Hiking The Entire Pacific Crest Trail With Toddlers (No, Seriously)
Who sets off to hike 2,650 miles with three kids under 6? David and Marketa Daley do. And they’ve thus far made it more than 800 miles on the famed Pacific Crest Trail — through tantrums, poopy pants, snow, and snakes (real and otherwise).
I joined them for three days in April as they hiked north over the San Gabriel Mountains, because I had to know how hiking sometimes 15 miles a day with tiny humans — two of the three kids are walking, the youngest is in a carrier — is even possible.
I have two kids, 7 and 9. I love pushing myself outdoors — hiking, biking, climbing, surfing. But parenting, in my case, has curbed my ambition to do these activities, at least with my family. Had I given up too quickly? Were David and Marketa living my dream, where their passions aligned with those of their children? Or was their adventure, as many mom-friends suggested when I told them about it, in fact, secretly hellish.
Let me first acknowledge that spending half a year living out of a tent and hiking all day, every day, is not for everyone. (At least, it wasn't until Cheryl Strayed's book "Wild" came out in 2012. Since then, long-distance hiking permits along the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, have reportedly shot up more than 300%.)
But a lot of us parents struggle to hold onto our identity and our dreams after bringing new beings into the world. How much do we get to do what we want to do? How much is too much when pushing our kids to do the things we want to do, or want them to do? I have these questions.
After a friend turned me on to Marketa's Instagram account chronicling her family's journey, I messaged her a tentative request to join them for a few days. My goal was to try and understand what's motivating them, and keeping them going. Are there lessons in their journey that I could incorporate into my own parenting? And, importantly, how are the kids feeling about their epic trek?
Susanna The Rattlesnake And Other Trail Treasures
Gary, the white-bearded solo hiker with whom we shared a camp spot the first night, is long gone by the time I hear the first sounds from the Daley's tent. The family gets going late compared to most hikers. Experience — they began the PCT on March 16 in Campo on the Mexican border — has taught Marketa and David that the kids are in their best shape on the trail when they get to sleep in as late as they want. They also hike until bedtime, with two or three long breaks during the day.
I'm mostly packed up, breakfast cooked and eaten, when Standa's crying cuts through a mourning dove's coo. Standa will turn 2 years old in June. He's getting over a cold when I meet the family but is, regardless, remarkably chill. He emerges from the tent bundled up in a mustard yellow-colored puffy jacket and equally puffy pants. He toddles around the campsite dragging a hiking pole while David and Marketa pack up the tent.
Joshua, 3, walks over and starts quizzing me about my audio recorder.
"Why is it black?" he asks.
"What color do you want it to be?" I ask back.
"I want it to be it, uh, uh, blue," he says. That's his favorite color, like his puffy jacket and sneakers. I am surprised by how little Joshua is, I guess I've forgotten that age. I will soon be even more surprised by how fast his stumpy legs carry him once he gets hiking.
"Good morning!" Four-year-old Sequoia (she turned five in late May) bellows at me. Her perfect toothy smile beams out between rosy dirt-stained cheeks. She's whipping around a black plastic, beaded cord that she introduces to me as Susanna, her pet snake.
Sequoia found and adopted her trail pet somewhere on Mt. Baden-Powell, a 9,400-foot peak on the PCT that the Daleys had hiked — through snow — a few days before I met up with them. When I ask Joshua and Sequoia about the peak, Joshua tells me about all the switchbacks (and impresses me with his excellent 3-year-old pronunciation of "switchback"). Sequoia describes the hike up as "horrible."
Sequoia holds her arm in front of my face and shakes the pompom at the end of her black cord-snake. "She's a rattlesnake," Sequoia tells me. "It's the deadliest rattlesnake ever. She doesn't hurt me at all, but she rattles at the other people."
When I first scrolled through Marketa's Instagram posts from the Southern California desert portion of the PCT, rattlesnakes were one of the first dangers that came to mind. It's springtime, after all, when snakes come out of their cold weather dens.
