How a Family of Five Plans to Thru-Hike the 2000+ Mile Appalachian Trail this Summer

An Interview with Damien Tougas About his Family’s Upcoming Thru-Hike of the 2000+ Mile Appalachian Trail and Their Special Video Series Project

More than a few years ago, my wife and I (and Ronin the dog) met another outdoorsy family, that in our minds, took all this outdoor adventure stuff to a whole new level. A relationship blossomed during a somewhat miserable downpour in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Damien Tougas
Damien Tougas, the computer programming, minimalist-footwear donning, ultra-light backpacking extraordinaire and head honcho of the Tougas Family Adventure Force.

Now, for the past several years, Damien, his wife, Renee, and their three school-aged kids have been planning and preparing to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail, which is a tremendous undertaking for anyone – let along a family of five. But believe it or not, this grand adventure isn’t all they have planned.

You see, something you should know about the Tougas family is that they are both dreamers and doers. They decide what they want and then craft their lives to move in the direction of their dreams. They make things happen. Even if they’re scared. Even if they don’t know how they’re going to do it. They move forward confidently. They are true adventurers in every sense of the word! And though they wouldn’t admit it, they are truly hardcore – not settling for mere thrills, but ever-searching for the majesty contained in both simple everyday life and also in grand adventures.

Ever since we first met, they have always impressed and inspired us with their dreams and especially their pursuit of those dreams. And this interview is all about their next big adventure to inspire you to pursue your own dreams. And between you and me, I think this is only the beginning for them.

note: the following interview is with Damien Tougas, the founder and editor-in-chief of Toe Salad.

What on Earth would possess your family to hike over 2,000 miles – crossing six national parks and eight national forests over fourteen states – on the Appalachian Trail? Have you gone crazy my good man? I mean, these days, most families have enough trouble getting out the door for a day hike, let alone an overnight backpacking trip.

Wow, you know your stuff. I didn’t know the trail went through six national parks! We’re not crazy, at least we don’t feel crazy. We have some very good reasons for wanting to do this.

– 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.

For the record, I looked up those facts about the AT. Encyclopedia Britannica, I am not. Now, I’m a bit afraid to ask, but what kind of planning goes into a thru-hike like this?

Lots! We have been thinking and talking about this trip for years. We have spent several years positioning our life so that we could attempt a project like this. We are now finally in a place where we can actually do it (and it still feels like a big leap of faith!).

These days, most of our planning and preparation energies have been directed towards producing the video series. The actual hike preparation has taken a back seat (and that isn’t necessarily bad).

We have been hiking for years, so our gear list hasn’t been all that difficult to figure out. Since there are frequent town stops along the trail, food planning has not been a big priority for us because we will be able to get much of what we need as we go. I honestly believe that getting to the trail head is going to be the hardest part (and everything associated with that). Once we are on the trail, a lot of “trail life” pieces will fall into place on their own.

The whole concept of producing a web series on the other hand, is very new for us, and therefore that is where the bulk of our energy is going.

Obviously, hiking as a family creates an interesting dynamic and presents some unique challenges. How do you anticipate this thru-hike will be different with school-aged children participating?

Different than what? We don’t know how to hike and backpack any other way :-) For us, NOT having each other around would be stranger than doing it together.

That being said, it isn’t the norm to thru-hike as a family (or with kids) and so I am sure a lot of people will want to know what that looks like. Our goal is to capture that on video, to give people a flavor of what it is like to do a trek with kids.

I will say that our family isn’t exactly “typical” though. We homeschool. Our kids are healthy. They don’t overdose on media. They spend a lot of time being active and outdoors. It’s not like we are pulling some junk-food eating, media-overdosed kids from their video games and putting them in the bush for six months. We are not going for shock value, we want to inspire people to think about what is possible for their own lives – beyond what they might think is “normal”.

Tougas Family

Your family is not only well-versed and well-equipped with minimalist footwear, but in ultra-light backpacking as well. I think that just the idea of carrying less weight makes backpacking much more appealing and accessible to novice and intermediate hikers. Do you think these practices make extended trips like this more manageable for a family? And for beginner-level hikers, and particularly those with children who’d like to hike as a family, is this a style of hiking you’d recommend?

Absolutely. If you are hiking or backpacking with kids, you can’t overburden them, or yourself, otherwise nobody will have fun. Being a parent, you will always be carrying extra gear for the sake of your family. Having a lightweight philosophy and using lightweight gear is critical to success (at least it has been for us).

Now for the difficult part: The most important part of a lightweight backpacking philosophy requires a shift in thinking. It’s not just about lighter weight gear. It’s about learning how to do more with less, being comfortable with multiple use gear/clothing, and some re-programming of your mindset regarding what is really necessary to be happy, safe, and comfortable in the woods. Once you make it over these little hurdles, it isn’t rocket science, and doesn’t have to cost a lot of money if you understand the underlying principles.

What physical preparations (ie fitness and conditioning) have you been engaged in leading up to this trip?

As a family, we make it a priority to spend one day a week outdoors. Either hiking, backpacking, skiing, or trail running. We do this throughout the year, regardless of whether or not we are planning for a trip of some kind. We also make a point of doing some form of outdoor activity most days if we can.

The point of all this is to stay reasonably fit and healthy. We aren’t going over-and-above our normal routine – there is no real need to overdo things, we aren’t training for the Olympics. There will be more than enough time to increase our fitness as required once we are on the trail, provided we ease into it.

