I first spent time with Damien Tougas trekking in the Teton Range in September of 2010. During that trek, our conversations spanned the breadth and depth of various topics, including lightweight philosophy, physiology, maps, families, and of course, minimalist footwear. Since that time, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Damien and Renee and in watching them take risks to raise a family in a creative way that is both inspiring and exciting. In 2014, the Tougas family will attempt a thru-hike of the AT.
Not many families do long distance hiking together. Why do you think that is?
I think there are several reasons. First of all, there are not a lot of families that go backpacking together. There are some, but they are definitely a tiny fraction of the backpacking population. So if families don't backpack together, they are most likely not going to attempt to do a thru-hike together.
Many of the other reasons largely revolve around finances; having a family costs money. You are no longer just housing and feeding yourself, you have to take care of dependents as well. This usually means having a larger home (and associated mortgage), a larger car, a higher paying job, and generally less freedom as a result. Taking several months off from work requires a lot of planning and commitment, and for many families that prospect is very daunting, if not incredibly difficult.
How do you plan to overcome these challenges?
We have been planning this for years. The first step happened years ago when I told my wife that I wanted to do this as a family. The next big step for us was downsizing our life and becoming self employed. This enabled us to simplify our life and financial needs, giving us more freedom to do what we want with our time and money.
We have also been working towards turning our passions into our work, so that we can blend the things we enjoy doing with our income. Where some people decide to write stories or guide books based on their experiences, we have decided to do a video series on the experience. We do not consider this hike as a holiday or vacation, but as a work project. We want to produce great content from this experience, something people will want to follow.
What do your kids think about your thru-hike plans?
Our kids are used to doing whatever it is we do - we always have included them in most activities - so in many regards this is really no different. We have not sugar coated anything for them, they know it will be difficult. They also know that there will be rewards and experiences they will not be able to get anywhere else, so they are all on board, but they don't have unbridled enthusiasm (which I think is a good thing).
They love to meet people, see new places, and experience new things, so in that regard they are looking forward to the trek. They all have their strengths and weaknesses (just like their parents), so the things they are looking/not-looking forward to varies by child.
My oldest daughter hates bugs - that will probably be her biggest issue on the trail. My youngest daughter is excited about consuming more junk food calories. My son is an extravert, so he is looking forward to all the the people we will meet.
Capturing the personalities and reactions of each family member on the trail is a goal of ours, I think it will be really interesting to see how we work together.
People do long distance hikes for their own personal reasons, usually along the lines of "self-discovery, a deep nature experience, or to have a challenging outdoors experience". What are your family's reasons?
We see thru-hiking as the next step in our family hiking journey. We have been hiking together for more than seven years, since our youngest was a toddler. Irregular jaunts grew into a once a week commitment to family hiking; most of those years in the White Mountains of New England. Regular lightweight hiking grew into a desire for regular family backpacking. Weekend backpacking planted a seed for thru-hiking. And here we are.
We love the mountains. We are inspired by the mountains and we identify with mountain culture and activities. We want to spend as much time as possible in the mountains.
We want to live the kind of story that inspires us. We are inspired by stories of adventure and beauty, challenge and transformation. Thru-hiking is the kind of story we want to live.
We want to take our lightweight living philosophy to the next level. For years we have been carefully evaluating our relationship with stuff and questioning our need to own and amass a wealth of goods. Living in the outdoors, with only the goods we can carry on our backs, feels like the next step in practicing this philosophy.
We want to build our livelihood on interesting projects and unique experiences. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is the kind of work we want to do and the kind of experience we want to build our work around. We want to live adventures and share them.
We're on mission to help families make a way in their own lives to do the things they want to do. We encourage families to do that by lightening their living, getting out of debt, scaling down their possessions and material attachments, that kind of thing. It's also so important to spend time talking and being together. Getting to know each other really well, finding out each other's dreams, helping and supporting each other in reaching your goals.
As an editor of Backpacking Light we know you value a lightweight philosophy. What are your thoughts on lightweight family backpacking?
Lightweight backpacking "principles" are what enabled our family to successfully backpack together. For us, it was the principles (i.e. theory) that gave us the biggest bang for our buck.
There are basically two ways to lighten your pack: you can spend a lot of money on expensive high-tech gear, or you can learn to simplify your backpacking kit to be as minimalist as possible in order to save weight. Of course everyone always blends the two approaches to suit their needs (and we did the same). Being a single income family with five members, we could never afford the expensive items for everyone, but by employing minimalist backpacking principles we were able to keep our pack weights (especially mine!) manageable.
To help make things affordable, we have also taken lightweight backpacking principles into everyday life as well. As a result, much of our backpacking gear and clothing (especially clothing) has daily usefulness for us when we are not on the trail. For example, when one of my kids needs a new pair of pants, I generally try to find something that will work in the outdoors (when appropriate).
How do you manage to just "pull out" of your life for six months and hit the trail?
We don't see this as a break from our life but part of our living, the next big project on the horizon. Some families build houses, go on mission trips, go to Disney Land, we're doing a thru-hike. It's a family project, not a retreat or sabbatical from living - we are moving life to the trail. At least that is the goal anyway.
Beyond Our Boundaries: The Webseries
The Tougas family is creating a video webseries about their journey on the AT. Please consider supporting the creation of this content through Kickstarter!
If you don't see the video player in the space below, please click here to refresh the page.