Family Goals: Hiking 2,190 Miles on the Appalachian Trail
By Sharon Prince, People & Culture Projects & Communications Lead at Sanofi
July 21, 2023
The Appalachian Trail runs through 14 states, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, for 2,190 miles (3,500 km). In terms of elevation, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest 16 times!
Many people take six months off to hike the trail – commonly known as “thru-hikers.” In 2012, I read an article about a local woman who had thru-hiked the trail. While I knew we couldn’t do that given our schedules, I thought we could try “section hiking” since the NJ portion was only 45 minutes from our house. After our first year, we finished 73 miles and then did some math. At that rate, it was going to take us about 30 years to finish, and the children would be long gone! So we set a family goal to finish the trail together in 12 years as “section hikers” -- planning to hike at least 200 miles each year.
This June, we hit 1,900 miles of hiking – just 290 miles short of our goal. It’s taken us 11 years, 174 hikes, 11 states, 1,000+ hours on the trail, 3 trail journals, 30 guest hikers who have joined us along the way, and a few thousand miles in the car. We’ve seen one rattlesnake, 220 salamanders, met lots of interesting people -- including Scott Jurek speed-walking past us to beat the record for fastest thru-hike -- lots of rocks, a few chain hotels, the inside of a two-person tent, great local diners, and some pretty amazing views.
Our most memorable hikes were the hardest – the cold Mt. Minsi hike in January when we underestimated what it would take to hike through snow; the Connecticut hike that didn’t end before dark and left us walking through the woods using iPhone flashlights; getting caught in flash flooding in both New Hampshire and Virginia exactly one year apart; our first 20-mile hike that I swore I’d never be able to do until I fell nine miles in and not only had to do it, but had to do it with a bad knee. They say the trail gives you what you need – and sometimes it’s a kick in the butt!
Being on the trail for eight hours a day provides plenty of time for long conversations, exploring nature, remembering how good a PB&J tastes, getting in touch with your spiritual side, or just binge-watching trees. It’s the one place where you really can focus on your mental and physical health, and having the whole family off technology is a true gift.
The most important thing we’ve learned is the value of setting a shared family goal. I’m grateful to my husband, Erik, for his planning expertise -- where to hike in and out, what shuttle service to use, where to camp, how many miles and climbs we are capable of in a day, and how to organize it all around soccer schedules, dance recitals and day jobs. Life is not easy – we all have our ups and downs and ongoing demands. Hiking is physically and sometimes mentally challenging, but for us, the simplicity of life on the trail is worth every minute.
Hiking is not for every family, but every family can set a goal. Maybe yours is visiting all the major league ball parks, or maybe it’s seeing a different city each summer. Agreeing to and reaching a goal with family or friends creates shared ownership, a dependence on each other, long-lasting memories, a strong culture, and a legacy of what you believe is important. My family’s goal has really given us purpose and a story to tell – and the fact that we get to disconnect and just be together is priceless!
When we started our journey, our sons were 7 and 10 and our daughter was 4. She is not a hiking fan, but indulges us sometimes and other times makes better plans with grandma. The boys are now in college and our daughter is in her second year of high school. When I look back, there’s so much we’ve learned over the years and miles. Here are a few things about hiking and life in general that come to mind:
- It’s all about the journey – As several wise people have observed, we look forward to a journey’s end, but in the end, it’s the journey that matters.
- 60 percent is a pretty good chance of rain. For those who love outdoor activities, you can probably relate to this, as well as the difference between water-resistant and waterproof, which we learned the hard way on one of those first rainy hikes.
- Setting a goal and achieving it creates a formidable challenge. But you truly can “will” yourself to do just about anything – it’s 90% mental. There have been many steep climbs where the only way up that hill is to keep convincing myself to put one foot in front of the other.
- You have to stretch to grow and it’s not always comfortable – but remember – you have a built-in support system right behind you, and in front of you, on the trail. Hiking reminds me that I can do hard things – both in and out of work.
- You have to earn the views – they come after the hardest climbs. And the only way to prepare is to practice.
- The importance of sustainability – leave no trace, pack your trash out, stay on the trail – have as little impact on the environment as possible to allow others to enjoy it.
- It’s about the simple things in life - you need very little to get by, and, if you have to carry it on your back – I guarantee you need even less. I often debate the merits of a toothbrush.
At the end of the day, you have to hike your own hike. While we are doing this together and it creates lasting memories, I’m sure my husband and children have their own stories to tell about our journey.
I’m thankful for the time, connection, and legacy I’ve been able to have with my family. I’m also thankful to Sanofi for allowing me the flexibility to live my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. For 5+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to work at an 80% schedule. The company also offers a generous allotment of time off that allows us to hike at least two weeks a year, as well as have other kinds of family fun!
As lead for People & Culture Projects & Communications, our hiking journey reminds me how important it is for employees to focus on their wellbeing. While it may look different for everyone, taking care of both your physical and mental health is so important and makes you perform at your best both at work and at home. Being active outside just feels good. Everyone’s a little happier, sleeps a bit better, and laughs a bit more.
While I’m not exactly sure what my kids are gaining from this experience, aside from the belief that their parents might be crazy - I do hope at the very least they know we loved them enough to take them on a walk -- a very long one. I look forward to sharing our finish at Mt. Katahdin in 2024!
"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees." - Henry David Thoreau