The family has come across rattlesnakes on multiple days, but Marketa figures the dangers her family faces on the trail are no more, and probably less, than homebound dangers. She remembers, as do I, the anxiety of strapping your newborn into a car seat for the first time, trying to push away paranoid mental images of screeching wheels and buckling steel.
"You're just overwhelmed with so much fear that you're gonna hurt your child somehow," she said. "I had the same thing before starting this hike, imagining mountain lions and bears and rattlesnakes and stuff. And it's like, OK, well, what can I do to help prevent those things?"
Marketa teaches her kids to be aware of their environment. Experience helps, too. Marketa and David have hiked many hundreds of miles, together and separately. They met while building trails in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for the California Conservation Corps. They hiked the 211-mile John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada with Sequoia when she was 15 months old. Marketa hiked the entire PCT with a former boyfriend in 2012.
The couple, whose home base is Carmel, dreamed of hiking the PCT together. But the trip kept getting delayed, first when David's mom got sick and moved in with them, then when Marketa got pregnant.
"When I got pregnant with Sequoia, I genuinely thought, like, I gotta put my dreams on pause for 20 years," Marketa tells me. "That was the only thing that really scared me."
The following year, the couple adopted Joshua, delaying the trip again. Then the pandemic hit. David, who works for California State Parks, took a mandatory pay cut but earned a lot of vacation time by working through the pandemic. His boss told David he could take time off to hike the trail and still keep his position. "Finally we were like, We just gotta do this," David says, "see if we can do this. And here we are."
Despite that tiny indication of doubt — "see if we can do this" — Marketa says David is the optimistic one. She wrote in an Instagram post before they left for the trail:
"If you ask him what we’re doing this year, he will tell you we’re walking from Mexico to Canada with three toddlers. If you ask me, then I’ll say something like, ‘We’re hiking along the PCT until we can’t hike no more’. Time will tell, but I sure love David’s optimism."
When I hear of envy-worthy adventures (to me, anyway) like the Daleys’, one of the first things I wonder is how they're making it work financially. About once a week I do mental calculations to try and determine whether my husband and I could feasibly ditch our jobs and our mortgage and move to Central America, or move into a van.
David's furlough-induced vacation time partially answers how the Daleys are doing it. Plus, they live with Marketa's parents. Also, hiking the PCT might be the cheapest half-year family vacation out there: The Pacific Crest Trail Association estimates that the average hiker spends $4,000 to $8,000. That's less than what lots of people paid to attend the Super Bowl and the equivalent of what many Angelenos spend on rent for two months.
Junk Food And Movies
At the campground where I rendezvous with the Daleys, a forest service road meets the PCT. We'd be able to meet back up with the trail a few miles down at a fire station. Marketa is all about taking the road; she's pretty much been hiking all day every day holding Joshua's hand (she also carries Standa on her back). Having the space to walk side-by-side rather than single file (again, picture it, towing a very small child behind you on a trail ALL. DAY.) is a relief.
But it doesn’t matter this time, because Joshua and Sequoia want to walk with the new stranger (me). It probably doesn’t hurt that I'm a pretty good storyteller, if I do say so myself. Sequoia, especially, requires constant stories to keep her occupied on the trail.
But also, the kids have been spending a LOT of time alone with their parents. I figure other people hiking the trail might be joining them for stretches. The PCT is a rolling festival sometimes — groups meet up and hike together for a few days, then split up, then meet up again in the next resupply town to drink wine and eat lavish meals together.
Marketa says they've definitely made trail friends, but none of them have wanted to move at the pace and rhythm of the pre-kindergarten crew. Even she says it's painful for her to go this slow. "Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I'd be lying if I said no," she says.
Still, to me, who hikes with a large pack only a few times a year, the pace seems just about right, and definitely way faster than I anticipated. Sequoia carries a small backpack with her clothes, sleeping bag and sleeping pad. It is very light, and by the way she speeds around with it on her back, I gather she’s accepted it as part of her body.
I ask her what's been her favorite part of the trip. "The hike," Sequoia says. Marketa laughs. I ask Joshua the same thing and he mimics his sister. "Wow guys," Marketa laughs, "that is definitely not true."
