This family just hiked the Appalachian Trail with a preschooler – here’s how you can too
Frozen shoes and snow-wet sleeping bags made Cassie and Josh Sutton’s first weeks on the Appalachian Trail exhausting. The couple started working on Josh’s real estate quarry in January – earlier than most hikers – and the Smoky Mountains greeted them with freezing temperatures and relentless snowfall. But the Suttons couldn’t drown in winter misery, for next to them, sometimes hidden among drifts four feet of snow, was their son, Harvey Sutton, four.
Harvey, Trail Name: Little Man, did more than handle the Smokies’ bitter miles with grace. He walked the 2,193 miles on his own, with his five-pound bag, and reached the summit of Katahdin alongside his parents in August 2021. Little Man, now five, started kindergarten in Lynchburg , Virginia, just two weeks after finishing.
While Cassie and Josh say Harvey walked his miles on their seven-month trip, hiking AT with a future kindergarten presents its own set of challenges. We sat down with the Suttons, who vlogged their entire trip on Youtube, to find out how they managed this epic journey and how you and your kids can learn to love long distance hiking, too much.
Train early and stay hard
The Appalachian Trail was not Harvey’s first hike. His hiking days started when he was two years old, with small hikes, then longer hikes and multi-day camping trips. Time and speed didn’t matter at this point. Cassie and Josh had a rule for Harvey: don’t wear.
“If he needed a break, we told him we would take a break and just sit there playing with flowers or throwing rocks, but we wouldn’t be wearing it,” Cassie said. “A mile would take all morning if I had to. It was just a slow, slow progression to do this.
The final test was a 50 mile hike along part of the AT near their home in Virginia. “We had planned to do seven days, and we actually finished in six, a day earlier,” Josh said. “Harvey did better than we thought he would, and it confirmed that we can do it.”
Budget for more materials and frequent snacks
At first, the equipment, and especially the shoes, became a problem for Harvey. The four-year-olds are growing rapidly and her feet have increased three half sizes during the hike. In addition, most kids hiking shoes are not built for hundreds, let alone thousands of kilometers. During the Suttons’ seven months of trail running, Harvey used seven pairs of shoes. “They would all collapse in about three weeks,” Cassie said.
Like many preschoolers, Harvey was constantly hungry. Cassie and Josh knew that a hungry Harvey was a sure-fire recipe for temper tantrums, so they fed Harvey hourly, Cassie said, with an emphasis on protein and carbs.
Be ready to entertain, but set limits
Whether it’s at home in the playroom or out in the wilds on the TA, preschoolers need entertainment, and it’s become Josh and Cassie’s full-time job. Some days Cassie would pretend she was a “Paw Patrol” character on a hike with Harvey. The other days, Josh and Harvey played a “the trail is lava” game, an activity that involved jumping from rock to rock to avoid the magma at their feet. “It was the only way to keep him motivated,” Cassie said. “If you stopped playing, he would drag his feet or want to take a break and not move.”
The Suttons left Harvey to entertain himself when it was time to set up camp, filter the water, and cook dinner. Harvey learned that arriving at camp meant time for chores, and he would run away and build stone castles or play in the cove while Josh and Cassie got to work.
Take the time to make stops and attractions along the trails
Another way to build while having fun? Attractions and detours along the trails. For Harvey’s fifth birthday, the Suttons spent a week at the house. Cassie and Josh surprised him with 300 gifts from the backpacking community; by then, their YouTube channel had attracted a loyal following of AT hikers.
“We had gifts from 45 states and eight countries, and even a box from Japan with Japanese candy,” Josh said.
When they hit New York on the track, the Suttons made a detour to New York City and Yankee Stadium, where Harvey enjoyed his first live baseball game. He got so addicted that he picked up a bat and a ball at the next pharmacy by the side of the trail. When they camped at AT Hangout Blueberry hill Firm, Harvey orchestrated quite an 11-on-11 baseball game among the hikers.
“We had a tough winter, and during that time no one else was there,” Josh said. “But in the summer, there were so many hikers by our side that the community just came alive.”
Get ahead of permits
A major hiccup loomed as the final months of the trail approached: Harvey would need a special permit to climb Katahdin as children under six are not allowed to walk above the treeline. When they reached the halfway point at Harpers Ferry, Josh and Cassie wrote a letter to Baxter State Park, the authority of Katahdin.
When the couple had no response, they wrote letters to the senators and the state governor. Eventually, the Suttons were invited to a Zoom with park officials, where they laid out their case – with Harvey’s past miles as proof. They got the permit, then reached the summit of Katahdin months later.
Accept a slower pace
If you are hiking with children, forget the FKT. “Hiking with kids isn’t the same as hiking without kids,” Cassie said. “If you can make their hike enjoyable, your own hike will be enjoyable and everyone will have fun. If you focus on your miles you are going to be miserable and everyone will be yelling at each other. “
The Suttons completed the full hike in 209 days, or seven months, which was way ahead of their goal of simply finishing in September. “Our main focus was just to have a family adventure, which I feel like we accomplished,” Josh said.
Even better? The Suttons got home just in time for Harvey’s first day of kindergarten, telling him a hell of a story about “what I did on my summer vacation.”