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Eleven Years Old on the PCT

Recently unemployed, with a daughter itching to complete a thru-hike, what's a dad to do? Get sponsors and yank her from school, of course!

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by Eric Gjonnes | 2011-04-12 00:05:00-06

BackpackingLight sponsored a father/daughter team on their PCT thru-hike in the summer of 2011. To get the full skinny on what a dynamic duo they are, read their first installment of adventure, Eleven Years Old on the PCT (this article), then their second, We're Going to Disneyland!, then their third, Sunshine in the Sierra Mountains.


Father Daughter PCT - 1
Balls and Sunshine, age 10, at the Canadian border.

A Note on My Trail Name

When I joined the Army, my plan was to fly under the radar in basic training and not be noticed by the drill sergeants. How hard can it be to blend in with 300 other men that are all 17 to 21 years old, shaved bald, and wearing the same camo clothes? Easy, right?


You see, my family is from Norway, so I was blessed with a last name that's impossible to pronounce in English. With some imagination and sadistic spite, one could pronounce it cojones, which means "balls" in Spanish. On my first day in training, my drill sergeant took one look at my name and shouted (the only way they ever spoke) "Cojones! COOO-JOOO-NES! Boy! Do you know what that means? It means 'balls!' Boy, you better have some balls if you want to make it through this!" From that point on, everyone only knew me as Balls.

The drill sergeants had me brew coffee in their office at all times, and whenever they wanted a cup, they would yell "Balls!" down the hall. All the other trainees would join in, echoing down the long concrete hallway. I had five seconds to be in the office in the parade rest position with a hot cup of coffee in my hand. It didn't matter if I was taking a shower or on the toilet: five seconds, that's all! I mentioned this story to some hikers, and they naturally insisted on "Balls" being my trail name.

Growing up in small town Midwestern America, I was no stranger to hiking, what with many years of my older brother dragging me along on his pointless wandering. He loved to simply take a compass bearing and walk into the woods or swamp on a game trail (which always disappeared). After hours of falling in the mud, being accosted by wood ticks, and lacerated by briers just for the sake of knowing what the terrain was like, he would look at his compass and walk right back to the road where we started.

I joined the Army straight out of high school, just before Desert Storm. Humping 100 pounds of land mines in an external frame pack and walking through stream beds up the side of South Korean mountains in the dark didn't help my affection for hiking.

While in South Korea, I sustained a major back injury (I was knocked off a tank, fell ten feet into rocks, and landed on my tail bone). Over the years, this injury worsened, leaving me unable to walk for days at a time. When I could walk, it was with a limp and a hunched back, but the only thing that relieved the chronic nerve pain in my back and legs was walking. I walked around our neighborhood before and after work to ease the pain and stiffness. In 2001, I finally agreed to undergo back surgery after realizing that I couldn't even hold my infant daughter, Reed, for any length of time. Sometime during this process, I decided that if I needed to walk all the time, I would at least get out of town and see some wilderness.

Beginning to Backpack

After surgery, I still have chronic pain and limited ability, and I can't sit more than 15 minutes at a time without muscle spasms. However, following my recovery, I was determined to start backpacking for the first time in my life. Of course, my back problems mandated I pack as lightly as possible. After one 30-mile trip on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was hooked on backpacking and the PCT forever, beginning my obsession with ultralight methods. I started with mainstream periodicals, equipment, and methods. It didn't take me long to grow out of these entry level tools, and I began to search the internet (once my greatest adversary, but now an ally!) for new ideas. I stumbled onto many UL manufacturers and Backpacking Light.

Each year my pack has become lighter and smaller. Last summer, I ditched my titanium alcohol stove for cold food: salami, hard cheese, and cold instant oatmeal. I even learned about pre-made bean and cheese burritos from gas stations. You just set the burrito at the top of your pack on a nice sunny afternoon, and by dinner, voila! You have a hot meal. Achieving a 7-pound base weight last summer was the culmination of eight years of trial and error, research, and mooching tips off every hiker I ran into.

Sharing the Gift

As a married man, one of my loftiest dreams was to have a son to share my love for the outdoors with, though my wife and I had two beautiful daughters. I grew up as a Boy Scout and later was a Boy Scout and Royal Rangers Leader for many years. Since I don’t do anything half-heartedly, I soon found myself investing more than 2,000 hours a year in these boy’s programs. It took me away from my family far too much. One day it hit me: I wasn't going to have a son, I was raising other peoples' kids, and I was neglecting my own daughters. I abruptly quit my leadership roles and began taking my family on adventures. The additional time allowed me to go on more challenging adventures and improve my own skills as well. I didn’t need a son to share this amazing gift - my daughters loved it as much as I did!

