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As Backpacker’s 2023 Pacific Crest Trail correspondent, David Gleisner is reporting on this year’s PCT season as he attempts a thru-hike of his own
On Zane “Boomerang” Netteburg’s 12th birthday, he found himself atop 6,200’ Hart’s Pass in Washington. In the midst of their Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, his family devised a challenge for the day.
“I hung 12 balloons from the trees, and I told him he had to attach them to his pack,” Danae “Queen Bee” Netteburg, Zane’s mother, says. “And then I was like, ‘Okay, you have to make it to camp without popping any.’”
Unfortunately, the conditions turned against him. Through heavy rain and hail (“It was like a car wash!” Danae says), Zane kept hiking, making it to camp with all 12 balloons intact and earning his birthday present: a new watch, along with freeze-dried ice cream and lots of other sweets.
So goes a day in the life of the Netteburgs, a family of seven currently thru-hiking the PCT to complete their Triple Crown. Danae and Olen “Spreadsheet”, both 44, hike with Lyol “Blaze” (14), Zane (12), Addison “Angel Wings” (9), Juniper “The Beast” (7), and Piper “Dead Weight” (2), making their way along the trail as a tight-knit crew and one of the PCT’s most unique tramilies.
The family’s adventures started in 2020. Olen, Danae, and the kids were living in the central African nation of Chad, where the parents worked at a hospital. Needing a break from the constant stresses of nurses knocking at their door, they decided to take an unpaid leave to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“We’d done several weeklong backpacking trips with the kids and there was no revolting or rebelling or ‘I hate this,’” Olen says. “Through rain and sunshine and snow and sleet and hail, the kids still seemed to enjoy doing it.”
The family planned on starting off with a month. If they hated it, they’d go home. But if they were enjoying it, growing as a family, and staying safe, they’d keep on going.
“It was always nonstop playing games and singing songs and talking, just really giving the kids our full attention,” Olen says. “One day, our kids counted 255 salamanders as we walked along because that was what excited them.”
They ended up completing the 2,190-mile trail that year, and by the time they reached the finish line, they had already started thinking about another thru-hike. But they’d soon learn some news that delayed their plans.
“We had kind of toyed with doing the [Continental Divide Trail] in 2021,” Olen says, “but we accidentally got pregnant on the Appalachian Trail.”
So, they went back to Africa for a year, taking care of the hospital and a newborn baby. The CDT plan didn’t stay dormant for long, though: In 2022, with 8-month-old Piper in tow, the family set off on their second thru hike.
With Danae breastfeeding along the way and Olen practicing times tables with Juniper, the family would go on to complete the full trail, now as a group of seven.
This year, they decided to go all in. After 12 and a half years in Chad, Olen and Danae quit their jobs at the hospital, and on May 17, the family began their thru hike of the PCT.
Each trail the family has hiked has posed unique challenges, and the PCT was no different. Like many 2023 thru hikers, the Netteburgs have had to flip and flop all over the trail to avoid snow.
“We’ve kind of had a rule,” Olen says. “Anything that requires an ice ax or crampons or microspikes or any of that, we’re not gonna take our kids to.”
After beginning their hike around Big Bear in Southern California, the family flipped north to Old Station, completing snow-free sections in northern California and Oregon. Now, they’re hiking southbound from the northern terminus in Washington to fill in the gaps.
The family hikes most hours of the day as a unit of seven, playing games, listening to audiobooks, and completing 20-plus miles of trail. Olen and Danae homeschool the kids, so on trail they keep up a lightened curriculum that they fill in through the remaining six months of the year.
“We’ll do math stuff and spelling stuff while we’re hiking,” Olen says. “And then we try to get them engaged in literature. Lyol, the 14-year-old, he’s currently listening to Anna Karenina on Audible.”
At the end of the day, it’s all hands on deck to set up sleeping arrangements: three tents with three quilts, plus a baby-sized sleeping bag for Piper.
“It’s a team effort and the kids get that,” Olen says. “We get to camp and we know a bear rope has to be hung and the tents have to be set up and water has to be filtered and dinner has to be cooked. And everybody just kind of pitches in wherever they can to make sure that gets done.”
Through it all, Olen and Danae say they’ve seen the kids become more responsible, independent, and confident. They never set out to do three trails, but the challenge “just kind of drew us in,” Danae says. And the kids have taken it all in stride.
“I think most people do underestimate kids because they’re like, ‘oh, they’re too little to do anything,’” Danae says. “But once they get used to it, especially a thru-hike, they get their muscles, they get their trail legs.”
The Netteburgs have met some other families on trail, recently working their schedule to hike three days with a couple of other kids. Olen and Danae hope to see more families getting out and trying a thru-hike, noting the benefits they’ve seen for their family. In the meantime, they continue to bring gratitude to every day on trail.
“Life is either you have time or you have money, and if you happen to have the good fortune to have a little bit of time and a little bit of money, just take advantage of it,” Olen says. “Your kids are only young once, work on all you can to build that relationship.”