Recapping 2,650-miles and six months of quality father-son time from Mexico to Canada on the legendary Pacific Crest Trail.
By Liliia DeCos | Photos by Jo Maeck
There are father-son hikes – and then there are father-son hikes. Belgian dad Jo Maeck and his eleven-year-old son Abel completed the Pacific Crest Trail in August 2020.
Starting at the Mexican border, the team backpacked for 2,650 miles past the PCT’s “greatest hits” of California, Oregon and Washington, before arriving at the Canadian border 163 days later.
Along the way? The Anza-Borrego desert, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Mt. Whitney, the Desolation Wilderness, Lassen, the Trinity Alps, Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, the Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Baker.
How to Hike the PCT with Kids
Most parents who dream of hiking the PCT don’t have six months to do it all in one go. They do the best parts by the day or take a few days/week to do a smaller part every year.
Here are some of the favorite PCT “section hikes” – bite-size chunks of the famed route – that families with older kids can complete:
- Cabazon to Warner Springs, CA (98mi) – Across the Mohave, from low to high desert
- Onion Valley to South Lake, CA (64mi) – The meadows and peaks of the Eastern Sierra
- John Muir Trail (211mi) – The big one! From the top of Mt. Whitney down through Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite Valley, with section hikes of its own
- Castella to Etna, CA (100mi) – Through the Castle Crags and Trinity Alps
- Sky Lakes Wilderness, OR (29mi) – Glacial lakes and views of Mt. Hood & McLoughlin
- Cascade Mountains & Kendall Katwalk, WA (98mi) Remote wilderness & steep going in the North Cascades
Jo recapped the ups and downs in an interview with ROAM. Their favorite parts? Spring wildflowers in the desert, 10,000-foot-plus heights of the Sierras, and the volcanic vistas of Washington.
As you can imagine, there are endless resources online for families interested in taking on this thru-hike challenge. In fact, during our Instagram Live interview with Jo and Abel, several other parents were online commenting on their experiences taking kids on trek—so it can be done!
One thing is certain: The images and memories shared by the father-son team make the PCT seem like the ultimate family adventure.
Recap: A Father-Son Hike on the Pacific Crest Trail
ON ‘WHY?’: “It was my dad’s idea. At first, we thought it was a crazy idea but quickly the moment came and we left!” – Abel
ON UNSUNG HEROES: “I’m proud and happy that my wife said it was okay for Abel and I to leave for such a long time. She is a teacher and had to take care of our other three kids. Normally, they would be in school but because of the pandemic, schools in Belgium were closed too.” – Jo
ON TRAVELING: “Our family travels a lot. It is a nice way to discover the people and the world. If you know people from different countries and you know how people live, you can understand that there are far fewer differences between people. The media focuses on the differences, but really, we are all the same. We want to enjoy our lives, be happy and be respectful with each other.” – Jo
ON TRAINING: “To train, we had to work out a little bit. My son was doing a lot of sports already. I was jogging, but I had to do more hiking, so I took my older son on hikes in Europe. But it was very hard to train for the mental difficulties that arise.” – Jo
ON RESOURCES: “The trail was well-signed, and we could always find our way. If an issue came up that we had to deal with, we would go to the guides, maps and apps, and find all the info that we needed.” – Abel
ON GEAR: “Of course, you shouldn’t take too much gear. My pack was about 25 pounds. Dad carried the tent, sleeping bags and cooking gear, so his was heavier. Add food and water into it, and it was even heavier! We took everything to survive for a week. We didn’t carry a lot of things that we didn’t need – like cards – never had time to play!” – Abel
ON RESUPPLY: “Most of the time, we could hitchhike into small towns, take care of COVID measures, and buy some takeout food. It was more difficult to find a supply of food in advance, so we had to send thru boxes to the post office, have them hold it for 30 days, and pick it up when we got there. It’s a very easy way of doing it. If you are American, you can also send boxes through friends and family.” – Jo
ON FOOD: “If you hike such a long distance you eat whatever you can eat. Don’t bother with nice food, just all the calories! Mashed potatoes, couscous, rice, tortillas – now we’re quite sick of tortillas! All you need is a pot and 1.5l gas canister, and 2 spoons. Every morning, we had oatmeal. Then every snack was a Cliff bar, which has lots of calories. We had 6 or 7 bars a day – we tried all the flavors!” – Abel