My relationship with the girls flourished once I started spending more time outdoors with them. Reed responded especially well to hiking and embraced everything I taught her. She began hiking ten-mile days at age six. At age seven, she climbed Broken Top with me, glissading the entire way down. At age eight, she climbed the South Sister, passing many adults with ease. By nine years old she easily hiked 15 miles a day. (Her younger sister, Annika, loves the outdoors, but isn't as fond of hiking. Perhaps she will be my touring kayak partner some day!) Reed always begs me to take the long way home (usually by asking to start out in the opposite direction of home), and it didn't take long to figure out that Reed would be my thru-hiking partner some day. I just didn’t think that “some day” would arrive so soon!

A Trail Name

Reed, who is now ten years old, joined me for 150 miles on the PCT last year. Her first section in northern California was full of trail angels doting over her, hot springs, and good old California sunshine. Her number one ambition on this hike was to get a trail name. Blue Butterfly said that the sun in Reed's hair and her cheery disposition reminded her of the sunshine. “Sunshine” it was! Her second ambition was to beat her mother's single day 17-mile distance record. On her first day, Sunshine hiked 19 miles and later, 21 miles. In September, we hiked 30 miles into Monument 78, at the Canadian border and back to pick up some thru hikers who could not enter Canada. We hiked 18 miles to base camp, slack packed to the border and back the next day (24 miles), then 18 miles back out to the car. It snowed and rained on us all three days! We were so wet and cold, I thought, “Surely this will turn her off to thru-hiking forever.” However, on the way home, all she talked about was when our next thru-hike would be. I agreed to seriously consider quitting work and completing a thru-hike with her in 2013.

As my back problems grew more aggravated through years of physical labor, it became apparent to me that I could not be an electrician for the rest of my working life. My well paying career was slipping away from me, with an employer unwilling to understand or accommodate my service-related disability. I tried for years to work my way into a less physically demanding job within the company, but was stymied at every turn. In December 2010, my 17 years of service and ambition ended in being laid off. Of course I was angry and felt betrayed, but I couldn’t show signs of failure to my family. I walked in the door, gave the girls big hugs and kisses, and said "I have good news. Sunshine, there is a 100% chance that we will be thru-hiking the PCT this year!”

Turns out, being laid off was the best thing that has ever happened to me! I quickly engaged in conversations with Reed's current school, teachers, and the middle school she will be attending next year. Everyone agreed that she is an excellent student and would actually learn more on the trail. Her fifth grade teacher will be mailing math pages to work on along the way, and made me promise to bring books for her to read. Reed will never have to say she had a 'distant father,' considering we won’t be more than 100 feet apart for the next five and a half months.

Figuring Out the Details

Bringing my 10-year-old daughter on this trip makes the balance between ultralight and safety more delicate than ever. I had to rethink my UL philosophy altogether. My wonderfully understanding (and beautiful) wife said, "Eric, you pushed your limits last year and put yourself into some dangerous situations. That can’t happen with Reed along.”

Needless to say, I won’t be night hiking - seriously, never remove your pack (containing everything you require to survive the night) in the dark, then walk off trail to hang your bear bag. I’m bringing back the stove - no skimping on food - and I’m carrying a two-person tent. However, that doesn't mean I need to join the traditional backpacking crowd with their 50-pound packs. It only means that I need to do more research and purchase our gear wisely. We also have several generous sponsors who have helped us achieve our safety and weight goals, and I plan to provide reviews on all our equipment as the journey progresses.

We plan to begin this amazing adventure April 29, 2011, at the Mexican border during the annual PCT kick-off event, and finish in early September. The record holder for the youngest PCT thru-hiker is a 10-year-old girl. Though Sunshine will be 11 when we complete our hike, we plan to finish almost two months earlier than the record holder, who also took some alternate routes and side roads instead of the established PCT. Sunshine and I are determined to stick to this year's official established PCT.

