My 16-year-old and His Friend Hiked Vermont’s Long Trail...By Themselves

As I watched my 16-year-old son and his friend walk into the woods at the Massachusetts/Vermont border to begin their northbound thru-hike to Canada—alone—I fought the urge to run up the trail with them. Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

Happily heading into the woods. | Credit: Sarah Hunter

The boys first approached us about this adventure a year earlier, after returning home from camp. They had spent ten days that summer backpacking a section of Vermont’s Long Trail, a 272-mile footpath through the Green Mountains, with six other friends and two counselors. It had been hot, their packs were heavy, and the mountains were steep, but they loved it. They wanted to return the following summer to hike the entire trail, by themselves.

Despite my beaming smile and outward excitement, I was still conflicted about whether or not we’d made the right choice.

We knew they had the experience and training to do it. They had hiked and paddled hundreds of miles with their families and with each other for the past five summers at camp. They practiced Leave No Trace and impeccable trail etiquette, and both were certified in Wilderness First Aid. This adventure was well within their skill-set and it had all the makings of a true coming-of-age experience. We couldn’t let our fears hold them back. We said yes.

In the spring, they planned their route, including evacuation options and resupply stops. They developed a meal plan based on the calories, fat, and weight of each item. They made a packing list, assessed their gear, and determined what they had and what they needed. Soon packages were arriving regularly at our doorstep: a JetBoil, gravity water filter, and the all-important two-way satellite communicator that would track their route and allow them to check in with us at the end of each day.

Sunset on Killington. | Credit: Silas Hunter

When summer arrived, my son and I tested his new gear during a weekend backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, during which he cooked our meals, filtered our water, and hung our bear bag each night. All I had to do was hike. My husband had the even easier task of following along from home, watching our path on the website. With one click, we sent him a message each evening: We’re checking in; everything is fine. It worked like a charm. We were ready.

The day before their start day, though, I broke down in a panicked what-did-we-agree-to moment. Even though they were prepared to go, I realized I’d never be fully prepared to let them go. But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

But as I watched them walk into the woods together the next day, laden with heavy packs made heavier by their summer reading books, I put on a brave face. I was out of my comfort zone, but so were they. They were doing a brave thing. The least I could do was to be brave, too.

Over the next three weeks I followed the map as they made their way north through the Green Mountains. I checked the weather. I worried. But each time I met them for a resupply my spirits were buoyed. They were doing fine. Better than fine. They were swimming in clear, quiet ponds, climbing fire towers, hiking in the dark for mountain-top sunrises. They were doing great. My worrying didn’t help them, or me.

When we met them at the northern terminus of the trail on the Canadian border we were overjoyed, and so were they. They were visibly tired and sore and dirty and also thoroughly, deeply, happy. For 21 days they had taken care of themselves and each other while traversing rugged peaks and steep valleys again and again. They faced countless decisions every day. Important decisions. On their own. Their reward for their perseverance, fortitude, and bravery, and ours, was etched on their faces. They had completed an incredible journey, one that they will carry with them always. It came at the expense of sore muscles and blisters (for them) and several more gray hairs (for us), but it was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Resupply day! | Credit: Sarah Hunter