"What's your second favorite thing?" I ask Joshua. "Eating," he says, especially coffee cake. The southern section of the PCT crosses through or near towns frequently, where the kids can take a break from hiking, stay at a hotel, and eat at a restaurant. Marketa thinks this is actually the kids' favorite part of the trip. I'm sure it would be for my kids.
On the trail, David carries a small convenience store's worth of snack food. On the second day I spend with the family, Sequoia holds a party-sized bag of pretzel sticks all day, munching as she hikes. Three days into my trip with them — and nearly a week since they had left Wrightwood, the nearest trail town — David is still pulling out snacks from his bottomless food bag.
Their stash includes:
- KitKats (king-sized)
- Malt balls
- Dum Dums lollipops
- Goldfish crackers
- Jolly Ranchers
- Granola bars
And those are just the snacks. (When I later told my kids about this, they thought a long-distance hike sounded not so bad).
On the road, Sequoia and Joshua tell me about a Frankenstein cartoon they saw during one of their stops in a trail town. "They have watched more movies on this trail than they have in their entire lives," Marketa says. This happens during town stops, when Marketa says they let the kids watch "almost an unlimited amount of TV" while she and David scramble to re-up their food supply, replace the kids' worn-through shoes and clothes, and reorganize their gear.
Fighting against the kid-consuming vortex that is television, or any screens, is probably what I hate most about parenting. One sure way to beat it? Put your kids on a trail for six months! Even if my kids got to watch all the TV they wanted once every week or two, that'd be six to 13 other days that they wouldn't be pleading with me, throwing minor-to-major fits when I say "no." Sounds like an excellent bargain.
We take two long breaks that first day. After the first one, I accept Joshua's request to hold his hand while hiking, on the narrow trail this time. When I read an Instagram post from Marketa, before coming on this trip, saying this was how she hiked all day, it sounded very close to torture. But now that I am here, it’s actually fine. I had underestimated the legs on this kid and assumed the adult hand-holder would be dragging Joshua behind them. Not so! Joshua keeps up just fine, and doesn't seem to mind at all walking on the angled edge of the trail.
Trail Parenting Is Hard. But Maybe No Harder Than Home Parenting
Every day I’m with them, each kid has at least one major meltdown and several minor ones. I myself cause some of these meltdowns just by being here (who gets to hike with me, who gets to hold my hand). But definitely not all of them.
On the second morning, I’m peacefully eating breakfast outside my tent when I hear rising voices in the Daleys' tent down the hill from mine.
Sequoia: "I want food!"
David: "I'll give you food after you change into your pants."
Sequoia: "No! I don't want to!"
David: "Why are you yelling?!"
In case you are unfamiliar with the pain points of parenting, I'd say a few meltdowns a day in a family with three little kids is pretty standard. Mornings, especially if you're trying to get out the door, or back on the trail, can be particularly rough. I ask Marketa how different the morning trail dynamic was from their home dynamic.
"It's been worse, and it's been better," she says. A few yards away, Joshua wails over a hiking pole Sequoia has wrenched from his hands. Then Standa starts wailing (same issue). Sequoia runs off and David shouts at her to come back and get her backpack on.
Marketa acknowledges that Sequoia has more to entertain her at home — books and drawing materials — and, therefore, loses her cool less often. Sequoia loves to draw. But there's not much time to do it on the trail, and not much room to carry art supplies.
Marketa pulled Sequoia and Joshua out of preschool to go on this trip. Sequoia will be kindergarten age in the fall, and Marketa says their local school is OK with her showing up a few months late. In the school sense, the Daley kids might actually be the perfect age for a long-distance trail. Marketa says they've met other families hiking the PCT with older, school-age children, and I wonder how they're handling their kids' education.
In any case, Marketa thinks being together on the trail is well worth the children missing some months in a classroom. "They're all so young and I just feel like the key is to be a family at this age," she says, "and show them what love is and what it means to go after your dreams."
I ask Sequoia whether she misses school. She says she misses drawing. She also misses her stuffed dog, Bingo. But Sequoia seems delighted by the toys she's picked up, and then discarded, along the trail — Susanna the rattlesnake, a car with the back wheels missing, a scraggly baby doll that she carries in the outside pocket of her backpack.