As trail angel Donna Saufley told me last year, "When life hands you a thru-hike, you have to take it." Instead of staying at home, getting fat and depressed because life took a crazy turn, we, as a family, want to embrace it and accept it for the blessing that it is. I have an opportunity to impact Sunshine’s life forever. I wouldn’t miss this for anything in the world! She is driven, like myself, and hopes to be the youngest Triple Crowner (PCT, AT, CDT) by the age of 13. Keep following this amazing adventure, as I believe it is only the beginning of an even greater journey!

Father Daughter PCT - 3
Sunshine, age 4. Left: Entering the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. Right: Her first freeze dried ice cream. She still doesn't like it.

Father Daughter PCT - 4
Sunshine, age 4. Left: On the way into Pamelia Lake, her first trip carrying all her own gear. Right: We got skunked fishing, so we gave up and swam instead. Notice the ultralight Elmo floatie!

Father Daughter PCT - 5
Sunshine, age 6, on her first overnight snowshoe trip.

Father Daughter PCT - 6
Sunshine, age 7. Left: Climbing Broken Top in the Three Sisters Wilderness. Right: At the top of Broken Top with Dad.

Father Daughter PCT - 7
Sunshine, age 8. Summit of South Sister, with Broken Top in the background.

Father Daughter PCT - 8
Sunshine, age 9. First 15-mile day. Notice the sign in the background? It's the same one from her 4-year-old trip photo (mounted to a different tree - possibly due to storm damage to the original tree).

Father Daughter PCT - 9
Sunshine, age 9. Literally ON Shale Lake, with Mount Jefferson in the background.

Father Daughter PCT - 10
Sunshine, age 10. Left: Drakesbad, California on her first 19-mile day. Pictured with Ed, Golden Child (with whom she's still in touch), and Jake Rabbit. Right: Hat Creek Rim, on the longest waterless stretch on the PCT. She hiked 21 miles that day on the Rim, and some thru-hikers actually skipped this section because of the heat.

Father Daughter PCT - 11
Sunshine, age 10. At the Canadian border, in a brief reprieve from the rain.

Father Daughter PCT - 13
Sunshine, age 10. Hiking back to the PCT after a visit to a trail angel.

Gear List

Sunshine's Interview

EG: Why do you want to thru-hike?

Sunshine: I really like walking and backpacking a lot. Our family has always walked together. It seems like a great opportunity to walk a lot and spend lots of time with you. All your trail stories sound like so much fun.

EG: Does it seem scary or dangerous?

Sunshine: Some parts I think will be scary, like cold weather, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and mountain lions that could hurt me. But I'm pretty sure that nothing will happen because I've got you along. I know you won't let anything happen to me.

Annika: (Sunshine's sister, listening in while eating applesauce) I have a question.

EG: Yes, Annika?

Annika: Can I have more applesauce?

EG: Yes, Annika. (to Sunshine) When did you first want to thru-hike the PCT?

Sunshine: I've known ever since you started hiking it, because your really cool stories and pictures. Every time we hike together, I have so much fun. I chose the PCT first because our family has always hiked it or gone to PCT events and when we aren't, you're planning the next trip. Each time we dropped you off for a trip, it seemed more and more exciting.

Annika: (while eating her applesauce) Sunshine, are you interested in bringing us back souvenirs?

Sunshine: Yes, I'll bring lots of shiny rocks home.

EG: Will you miss home and day-to-day life? If so, why, and what will you miss the most?

Sunshine: Yes, I'm not going to see my friends and family for a long time, but we can email everyone when we get to a town. I will miss Mom, Annika, the cat, my violin, my Webkinz, and my comfortable bed, that I love so much.

EG: What are you looking forward to the most?

Sunshine: Spending time with you and walking all the time. The greatest feeling will be reaching my goal of walking from Mexico to Canada. I also really want to see the wildlife preserve by the trail in California. I just don't want to camp by it. That would be scary!

Annika: (all done eating) Sunshine, are you interested in hiking in the really hot desert?

Sunshine: Yes, it sounds adventurous.

EG: Go to bed Annika. I love you. Good night.

Annika: Ok, love you too. Dad, can I have more -

EG: No, good night. (to Sunshine) Do you think it will be a challenge?

Sunshine: Yes, but I like challenges. Things that are easy are too boring.

EG: It's almost time for our trip. What are you doing to prepare besides training with me after school?

Sunshine: I walk 10 to 12 laps around the track at school during lunch recess every day with my friend Riely. We've done over 75 miles together at school. I can't wait for our trip!

EG: Thank you, Reed. I love you.

Sunshine: Love you too, Dad. Good night.

