The parents hiking America’s longest trails with five kids

CNN  — 

Taking on three of the most remote and rugged long-distance trails of America would be a challenge for any hiker.Taking on three of the most remote and rugged long-distance trails of America would be a challenge for any hiker.

But attempting to hike them with several young children in tow – well that’s a completely different ball game. However, the Netteburgs have managed to do just that.

Made up of Danae and Olen Netteburg, both 44, and their five children Lyol, 14, Zane, 12, Addison, 10, Juniper, eight, and Piper, two, the family of hikers from the US, have just completed North America’s holy hiking trinity, the Triple Crown, which covers almost 8,000 miles (around 12,900 kilometers).

The  Netteburgs, who previously hiked the Appalachian Trail, which stretches over nearly 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) between Georgia and Maine, and the Continental Divide Trail, a 3,028-mile (4,873-kilometer) trail extending from New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana, finished the Pacific Crest Trail in early November.

It took them just under six months to trek the 2,653-mile (4,270-kilometer) trail extending from the border of Mexico through California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada, and the Netteburgs say they feel very lucky to be able to hike these iconic trails as a family.

Party of seven

Olen Netteburg (far left,) his wife Danae and their five children Lyol, Zane, Addison, Juniper, and Piper on the Continental Divide Trail.

“We realize, a lot of people can’t do it,” Danae told CNN Travel back in August. “They [either] don’t have the time or money or they don’t want to. So we’re very blessed.”

Danae and Olen, who are both physicians, met at medical school in 2003 and married around three years later.

In 2010, the couple relocated to Chad, a landlocked country in north-central Africa, to run a medical practice and went on to have their children, who were all born in the US.

While the pair had gone on a few backpacking trips together over the years, including a visit to the Canadian Rockies after they got married, it wasn’t until Juniper, their fourth child, was aged around two that they decided to attempt an extensive trail as a family.

“They [the older children] were two, four, six, and nine at the time,” explains Olen. “That summer we did four separate week-long trips – and the kids didn’t hate it. They seemed to enjoy it.

“They liked camping, catching salamanders, campfires and all the rest.”

The first route they tackled was the West Rim Trail, a 30.5-mile (49-kilometer) hike that runs along the western side of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.

Feeling encouraged by their children’s enthusiasm, they went on to hike the Uintas Highline Trail, a remote path through the high country of the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah.

“That [the Uintas] was high elevation and kind of sketchy weather. So it was sort of a big trip,” adds Olen. “And the kids even enjoyed that one. So we kept doing it.”

After another successful family hike, they decided to “go for broke and do the Appalachian Trail” in early 2020.

Family challenge

The Netteburgs, seen at the Northern Terminus of the CDT, are just a few months away from completing the Triple Crown.

“We thought we would just try it for a month to see if we could keep going or if anybody hated it, or whatever,” explains Danae. “We didn’t know how it would go. But it turns out, that was a difficult year for everybody.”

Shortly after they started walking the trail, which stretches along the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic and restrictions were put in place throughout many countries around the world.

“Various places in America [were] closed in various ways at various times,” says Olen. “So everywhere we would go, we had to make sure that it was legal and safe.”

The Netteburgs admit that they weren’t sure whether they’d be able to finish the challenging trail, but felt more and more confident as time went on and their kids were able to reach certain milestones.

“It was kind of a big moment when the kids did like an 11.3-mile (18.1-kilometer) day,” says Olen.

In order to keep their children motivated, they asked them to strike the pose they wanted to make in the photo that they’d all take once they’d completed the Appalachian Trail, and told them to keep practicing it along the way.

“When you hike with kids, you have to hype it up a lot,” explains Danae.

The couple say it took the six of them around seven months to reach the end of the trail, and by the final week, they were excitedly discussing which journey they’d take on.

“We started reading some articles online to the kids about the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail,” says Olen.

“And the kids actually started to get kind of excited. And we chose the Continental Divide Trail to be the next one.”

While hikers attempting the Triple Crown tend to do the Pacific Crest Trail after the Appalachian Trail and finish with the Continental Divide Trail, Olen explains that their kids “wanted the hardest one.”

“We figured if we only got to do one more after the AT, we wanted to challenge ourselves,” he adds. “Also, the idea of less crowds appealed to us.”

Baby on board

The family of seven at the Crater Lake, the deepest lake in North America, located in Oregon.

Although they’d hoped to begin as soon as they could, the Netteburgs had no choice but to put their plans on hold when they discovered that they were expecting their fifth child. Their youngest daughter, Piper, was born in June 2021.

Once things had settled down, they began reading up on “everything about having a baby in the wilderness” in order to be able to take on the Continental Divide Trail with their newborn.

They used elimination communication, the practice of identifying your child’s bathroom cues at an early stage, to toilet train Piper as early as possible.

“A lot of people do it. I just didn’t know about it,” says Danae.

