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Chelsey Evans strapped on her pack, ready for a long-distance hike and overnight camping trip in Southern California for the first weekend in October. In her backpack were the essentials, like sunscreen, a hat, water – and a baby.
Safely secured in her carrier, Landon, Evans' 7-month-old son, was about to join her on the 18-mile-long adventure, a first for the both of them.
The family didn't stop there. Evans' mom, Angela Servi, was lacing up her hiking boots and going the distance with Evans as well, making it three generations of family on the trek with HIGHLANDER, a long-distance, noncompetitive hiking event that just made its U.S. debut this year.
Starting in 2017 in Croatia, HIGHLANDER is the largest hiking club in the world. It aims to show people how they can improve their lives through the "powerful benefits of long-distance hiking."
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Besides physical exercise, hiking while being surrounded by nature has powerfully restorative benefits for people – it has been found to improve mental health and overall well-being. Compared with indoor exercisers, hikers tend to burn more calories because they spend more time outside enjoying nature and have "greater feelings of revitalization."
Like every HIGHLANDER event, this one offered different lengths for hikers, from 15 miles – which Evans and Servi chose – to 30 miles and culminates with a 60-mile trek that takes five days of backpacking. (The full route tends to be a bit longer than the names of each distance, so the 15 is actually 18 miles total.)
Documenting her travels on her Instagram, Evans and Servi, along with many other backpackers, traversed south through Big Bear's Wild Burro Territory in California, known for its wild donkeys and spiky Joshua trees, to the Erwin Lake, where alpine mountaintops peek over. They followed the trail as it passed through open clearings and forests. In total, the family ascended 2,367 feet through the San Bernardino National Forest, where wildflowers grow and bald eagles roam.
Evans recalls the triumph she felt when her family hit the finish line. To Evans, 30, the weekend adventure with her son and mom became "something we're going to remember our entire lives."
Evans might be right about that. Mary Beth DeWitt, chief of child psychology at Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio, said family trips and activities like the HIGHLANDER (although they don't have to be as extreme as an 18-mile trek) are important quality time for families to form fond memories and enhance their relationships, which in turns helps boost their health and well-being.
Passing on a love for the outdoors
Evans grew up in the San Diego area, known for its warm climate and abundance of outdoor activities, which her family took full advantage of. "We weren't a family that stayed inside," she said.
According to Servi, this was on purpose. She and her husband frequently took their four children – Chelsey is the oldest to three younger brothers – on camping trips to the local mountains and beaches. Sometimes they'd go below the border and beach camp around Baja, Mexico. They'd pile into their tent trailer for the weekend and enjoy the fresh air. The family would spend the day hiking along short trails and fishing. They'd also camp with family friends.
"There’s nothing like time outdoors with family to create bonds through those experiences," Servi said, adding that these trips "created many special memories for our family."
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Studies show that families who experience nature together on trips make memories that are integral to positive family bonding. Natural environments also are found to be stimulating social interactions between kids. Hiking with others also has been shown to combat loneliness.
The trips "gave us time with our children to talk and explore," Servi said. "It helped to create relationships between the siblings. I believe it has helped my children become so adventurous in their adult lives as well. They have all far exceeded my husband and I in that endeavor."
Evans went on to become a nurse in San Francisco, where she met colleagues who introduced her to backpacking. She joined them on trips to places like Yosemite. Her occupation as a nurse allowed for the time off: She was working long shifts for three days and had the other four days off. "Since you can't take your job at home with you ... I was able to do whatever I wanted," she said. "That's what I started doing on my days off: exploring the areas around me."
Adjusting to motherhood, learning to hike with a baby
When she got married and got pregnant, Evans moved back to San Diego with a big worry on her mind: "My biggest fear was that life would stop." She was scared she was going to have to give up her active outdoors lifestyle because of the demands that come with motherhood. "I was pretty determined when I had (Landon)," she said. "I'm going to take him everywhere with me, whether or not my husband comes."
She made a list of goals for her and her family, like taking Landon camping within the first three months of his life – which she said "was easy" because babies "just kind of sleep most of the time." The hardest part, she said, was figuring out how to dress him appropriately and not forgetting anything he might need. She also took Landon hiking and even on solo trips to outdoorsy destinations like Oregon, but not on hikes that were strenuous or long, and nothing like the HIGHLANDER.
Evans had heard about the HIGHLANDER event through friends on social media. When she learned one was happening nearby her, a lightbulb went off.
"I had been wanting to take my son backpacking with me but was kind of afraid to just do it on my own for the first time," she said. "So many things could go wrong."
Evans felt confident and safe going with HIGHLANDER because it's a popular, well-organized event using designated trail routes, often on well-marked trails that provided food, checkpoints and chosen camping sites. Plus, the participants embark as a group and then go at their own pace.
"I wanted to show moms or inspire other moms that it's going to take a lot of work, but you can do it if you're really passionate about it, you can make it work."
She said Landon loves being outside and surrounded by nature. "Whenever I take him outside, he does super-well. So I thought, 'I think he'll do well on this.'"
For young ones like Landon, these outdoor adventures with his mom and grandma can help in his development, which can "contribute to relationship-building and sets the foundation for social emotional development, confidence and resilience," DeWitt said.
Remembering that her mom always wanted to go with her on a backpacking trip, Evans invited Servi to join her.
"I have done a decent amount of moderate hiking in my life, and I liked the idea of pushing myself to try backpacking when Chelsey invited me to join her," Servi said. "Chelsey was adamant to take Landon backpacking before his first birthday, and I wanted to help her with him along the way."
It was "the perfect opportunity" for her family.
One weekend, 18 miles
Evans' active background of regular hiking and daily exercise allowed her to get away without training much for the hike. Servi said she lives an active life as well and did minimal training, such as going on semi-regular hikes on trails by her house with her husband and walking on an incline on a treadmill with a pack on. "I walk a lot at the beach with friends and I enjoy riding my Peloton bike at home," Servi said. "All of that together helped me to get through the HIGHLANDER 15."
On the HIGHLANDER, the family trekked 9 miles each day. "It went so well," Evans said. "He literally did not cry the entire time."
She said Landon spent much of the hike napping in the carrier and ate his food when she offered it to him. Evans was worried he would cry at the campsite, but that didn't happen. "I got blisters, and I was so hot, he did better than I did," she said. "He smiled every time someone walked by."
She did have to make some adjustments to bring the baby along, like making sure she was extra-careful with her footing. "It was different having to carry a heavy baby," she said. She acknowledged that the pack was "extremely heavy" – she estimated 32 pounds – so it "took double the time" to hike.
Servi stepped in at times, helping carry her grandson for 2 miles. The two women took turns feeding him, changing his diaper and entertaining him at the campsite.
Reaching the end of the hike, where people were cheering them on, felt like a triumph.
"It brings you together," Evans said. "When my blisters were killing me, she bandaged my feet up and encouraged me to keep going. You become closer as a family to overcome something hard and reach the same end goal and destination."
Have you traveled with family? Did that experience change your dynamic?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hiking with family: 3 generations made a long trek in Big Bear