  • Printed Buff (1.4 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Merino Wool Hoody (9.1 oz)
  • Silk Long Johns (Top and Bottom) (6.7 oz)
  • Disposable Rain Poncho (1.8 oz)
  • MontBell Down Hooded Jacket (9.5 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Thorofare Trekking Shirt (5.0 oz)
  • REI Titanium Pot Set (5.1 oz)
  • Vargo Triad Alcohol Stove (1.1 oz)
  • 3L CamelBak Bladder (7.8 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Bear Bag Hanging System (4.8 oz)
  • Fuel Bottles 2x (1.5 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Absaroka Pack (34.5 oz)
  • MontBell Spiral Down Hugger #3, 30 F (20.0 oz)
  • Backpacking Light DIAD 3/16 inch Sleeping Pad (1.9 oz)
  • Zpacs Hexamid Twin Tent (11.4 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Stix Trekking Poles (8.0 oz)
  • Leatherman Squirt (2.0 oz)
  • First Aid/Emergency Bag: bandages, gauze, foot tape, head lamp, compass, Neosporin, personal hygiene, dropper bottle with bleach for water purification, lighter, spork, ibuprofen, pen, note pad (16.0 oz)
Sunshine's List
  • Backpacking Light Absaroka Pack (33.5 oz)
  • Backpacking Light Cocoon Insulated Hoody (9.7 oz)
  • Backpacking Light DIAD 3/16 Foam Pad (1.9 oz)
  • MontBell Spiral Down Hugger #1 Sleeping Bag 15 F (32.0 oz)

A note from Addie: I've been working closely with Eric and Reed/Balls and Sunshine, as Backpacking Light is one of their major sponsors this summer. Check back for periodic updates here, as well as on their trail journal and Sunshine's trail journal. One of the highlights of my spring was getting their thank you note for the BPL-supplied gear:

Father Daughter PCT - 14
The best thank you note ever? I THINK SO.


"Eleven Years Old on the PCT," by Eric Gjonnes. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-04-12 00:05:00-06.


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Eleven Years Old on the PCT
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Clint Hewitt
(WalkSoftly33) - F

Locale: New England
Amazed on 04/13/2011 10:41:36 MDT Print View

Such an amazing journey at such an age, Inspiring!

Have a ball of a time Sunshine!

P.S. Drop the homework and books, I'm sure the PCT has its own lesson plan. I mean we need to think of the extra ounces! well...That's if were talking gear list here :}

Sidenote: This past summer I met a another young trekker, an 8yr old boy who was thru hiking the AT with his father. Known as The Barbarian Horde Tecolote and Venado, (Owl and Deer ? ) I was amazed by Venado and how he seemed at home on the trail, confident and approachable. Venado was home schooled and for his independent project for the year, he came up with hiking the AT.

It is all pure awesomeness.

Stamati Anagnostou
(yeoldehipster) - F

Locale: New England
What a role model on 04/13/2011 11:59:01 MDT Print View

You must be an incredible father. If I am fortunate enough to have children, I'd like to be like you.

David Stapleton
(Earmuffs) - MLife

Locale: DC/VA/MD
Re: What a role model on 04/13/2011 12:14:50 MDT Print View

Eric - Thank you for this excellent article!

I sent my pops a few snippets hoping to rekindle his interest in backpacking and perhaps give him some motivation to start getting back into shape. I'd love to have some memories with him as that adventurous, outdoor-loving man he used to be.

Wish me luck!


Royal Magnell
(BlueMan) - F

Locale: Northern CA
Awesome! on 04/13/2011 12:50:49 MDT Print View

This is a fantastic idea. Thanks for doing an article on it. When I was 14 I was always planning trips that I was never allowed to take because I didn't have anyone to go with me =(

Buzz Burrell
(BBolder) - F
Nice on 04/13/2011 13:08:19 MDT Print View

A wonderful story; thanks. There are challenges; I hope the summer goes well.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Very cool! on 04/13/2011 13:15:58 MDT Print View

Awesome opportunity you both have, and I hope the trip is as enjoyable as possible. Good luck!

Andrew Skurka
(askurka) - F
Rethinking kids on 04/13/2011 13:26:16 MDT Print View

Awesome, love it.

Frank Oslick
(franko1946) - F
What next? on 04/13/2011 16:46:03 MDT Print View

I don't know what you plan to do after the PCT, but your writing is professional quality. Clear, simple, and honest.

