Chris McCandless was born to Walt McCandless, an intelligent, intense aerospace technician, and his second wife Billie, in 1968. As a child, he showed unusual independence from the time he was a toddler. In elementary school he was placed in an accelerated program for gifted students, but tried to reason with his teachers and administrators that he didn't really belong there. His sister Carine remembers that though he was popular, "he was very to himself...he could be alone without being lonely". Chris got good grades in school with little effort, and although he was small, he was a great athlete. He "had little patience for learning the finer points" of organized sports, however; "nuance, strategy, and anything beyond the rudimentaries of technique were wasted on (him)".
Walt and Billie McCandless often took the family on camping and hiking trips; "there was always a little wanderlust in the family, and...Chris had inherited it". Walt remembers that "Chris was fearless even when he was little...he didn't think the odds applied to him".
In high school, Chris became passionately concerned with the plight of the downtrodden in his community and the world, and although he was a natural entrepreneur, he came to believe that wealth was corrupting and evil. He announced to his parents that he was not going to go to college, but complied with their wishes, going to Emory University and excelling academically.