Book Review: Families on Foot

Families on Foot, by Jennifer Pharr Davis and Brew Davis. Falcon, 2017. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark for the Summer 2018 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Her honors include the Parks and Trails New York Trail Heroes “Get Outdoors Award” for organizing races, hikes and group runs.

Even if you have been hiking for years and have acquired considerable gear and trail savvy, doing so with kids is an entirely different ball game. Here to guide you through the process with an endless array of tips, tools and techniques are Jennifer Pharr Davis, the former record holder of the fastest thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail and her husband Brew, her crew, and a hiker and ultramarathoner in his own right. Their insights were shaped by their preschooler Charley, photogenic ally featured throughout, and now their young son Gus.

But this is not just a book for parents of the younger set since, as founder of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, Jennifer has led many school groups and as a high school teacher, Brew is totally familiar with the teen mindset. Even with such credentials, the couple emphasizes that the mainstay of their game plan is to remain flexible and expect the unexpected, planning their adventure around the youngest hiker. Their mainstay, “Hike your own hike,” emphasizes that the “best” hikers are not necessarily the fastest, but the ones who get the most enjoyment out of their foray. It is not imperative to reach the top of the mountain, but it is important to have fun on the way.

To this end, the book is chock full of games to play along the way (remember those car games we played before electronics took over?). Older kids can sketch, collect materials for an art project and help identify birdsongs, cloud formations, tree bark and leaves, etc. To lighten your backpack, the book is replete with iPhone apps that not only help with identification but can pinpoint invasive species sightings.

For older kids, the authors encourage you to give them ownership of the process by allowing them to help choose the route, packing their own pack, preparing their food and participating in camp chores along the way. As my husband and I discovered after several whiny journeys it helps if each kid can bring a special friend along. I just wish we had this book so it didn’t take us so painfully long to hit upon that solution! And something we didn’t have back in the dark ages — geocaching and letterboxing — can keep a group enthusiastically moving along.

The couple also helps families with specific needs children and older adults to modify their hikes and equipment to take these requirements into account. Kids with Down Syndrome, diabetes, asthma and other concerns benefit even more from the freedom found on the trail. Hiking stimulates cognitive function, vocabulary, motor skills and has a calming effect on those with ADHD and those with mental challenges.

The authors conclude with quote from John Muir which sums up their message: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings…The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. Treated in this manner, with foresight and respect, hiking will become a habit that will span and unite families as they grow and change.

Book review by avid trail runner Laura Clark (pictured above).