The Appalachian Trail is a five to seven-month, 2000-mile trek spanning Georgia to Maine. “Thru-hikers” carry their belongings and camp along the way, occasionally sleeping in hostels and hotels when the trail runs through a town. Because the terrain is so grueling – with an elevation gain and loss of roughly 500,000 feet – only about 25% of thru-hikers end up finishing.
In 2017, Bekah and Derrick Quirin set out to become the first parents to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail with a baby. But after trekking for six months with their 1-year-old daughter, Ellie, they faced an unexpected roadblock. Due to its 5269-foot altitude, children under six aren't allowed to summit Maine’s Mount Katahdin. So Bekah and Derrick left Ellie in the care of her grandmother and hiked the final miles of their journey alone.
But they didn’t give up on their original goal. This past August, Ellie turned six and the three Quirins returned to the trail for just one day – this time leaving their 1-year-old, Roan, with a babysitter – to finish the last leg of their journey as a family.
Here's the Quirin's story, along with top tips and advice for navigating some of the world’s greatest hikes with a baby in tow.
How do I get in shape to carry my baby on a long hike?
Before embarking on their Appalachian Trail quest, Bekah made a point to spend time carrying Ellie around the house – and on shorter hikes – in her carrier. “It helped me physically get ready. And then it also helped her feel at home in the backpack.” While on the trail, they instituted frequent breaks where they would take Ellie out of her carrier so she could crawl and play. Eventually, she began walking and the Quirins were able to witness their daughter take her first steps on the Appalachian Trail.
Is there any part of the trail I can't do with a baby?
At the southernmost tip of Maine, the Quirins faced an unexpected roadblock. Due to its altitude, children under six aren't allowed to summit Mount Katahdin, which maxes out at 5269 feet, making it the highest mountain in the US. After being denied special permission to summit with Ellie, Bekah and Derrick left her in the care of her grandmother while the two of them hiked the final miles of their journey.
“I liked the way we did it,” says Bekah. “I don't think I would change much or give different advice from what we did.”
When the Quirin family first embarked on the Appalachian Trail in 2017, Bekah identified as having a Type A personality: “Flexibility is not something that I was super good at.” But as the trek went on, she learned to “flow.” “You can't go out there with a rigid schedule,” she says. “And if you do, I mean, there's no point.”
Should I hike with or away from the “Bubble”?
The “Bubble” is a large group of northbound thru-hikers who begin the Appalachian Trail at Georgia’s Springer Mountain in March or early April. Bekah says that their secondary objective, after hiking, is to “party it up in town.” Thinking this wouldn’t be the best atmosphere for a little one, the Quirins chose to avoid the Bubble by completing the trail in two consecutive sections: they hiked from Virginia to Georgia and then traveled to Maine, where they began hiking back to their starting point in Virginia. “I'm all about age diversity among the trail,” says Bekah. “[But] we thought it would be best to do our own thing and not stay with the crowd.”
Should I book hotels for some stretches of the trail?
The Appalachian Trail is comprised of multi-day uninhabited stretches (where hikers have to camp) separated by towns offering lodging. In order to fully recharge on town days, the Quirins would often hike for half a day and then check into a hotel on the early side in order to do laundry, eat, shower and sleep before heading out the next morning. “My husband and I, we could trek through a snow blizzard if we wanted to,” says Bekah. “[But] I'll hop into town and go stay at a hotel until the blizzard's over if I've got a little one with me.”
Can I carry less stuff when hiking the trail?
Before beginning their journey, many thru-hikers assemble “mail drops,” small packages containing nonperishable meals and supplies, and send them to outposts along the route. In order to keep their haul to a minimum, the Quirins asked Bekah’s mother to send their mail drops – which included nutrient-dense meals, diapers and wipes – to upcoming resupply points. They also invested in ultralight gear, which Bekah recommends for those who are contending with the additional challenge of carrying a little one and can afford it.
How can I make sure we eat healthy (and easily) on the trail?
While the decision to get rid of their portable stove was safety-inspired – Ellie, crawling at the time, was constantly trying to interact with the stove’s open flame – they soon discovered that going “no-cook” was exponentially simpler. Derrick ditched his morning coffee and they settled into a life of peanut butter tortillas, bagels with cream cheese, tuna packets, and protein bars. “I don't see any reason, with little ones, that I'd go back to cooking on the trail,” says Bekah. “It's a lot of extra work when you're already parenting at the same time.”
They also embraced an “anything goes” approach in terms of diet. “You do get to a point where you're like, ‘I am working my butt off so hard every single day I can eat whatever the heck I want on this trail,’” says Bekah, citing the marvels of consuming a Snickers bar or “straight ramen” for lunch. When they returned to Mount Katahdin this past August, they followed the same guidelines, offering Ellie candy – including her favorite, Sour Patch Kids – during each water break. “She loved it. It made it really special for her.”
How do I keep a healthy perspective when hiking with a kid?
While the Quirins didn’t have any terrifying experiences on the Appalachian Trail, there was one hairy day in Maine where strong winds rendered crossing an exposed alpine area difficult. “It was super, super windy,” remembers Bekah. “The kind of wind that was literally knocking us off our feet.” When they thought about it later, however, they realized that there had been no greater danger. “We just got our breath taken away. If we had to crawl on the ground, we could have crawled on the ground… It's not like we would've been blown off a cliff or something.” The experience taught them that situations often feel more precarious than they actually are.
Will my child be able to keep up?
When Bekah and Derrick decided to try to summit Mount Katahdin with now-six-year-old Ellie this past August, they told her that it was going to be extremely difficult and they weren’t sure she’d be able to complete the hike. “We don't sugarcoat anything,” says Bekah. “We don’t want to give her false hope.” Whether or not the warning was meant as reverse psychology, it worked. “She was like, ‘Oh no, I'm gonna do it,’” says Bekah. “And she did amazing.” At the end of the day, it was Bekah and Derrick who were hobbling while Ellie was “scooting around as if nothing [had] happened.”
Will my child remember the experience?
Bekah loved experiencing the Appalachian Trail from Ellie’s point of view and is certain the journey influenced her even though she was too little to remember it. One of Bekah’s favorite moments was seeing Ellie’s big, wonder-filled eyes peeking out from her backpack as Derrick carried her through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. “She doesn't remember it and I don't care that she doesn't remember it,” says Bekah. “I remember it. And my husband remembers it. And it's our memories that we carry with us.”