July 31, 2017

By Amy Whitley

At home in my Southern Oregon kitchen on a summer evening last July, I glanced at my phone to see a text message appear on my inReach satellite messenger app.

“Camping here for the night,” it read, followed by a set of GPS coordinates. The message came from my 16-year-old son, Nate, checking in from the Pacific Crest Trail.

I opened my topographical map of his current trail section, and marked Nate’s planned campsite with an X. As I cross-referenced this information with the coordinates, I realized he hiked a few miles farther, to a location my guidebook warned me did not include a water source. I frowned, and texted back. “You sure? Have enough water?”

The response was swift, as far as satellite communication goes: “All good.”

The mother in me wanted to press the point: Why hadn’t he stuck to the plan? However, the outdoorswoman (and perhaps the realist) in me accepted a new truth: My teenage son was calling the shots. At least 150 miles away from me as the crow flies, Nate was in the heart of national forest. I couldn’t make these decisions for him.
Later he told me he had a similar epiphany at the same time.

“That was the moment I realized I was truly in charge out there,” he said. “It felt empowering, but also, to be honest, a little alarming!”

I hope he also felt pride. Nate had only been on the PCT one week without his parents, and he was rocking it.
After that day of the questionable campsite, I stopped second-guessing Nate’s hiking decisions enroute, trusting him to use the resources he had available to him — his knowledge of the outdoors, navigational tools and advice from hiking partners and new hiking friends — to make smart choices. He proved me right, finishing the 456 miles of the Oregon section of the PCT in
26 days.

Nate averaged 18 miles a day, experiencing just about every challenge we anticipated along the way (and a few we had not): heavy snow near Crater Lake, making visual navigation impossible; driving rain through Southern Oregon that soaked all gear and clothing; accidental separation from a hiking partner, ending happily but not before several frantic hours of searching; misplaced gear, resulting in discomfort; and certainly more pulled muscles and blisters than he cared to count.

“There were days when I just couldn’t think about how many miles I still had ahead of me, because I’d be overwhelmed,” he said. “Then other days, the miles would fly by.”

Through moments of fatigue and discouragement, Nate learned something most of us take longer than 16 years to realize: these moments pass.

“The trail proved to me that pain and cold are temporary,” he said.

What proved lasting for Nate was a profound respect and love for the wilderness of his own state, a deep sense of accomplishment and, in his words, evidence that he could keep going a lot longer than he’d thought.

Of course, that’s the glorified version of the story.

Perhaps just as important are the nitty-gritty details. How well did our planning for the PCT prepare Nate, and us, his parents, for his month-long hike? A year later, I realize I had been a bit naive in the PCT planning article I wrote for OutdoorsNW last summer, just a day or two after his departure.

Here’s what we learned, most often the hard way:

Nate Whitley reorganizes his load after picking up supplies at one of the drop spots along the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon. Photo by Amy Whitley

• Securing a hiking partner proved challenging. Nate’s high-school hiking buddy ran into conflicts in his schedule, which allowed him to hike only the second half of the 456 miles. Since we didn’t want Nate hiking completely solo, we pieced together a series of short-term hiking partners at the last minute.

• While each partner was an asset, this system proved to be a challenge to both Nate and the hikers; it takes time to build up endurance on the trail, leaving Nate to virtually “break in” a new partner every few days. Our advice: Do what you can to secure a single hiking partner.

• Getting to each rendezvous location to meet the boys was much harder than anticipated. On paper, each check-in location was on a road that intersected with the PCT, at a campground adjacent or at a ranger station or resort that served hikers. But we didn’t realize that some of these locations were on unmaintained forest service roads — often hard to find and navigate. Spur trails to and from the PCT can be deceptive as well; we once messaged Nate to meet us on a White Valley Trail, which he took, while we were actually on the unmarked West White Valley Trail. C’mon, trail gods! Our advice: Plan meetings in only the most obvious places when possible, such as PCT food box pick-up locations (listed in PCT guidebooks).

• About those food boxes: We never mailed any. With teenage hikers traversing our own state, we wanted to physically meet up with the kids at each food drop. This is a luxury I realize we would not have if we lived farther away, and even in-state, it required several overnight stays on our part. Our advice: Even if you physically bring food to teens, have them prepare their food boxes pre-hike just as they would if they mailed them. That way, they’re involved in the food planning process (great practice for later hikes).

• Our Garmin inReach satellite communicator was worth the peace of mind. The ability to two-way text once or twice per day eased my worry, and the option to track Nate’s hike in (almost) real time was very convenient for planning meetings, as well as when he lost the trail in the snow. Nate agreed the inReach was a comforting lifeline, most appreciated when he needed to communicate a desired item for his next resupply, like more Band-Aids or a certain brand of beef jerky.

Nate never saw any other hikers his age on his trip, but with the right preparation and support, there’s no reason more teens can’t enjoy a successful PCT hike. He’s hoping to meet some additional Northwest teens next time.

And yes, Nate adds, “There will definitely be a next time.”

Amy Whitley is a family travel and outdoor adventure writer based in Southern Oregon and the Adventure Kiddos columnist for OutdoorsNW. Her site, PitStopsForKids.com, provides travel advice for families across the U.S. and abroad.