News Merrell Blazes Parenting Trail Using Nature, Faith

Merrell Blazes Parenting Trail Using Nature, Faith

Merrell Blazes Parenting Trail Using Nature, Faith
June 3, 2024 |

By Marlee Jackson

Armed with a mug of coffee, Bible and sticker-plastered laptop, Walt Merrell settles into a wicker settee on his porch in the Covington County woods.

He’s soon typing a humorously heartfelt adventure destined for his Shepherding Outdoors Facebook page. There, more than 300,000 followers interact with a ministry focused on faith and fatherhood (Merrell and wife Hannah have three daughters).

“I had no idea how to raise girls,” Merrell said, recalling Shepherding Outdoors’ origin. “I began to realize I wanted to play with G.I. Joe, and they wanted to play with Barbie. At some point, I felt God kind of calling me outside, and I realized that was the great common denominator.

“That’s when I put G.I. Joe down and got them to put Barbie down, and we started going outside. It remarkably changed my relationship with my girls.”

His daughters — Bay, 21, Cape, 18, and Banks, 14 — still reap the rewards of that realization. The tight-knit family has spent more than a decade exploring the Southeast while kayaking, camping, hiking and hunting. 

The Merrells of Covington County prioritize family time — whether attending church, enjoying cool mornings on their back porch or setting off on an outdoor adventure. From left are Bay, Cape, Walt, Hannah and Banks Merrell.

Merrell’s outdoor-oriented parenting philosophy spread beyond his family once he began sharing column-like stories on Facebook.

His following exploded since his initial post. Merrell’s mother-in-law is social media cooking sensation Brenda Gantt, who often shares Shepherding Outdoors’ down-to-earth posts with her 3 million-plus followers.

Merrell’s musings range from anecdotes on everyday life to sentimental strolls down memory lane. He tells personal stories of faith, too.

In 2015, Merrell was diagnosed with ocular orbital cancer behind his right eye. The prognosis was grim: He would lose his vision and likely die within two years.

“That’s when I started writing down my last words to my daughters,” he said.

He penned those special stories and advice during a year of treatment. In 2016, most of the tumor was removed, and life returned to its normal rhythm, though annual MRIs monitor the remnant.

Merrell calls it an undeserved miracle.

“All that humbled me greatly,” he said. “It showed me just how weak I was and grew my faith by leaps and bounds.”

Shepherding Outdoors’ family ministry, where Merrell speaks to church groups, grew from that trial. He later posted versions of those “final words” to his daughters on Facebook. They’re now published as collections of short stories and are available at

“I love to tell stories about what an idiot I am in the hope that people will read my stories and think, ‘If that guy can do it, I sure can,’” he said.

Merrill shares stories of his family’s adventures through the Shepherding Outdoors Facebook page and recently published collections of short stories.

Merrell’s self-deprecating humor and deep love for the outdoors bloomed during a childhood spent exploring Mobile Bay and the Mobile River Delta. 

The rest of his outdoor skill set grew through trial and error.

Take his and Bay’s first camping experience. After cajoling friends for tips and a tent, Merrell led Bay into the woods to pitch camp.

A 30-minute struggle ensued.

“By the time I got done setting that tent up, I almost felt defeated,” he said. “I was sweating bullets because I felt this intense pressure.”

Then Bay piped up.

“I’m really impressed, Dad.”

“For what?”

“You know how to set up a tent.”

“I learned a lesson that day,” Merrell said. “Our kids don’t expect us to be experts. They just want us to be.”

That through line of encouraging fathers connects with Merrell’s day job. As district attorney, he swaps fishing shirts for a suit before heading to the courtroom.

“The No. 1 problem in our country right now is children being raised in the absence of a father,” said Merrell, whose parents divorced when he was a child. “I’m not discounting moms, because the reality is single mothers are unsung heroes of this country. But I know if dads will invest in their children, that child statistically will have an improved life.”

Walt Merrell uses outdoor sports like hiking, kayaking and hunting to connect with daughters Bay, Cape and Banks (pictured).

That’s his hope for Bay, Cape and Banks. While family vacations are outdoor-oriented, Merrell said some of the most special moments are one-on-one adventures with his daughters.

“When you go out, there’s no cell service,” Merrell said. “That means I’m not competing with Taylor Swift. We get out, and we don’t have other distractions. We communicate and relate.”

They laugh at their antics, too, like the time he and Banks climbed Virginia’s highest point.

At the summit, they were in awe. 

Then it hit: They hadn’t peaked.

“The sign said it was the right mountain. It just wasn’t,” Banks remembered with a laugh.

Merrell grinned.

“Ultimately, we decided we were only about 75 feet short,” he said. “We stood on our tiptoes and said, ‘That’s good enough.’ That just goes to prove, you may climb the wrong mountain, but you’ll get a great story to tell.” 

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