriculum.

Jeremy Wood is an 8th grade home school student from the Chicago suburbs. He spent the beginning of his 12th year hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise money for homeless children. Phil, his father, is honored to also be his pastor.


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