ON FEAR: “We felt safe most the time. Once, in the Northern Cascades National Park, we saw a bear eating berries! He was quite close, only 3 or 4 meters from us. We made noise so that we wouldn’t surprise it – but the bear just looked up at us and went back to eating! We were also a bit scared of rattlesnakes – once I almost stepped on one – but saw it just in time! One day Abel slipped away some meters on a tricky, wet, rocky slope on Goat Rocks, but kept cool in his precarious situation so I could rescue him. And, of course, the going gets hard when the weather is not nice. Even if a storm comes, you have to continue hiking to make it to a safe place.” – Jo
ON SPEED: “Our trip took 163 days, including the days we didn’t hike. So in total, that’s 4,300 km/2,600 miles and averages out to about 30km/16m a day. We began with 15/16/17 miles a day, and then during the last two months, we reached 25 miles daily. We started at 7am or so, and hiked til 8pm or 9pm.” – Jo
ON SHOES: “We went through 3 pairs of shoes. We hiked on hiking shoes, and our trail runners go 300-400 miles. Our boots go like 700-900 miles, but weigh a bit more than a trail runner… We bought shoes in advance and sent them to our resupply spots.” – Jo
ON PEOPLE: “Part of what made our adventures such a nice experience was all the people we met. There were very few thru-hikers in 2020 because of the pandemic but all the people we met were so lovely, including many who helped us in the little villages along the way. These are all memories we will keep in our hearts for the rest of our lives. Of course, the adventure is about the hiking and the scenery, but it’s the people that you never forget.” – Jo
ON TRAIL ANGELS: “Trail angels helped us out a lot. They gave us food, water, beds, a place to sleep, and gave us the energy to hike on —to not stop, to keep going… Trail angels help you feel at home – and it’s what you need at times on the PCT. Sometimes you are so happy to be in a bed, after one week in a tent! In Oregon and Washington, there were fewer villages so we had to hike farther in between stays. But trail angels are so nice that it can be difficult to get back on the trail – and always hard to say goodbye.” – Jo
ON HIKING WITH A CHILD: “A lot of people knew Abel on the trail and they liked him and were inspired by his journey. People said he was the youngest PCT hiker of 2020 but there were some kids that were a bit older too, like 14. I think the youngest-ever child to complete the trek was 6 years old. Abel had to be with adults all the time and do well with that… His English got very good!” – Jo
ON THE LITTLE THINGS: “When you’re so thirsty water can taste so good!” “Being outside can be a nice feeling…” “It’s good to enjoy small things in life that make people happy…” – Abel
ON THE BEST PART: “It’s nice that you have this long journey of the whole PCT trail, where terrain changes. But I think we liked the desert section in March/April, the snowstorms, the start of the spring/wildflowers…and we liked the Sierras, a very high part of the PCT where the body has to adapt to this altitude. Also we loved the Washington mountains a lot.” – Jo
ON THE HARDEST PART: “The most difficult thing is the mental challenge. Waking up to another 40km of hiking? Not easy. After a while, we got used to the daily routine. [Abel] is physically strong but also mentally very strong, though we missed our family and we gave courage to each other. It’s normal to feel homesick. We would have tears in our eyes, and then see new mountains and remember how nice it was to be there. Life is more than just nice moments.” – Jo
ON COMPLETION: “On the last kilometer, I could feel a bit of sadness coming as we neared the end. Others were finishing. Others were already done. We felt like a family, all those people. They are so strong, and it was very emotional to see the positive attitude of all these people. It was sad to come back to normal life. There was some fear about being back, and returning to so much negativity. Hiking and seeing nature and NOT being surrounded by everyday negativity, it just resets your mind and brings you peace and happiness.” – Jo
ON ADVICE FOR OTHERS: “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that had an incredibly positive effect on our lives. My advice? The most difficult thing is to decide to go. The rest is a piece of cake. The nine months before you leave, the go/no go decision pops up every day. But when you hit the trail, every day, you face problems and you solve them… Live your dreams!” – Jo
Interview excerpts edited for clarity and length.
Liliia DeCos – July 2021
Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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