Rick Horne
(Rick778) - M

Locale: NorCal - South Bay - Campbell
Re: Eleven Years Old on the PCT on 04/13/2011 17:30:52 MDT Print View

Pretty amazing. I definitely will be following your trail journal.
Living the dream :-)

Jacob D
(JacobD) - F

Locale: North Bay
Re: Eleven Years Old on the PCT on 04/13/2011 17:33:06 MDT Print View

Totally Rad, Dad!

William Johnson
Can I have more Trip Reports? No, go to bed. on 04/13/2011 17:50:05 MDT Print View

So great. Thanks for posting. Love the "Applesauce Bandit."

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Wahooo! on 04/13/2011 19:52:24 MDT Print View

Gotta love Tuesdays, especially when an article of this caliber comes along. I pray that all goes well for you two. You know, God does bring us some great opportunities and this is surely one of them. Very impressed you've grabbed it with all your will. Have fun and keep us updated.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Eleven Years Old on the PCT on 04/13/2011 20:10:19 MDT Print View

What an empowering journey for a kid! She will reap the benefits for the rest of her life. What can slow her down after that? She's going to be light years ahead of the other kids as far as confidence and maturity. Keep her challenged after the trip--- middle school might be a little boring after walking down the spine of a continent :)


Rodney Mruk

Locale: Northeast Oregon
BPL Membership to Sponsor "Sunshine" on 04/13/2011 22:35:30 MDT Print View

I agree with Nick as he wrote above. I would love it if BPL would set up a means whereby the members can join in on sponsoring this father-daughter duo trek. What better way to say thanks to Eric for his service to his country. What better way to say we believe in the benefits of backpacking for children. I would love to help support this entire family not just the hikers. Mom and the younger daughter can use our support as well.

So, I encourage all you BPL members to email the BPL Customer Service asking that they look into this possibility and make it a reality. Let's give back and pay it forward at the same time!

You go Balls & Sunshine.

Rodney Mruk

John Martin
(snapyjohn) - M

Locale: Pacific NW
Daddy Daughter Thru Hikers on 04/14/2011 00:19:45 MDT Print View

I am so impressed and a little envious. I also have two girls Allison five and Aimee 3. Alli has Aspergers a form of autism. I found that hiking is a great form of therapy for her. We hike together a couple of days a week. Low muscle tone, tippy toe walking, gross motor skills problems along with anxiety all are helped by hiking. It is a great alternative to drugs to treat anxiety. Our time together on the trail is so beneficial.

I read Zero Days a story of the youngest person to thru Hike the PCT. Scout a 10 year old girl and her parents set the bar. It is a great book by the way. I learned from their hike and it inspired me. I have made a goal to take Alli when she is physicaly ready to do it. It is great to see another daddy daughter duo.


Helping to support this incredible story is a great idea. Count me in.

Justin McMinn
(akajut) - F

Locale: Central Oklahoma
Re: Eleven Years Old on the PCT on 04/14/2011 09:03:39 MDT Print View

All I gotta say is Skurka better start checkin' his rear view mirror.

Emily Mathews

Locale: Bay Area
See you at the monument! on 04/14/2011 09:09:41 MDT Print View

Hey Balls and Sunshine! You are starting the same day as my daughter Ramblin' Rose and me (Half Step). Looking forward to meeting you both!

Rebecca Ribbing
(joyfulmama) - F

Locale: Alexandria, VA
amazing on 04/14/2011 09:12:51 MDT Print View

Good luck to you both! This sounds like an amazing experience! I can't wait to follow your trail journal reports.

I second the call to set up a paypal donation page.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Re: Eleven Years Old on the PCT on 04/14/2011 18:04:51 MDT Print View

This story is inspirational and I can't wait to follow your journey. Actually, I can't wait for my son Henry and I to follow your journey. He is 4 and he and just finished his 11th backpacking trip, most of which have been just the two of us. Backpacking has always been a place of joy for him, and for amazing father-son time. Most of my favorite moments as a parent have occurred on the trail with Henry.

Now I can see what this can lead to! That might not mean a thru-hike for us, but I can see how Sunshine has grown up with it and I can see a similar path for my kids.

Thank you so much for your adventure. It will be a pleasure to travel with you.



Edited by djohnson on 04/14/2011 18:05:43 MDT.

nancy sanders
(backpacker3057) - F
Amazing on 04/14/2011 19:13:50 MDT Print View

Great story...I love it. It inspired me!