One preschool — and lifelong — lesson David and Marketa hope their kids will learn on the trail is kindness. Twice, hikers have picked up and returned the kids' lost toys on the trail. A woman in Idyllwild, a "trail angel," put the family up in her house and fed them home-cooked meals. In Wrightwood, a man gave them the exact tent that Marketa was eyeing to replace their failing one.
"The kids get to see complete acts of random kindness from strangers," David says. "It happens almost every day. Somebody is generous and loving and it's amazing."
At the fire station we pass, a fireman gives the kids plastic rulers, Smokey the Bear stickers, and unsharpened pencils. The kids are thrilled, especially when, at the next break, I pull out my Swiss army knife and sharpen their pencils. When break time is over and it's time to put the pencils away, there's another meltdown.
Oh, The Miles You'll Hike
Did I mention that the Daleys have made it more than 700 miles so far? 700 miles!! The first day I hike with them, we do nearly 14 miles. The kids seem unfazed. I don't hear a single, I don't want to go any further! or Are we there yet?
For me, though, 14 miles is more than I usually put in on the trail — without kids. By late afternoon on my second day with the family, I am exhausted. Physically, because, obviously. But also mentally.
Earlier in the day, I had told Sequoia an epic, hours-long story about the oceangoing adventures of Puss in Boots and his pet goldfish, Gertrude. It was loosely based on "The Odyssey," or what I could remember of it from high school. Then I told her an almost equally epic story about the adventures of three little dinosaurs. Then one about three little cats.
Sequoia begs me to tell her another one about "all the princesses," but my brain just can't anymore. Then I spot the ranger station where we plan to take a break. Saved.
David is usually the storyteller and I know he appreciates having a fill-in. He also tells me he sometimes plays Sequoia audio stories from his phone.
We get to the station and I am so ready to call it a day. But we can't camp here, and according to our maps and apps, it might be another four miles before there's a decent spot to set up our tents. I decide I deserve a break — I want to avoid any kid pushback that'll come when it's time to pack up — so I say I'm going to hike ahead and look for a campsite.
I head down the trail. It's late afternoon. Quiet. The light is soft and bright yellow wildflowers line the sandy trail. It is absolutely lovely to hike alone.
It doesn't last long. The trail follows the contours of the foothills on the northern side of the San Gabriel Mountains and soon I see Joshua, Marketa and Standa a few curves back. I wave at them. Joshua waves back and then sets off at a run.
I can't be disappointed at losing my peace. It is too awesome to watch this kid book it down the trail. They all catch up to me within minutes.
A few more miles and I spot a sweet spot to camp for the night on a ridge overlooking Acton, my final destination. Sequoia and David show up just in time to watch the sun sink in the west, sharpening the multi-hued silhouettes of the Tehachapi Mountains. We all marvel at the beauty of it. Sequoia takes off her shoes, delighted to wriggle her toes in the soft sand.
The trail provides. Everyone is happy.
Hard Things Are Not Always As Hard As They Seem
I love reading my kids bedtime stories. The rest of bedtime I could do without. For example, having to harass my kids repeatedly to brush their teeth. (I am not being flippant with the word "harass." Merriam-Webster online definition 1a: "EXHAUST, FATIGUE" and definition 1b : "to annoy persistently" are precisely my goals, so that they eventually give in and do it.)
I am envious of how easy bedtime on the trail seems for the Daleys. They eat dinner. They all get in the tent. David and Marketa play the kids a soothing song on one of their phones, and the kids fall asleep.
I'm sure it's not like this all the time, but what I witness is vastly shorter and easier than the one-to-two-hour affair that is my household's normal bedtime ritual.
This is a hard thing. One of the hardest things I've ever done, I think.
On my last day with the Daleys, in a rare moment without (too many) kid interruptions, I ask David and Marketa why they're doing this hard thing, hiking from Mexico to Canada. Why do hard things, at all? But even as I ask it, I wonder what I actually mean by "hard things." Some aspects of parenting seem easier on the trail.