From what I understand, your family eats a flexible mostly-vegan diet that also accounts for some food sensitivities (e.g. gluten). I hope I got that right! So, what is your overall plan for food while on the trail and how on Earth are you going to get enough calories to keep those legs a’movin’? Thousands of Clif bars? PB & J? McDonalds?

You got our diet style pretty nailed down there, good job. We certainly don’t expect our diet to stay the same while on the trail – for one thing there is no way we will be able to consume the same amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables as we do at home. Our goal is to eat as healthy as we can within the constraints of what will be available to us while on the trail, while getting the calories we need.

We are not planning our food in too-detailed of a fashion at this point. There will be town stops every 4 – 5 days on the trail, so we can restock along the way. Some items (i.e. gluten-free items) will be purchased and mailed to us as we go to account for my gluten sensitivity.

We will most definitely eat more junk food (I just think that is inevitable), but we will do our best to not overdo it.

This might sound like we are flying by the seat of our pants here (some people spend a lot of time preparing food prior to their hikes), but we are looking at this another way: we are moving our life to the trail for six months. We don’t plan our food at home for six months in advance, so why should we do it for this? At home we shop at the local grocery stores as much as we can, and order other items we can’t find locally. There is no reason why we can’t do that on the trail either.

We are also partnering with Outdoor Herbivore, one of our sponsors. They make nutritionally excellent trail food suitable for people with food sensitivities, like myself. These meals will really come in handy when gluten-free options are not available from small grocery stores and re-supply points along the way.

Now, you guys won’t just be backpacking, you’ll also be filming a video series to document the journey as well. Can you tell us a little about this project and why you decided to do this? Isn’t hiking the entire AT enough work as it is?

An opportunity like this doesn’t just happen every day, and so we want to make the most of it. Our goal as a family has been to gradually merge our work and our passions, this is just the next step in that direction. We love the outdoors. How can we take our love of the outdoors, and this experience, and use it to encourage, inspire, and make a living at it too? Some people write books of their experiences. We decided to try doing something different: we are making a video web series.

The goal of the video series will be to chronicle our trip in a way that will be entertaining, inspirational, and informative.

Beyond our Boundaries

What is your vision or ultimate goal for this video series? What do you want to accomplish with it?

We have a few overarching goals for this project:

– We want to tell an interesting story. (Actually, we want to live an interesting story.)

– We want to remove some barriers to what people think is possible with family life.

– We want to move ahead in our goals of becoming producers of high quality, creative, and inspiring outdoors-oriented online content.

What do you hope the videos will be like? (e.g. mostly entertainment like a reality TV show or mostly informative – a blend of both?)

We are hoping for a blend. We want to capture the story of our hike, which will have a certain “reality TV show” flavor (but what do we know, we don’t watch TV!). The videos will be entertaining because we think life on the trail will include many interesting moments, but we also want it to be informative. We’d like to help other individuals and families with their own adventures, based on our experience. And if the kids have any say (and they do), there should be some dumb fun, because that is just the way kids are. We want the series to reflect the unique personalities in our family, which means that it won’t be purely one type of entertainment. It will be creatively diverse, just our like family, and show the various facets of this adventure – both informative and entertaining.

Well, I know the whole Siffer-fam will be watching, but what kind of person do you think would be most interested in following your video series and why?

If you are a young single male looking for over-the-top white knuckle extreme death footage, then you probably won’t like this series. However, if you are a person, of any age or gender, who likes a good story, then you’ll enjoy this series. You don’t have to be an outdoors person to appreciate this video series, as this will largely be a story about a family on a journey, which just happens to take place in the outdoors, on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, in order to make this video series the way you want to, you’re going to need some help, which is why you created a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the video production aspect of this project. Tell us a little bit about that, and how people could help you make this dream a reality.

The Kickstarter campaign is to help us get the video series off the ground. Creating a video series of our hike takes gear and trip preparation to a whole different level. It requires equipment, technology, logistics, and the services of talented people. And all of that costs money.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Kickstarter is a crowd funding mechanism for small time folks like ourselves to raise funds for creative projects (projects that produce something) from a large pool of people. In exchange, supporters/backers get rewards or gifts from the finished product. In our case you get access to the video series and/or advertising on the series, which is more appealing for businesses etc.

The best way for people to help us with our campaign is to support it! You can give as little as $1, however at higher pledge levels you get access to the videos, which is the whole idea behind the campaign – to create the video series.

Another totally free way to help is to simply spread the word. The more people who find out about our project the higher our chances of success.

It’s really easy to share our project with the links directly below the video on our campaign page.

Thanks so much John for taking the time and space to share our project with your readers. And we really hope some of the Siffer-fam can join us for a section on the trail when we come through New Hampshire!

It’s my pleasure, Damien. You guys totally rock and we’ll be rooting for you as you undertake this epic adventure. See you on the trail!

Click Here to Visit the Official Kickstarter Campaign Page

Now, before we wrap up, I wanted to share this video about the Tougas’ family’s upcoming adventure. Enjoy!

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Health-First Fitness Coach

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2 Responses

  1. John, Thank you so much for sharing our project with your readers.

    And I’m serious, I do hope some of the Siffer-fam can join us for a section on the trail when we come through New Hampshire! (I wrote that part!).

    And I laughed at your description under Damien’s mugshot, the “tougas family adventure force” ha, ha!

    • Well, you guys ARE a force to be reckoned with :-)

      And if at all possible, some of the Siffer-fam would like to join you for a bit of the adventure when you get up to our neck of the woods. You guys can’t have all the fun!

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