The family also opted to “pare down” their camping equipment in order to make room for all of the extra stuff they’d have to carry, including an extra sleeping bag, as well as “extra clothes and food and all the rest,” now that they had a baby along with them.

“It really added a great deal of complexity into the hike,” says Olen.

They set off with their new addition, who they nicknamed “dead weight,” and the rest of the children in March 2022.

But having to carry a newborn along with them didn’t slow this hiking family down at all.

In fact, they were able to complete Continental Divide Trail in six months, a month less time than the Appalachian Trail had taken them.

“And it was farther too,” says Olen, before noting that they were able to “cover a lot more ground” due to their kids being slightly older this time. “So we went farther and faster.”

Of course, hiking with five children comes with its challenges. The couple use various different tactics to motivate their young ones while on the trail.

For instance, Olen has memorized all of the songs from the soundtrack of Disney’s “Frozen,” and says that  bringing about an impromptu singalong to “Let It Go” while going up a mountain can make all the difference when it comes to how fast the kids are moving.

“Kids really want their parents’ undivided attention,” he notes. “And when you’re hiking, you have the opportunity to do that a lot better. There’s no cell phone signal, there’s no anything else to distract you.”

Once they’d successfully completed the Continental Divide Trail in late 2022, the family were determined to achieve the Triple Crown by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

During their first mammoth trails, the couple took sabbaticals from work, while their older children, who are all home-schooled, worked hard to “get ahead” before the trip in order to be able to take the time out.

“Them working very hard in school has made it possible for us to do this,” explains Olen.

But after over a decade working in Chad, Danae and Olen left their medical practice earlier this year to move back to the US full time.

“We’d been there for 12 years, except for the two years that we took a break to do the hikes,” explains Danae. “So it was time for a new person to take over.”

While they plan to settle down and begin making plans for the future at some stage, the family decided to first move ahead with their next big goal – the Pacific Crest Trail.

Triple Crown glory

The Netteburgs are currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653-mile trail extending from Mexico to Canada.

They started the trail in May, setting off from near Big Bear, California, and made good progress initially.

However, things proved to be incredibly difficult this year due to the amount of snow in California, and the Netteburgs had to move around a lot to avoid the dangerous snow areas.

“They’ve had like more than three times their average snowfall,” explains Olen. “That really threw a massive wrench into things for everybody. Not just for us, but everybody.”

The couple point out that having their kids with them meant that they had to be even more cautious when it came to making decisions about the areas to potentially avoid.

“Our kids are little,” adds Danae. “They’re definitely not fragile. But we have to take care of them.

“So they’re relying on us to not put them in a dangerous situation. And most people just have themselves to worry about.”

When the family met other hikers along the trail, they’d often ask them about their “zero days,” where hikers take a break from walking to do their laundry or stock up on food.

According to Olen, his and Danae’s “zero days” could actually be harder than their hiking days, as they have “all these kids with pent up energy that they have to work out.”

Meanwhile, feeding seven people while on the proved to be pretty costly, while carrying around that much food meant that they had a heavier load.

The family used a mini van, Olen’s dad’s 2014 Dodge Grand Caravan, packed with “over 200 pounds of gear and often several weeks of food,” to move from different hiking areas and arranged for family and/or friends to move it along the trail for them.

Although they’ve received some free or discounted gear from a number of companies, they’ve funded the hikes themselves.

Danae and Olen are incredibly proud of their children, who have learned a great deal from being out in the wilderness.

“We’re seeing animals like bears and moose – I saw a mountain lion,” says Danae. “Just lots of neat things.

“The kids are looking at the trees and the flowers and really studying them, wondering what they are.”

The older children have been listening to classic literature such as Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” while hiking, and the family try to fit in regular verbal spelling and math quizzes with the younger ones on the go.

“We’re hoping that the kids take from this, a sense of our family coming closer together,” says Olen.

“And also a sense that no matter what comes, they’ve accomplished a hard thing. And when something seems hard, there’ll be one of the few children to have hiked 7,000 miles.”

On November 4, the family finally reached their finish line, the border of Mexico.

“We’ve all had the best experience,” Danae told CNN Travel shortly after they’d completed the trail.

The Netteburgs have registered their previous hikes with long distance hiking organizations Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA) and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC,) and plan to log their Triple Crowns with American Long Distance Hiking Association-West (ALDHA-West).

They were recently invited to attend next year’s annual ALDHA-West Gathering in recognition of their “crowns.”

Now that they’ve ticked the Triple Crown off their to-do list, Danae and Olen say they’d love to buy a sailboat, or convert a school bus into a motorhome and set off on another adventure with their children.

But for the time being, the family are making the most of not having to walk for miles every day, and hope to pay a visit to Disneyland, as well as catch up with their friends, in the coming days.

Although they have no plans to do another trail for a while, Danae and Olen say they’ve discussed attempting one outside of the US, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain, or the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand.

However, the couple are mindful that their kids will “probably need real school” at some point, and once they both begin working again, they may need to stay in one place, wherever that may be.

“Real life is a bummer,” jokes Olen.