"This is a hard thing,” Marketa says. “One of the hardest things I've ever done, I think." She had actually asked me, halfway through my second day with the family, whether I thought her Instagram posts were an honest reflection of how hard it is to be on the trail with three little ones. I told her I thought it was about as honest as it could be without posting videos of kid tantrums and poop-stained pants. (Standa has pooped in his pants multiple times, which, when you're not carrying a lot of extra clothes and you're trying to save all the water you're carrying for drinking, sounds rough).
But also, Marketa says, the challenges you encounter on the trail are elemental. "I think the interesting thing about being out here is that you are not dealing with problems beyond comfort," she says. Is my kid hungry? Cold? Tired? "Everything's simple here."
No nagging your kid to clean up their messy room. No fretting over what they're watching on YouTube. Just the trail.
"I think it builds strength,” David says. “And it's awesome when you do something hard that you think that you might not be able to do. Once you do it, you're like, Oh, I can do more.”
This, for me, has been one of the great joys of parenting: for example, thinking there's no way you could possibly handle an infant and a toddler for a weekend without your partner, and then doing it, and realizing you can do so much more than you think you can.
When it comes down to it, the reason David and Marketa are hiking the PCT is because they wanted to.
"I think the main thing is that me and David are happier out here," Marketa said, "and that's important for kids to see mom and dad happy."
Marketa's fear of having to give up her dreams when she became a parent is precisely why I wasn't sure if I wanted kids to begin with, and why I became a parent pretty late. Their journey is a good reminder for me that I'm still in charge of my life. It's a privilege I can't take lightly.
Marketa also makes sure to mention, several times, what might seem pretty obvious: It's OK if embarking on a 2,650-mile family hike, or even a one-mile hike, is not your thing. If what you love is going to Disneyland, do that as a family, she says.
Incidentally, there’s a grand prize that tantalizes the kids to keep walking day after day until they reach the Canadian border.
A family trip to Disneyland.
Update #1: 800 Miles And Going Strong
Standa turns two on his 84th day of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. He spends his birthday taking in the snow-streaked granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, from a carrier on his mom's back. She and the rest of the family hike up and over the 12,093-foot-high Mather Pass.
His birthday surprise: A fellow PCT thru-hiker crosses paths with the family and returns Standa's toy horse; he had lost it somewhere in the Southern California desert.
Joshua and Sequoia celebrate the day by making snow angels.
The Daleys have now hiked more than 800 miles since setting off on March 16. Marketa's Instagram chronicle of the family's journey has become a source of daily joy and inspiration for me and, apparently, thousands of others (the account now has nearly 14,000 followers). So we had been anxiously awaiting a post after several weeks of silence as they hiked the remote, southern Sierra Nevada portion of the trail.
Marketa had been worried about this section of the trail because there are long stretches with nowhere to pick up a resupply of food, and David can only carry so much food for five people, and it all has to fit in the two bear canisters that are taking up most of his backpack.
"All the insta-aunts have been waiting with bated breath to hear from you," one follower wrote. "Glad to see those smiling faces."
I hadn't been in touch with the family since late May so I ask Marketa to call me when she can, which she does from their stop at Mono Hot Springs, 70 miles northeast of Fresno in the Sierra Nevada Forest.
She tells me the food situation has been difficult but they've been able to pick up several resupplies — David hiked down the mountain for one, a friend of Marketa's hiked up the mountain to deliver another.
The snowpack has also turned out to be manageable. "Just enough to make it interesting, but not so much that it would be dangerous," Marketa says.
At one point in our short conversation, Marketa apologizes for sounding distracted. She explains that they're trying to hitch a ride back to the trail, and the kids are playing with some glass they had found on the ground. "No, no, no," she tells them. Then, a few seconds later to Joshua, "Why don't you have a sock?"
Parenting is not so different in the wild.
Update #2: 1,200 Miles In
Six months on the trail, the Daley family confronted some difficult realities: California's summer heat. Potential water contamination in the Dixie Fire burn zone. A strong-willed toddler.