Thru-Hiking With Your Significant Other: Tips on Staying Happy (and Together)
When I first suggested hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to my husband, Adam, it was, if not exactly a joke, at least an off-the-cuff idea. We were on a short section hike at the time, rambling along a 5-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail near New York City. In that environment, with the birds singing and leaves rustling in the wind, hiking for an additional 2,575 miles sounded romantic, a shared adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives.
But it didn't take long for that off-the-cuff remark to turn into a shared reality. For nearly five months in 2014, we embarked on the intense emotional and physical journey of thru-hiking the PCT, travelling from the desert of southern California, through the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada, and along the volcano corridor of the Pacific Northwest before ending in the remote wilderness of the North Cascades at the Canadian border. Along the way, we shared more than we had planned: tears, sweat, base layers, and even toothbrushes. But we were in love, so no problem, right?
It’s easy to let the romantic and adventurous appeal of a thru-hike cloud out the reality of its emotional and mental challenges—and that goes double for couples hiking together. On a thru-hike, your partner will see everything: the good (you’re likely in the best shape of your life), the bad (bonking after your first 25-mile day), and the ugly (who knew you could get a blister inside of another blister?).
There was a lot from that first thru-hike that we learned about each other: our strengths and weaknesses, how to lean on one another when the going got tough, and what foods we didn’t want our partner to eat before climbing into the tent. Here’s what we learned along the way.
This one’s a no-brainer when you’re travelling as a team, right? Not exactly…
Laura: You’d think it would go without saying that couples would share everything they can on-trail to save weight. But we knew couples who carried their own stoves, separate food stores, and even separate tents. And some of them thought we were crazy for sharing as much as we did—we eventually got a two-person sleeping bag (turns out I don’t kick as much in my sleep as a certain someone was worried I would) and stopped carrying separate toothbrushes (hey, everything weighs something, right?. Although it wasn’t really a conscious decision—we just realized at one point that we had forgotten whose was whose.)
Adam: The biggest reason not to share your gear is if you think you won’t always be hiking together, which is something you’ll want to talk about in advance. Sometimes people want the opportunity to hike alone, or maybe one of you is a morning person who likes getting an early start and the other is a night owl who tends to sleep later. Another reason is that some people prefer to be responsible for their own stuff, like water and food. If you prefer to make decisions about what you’re going to be eating or how much water you’re going to be drinking without any spousal wrangling, it may make sense to keep track of your own nutrition essentials. But most couples prefer to make those kinds of decisions jointly.* *
Divvying Up Who Does What
Splitting up chores might be as much of a pain in the backcountry as it is in the frontcountry, but, hey, at least there are fewer of them.
Laura: It can take longer to do chores at first because the routines you had in the frontcountry kind of go out the door on a thru-hike—there’s no trash to take out or bed to make, and the lawn doesn’t need mowing. But when you get to camp at the end of a 20-mile day, putting up the tent can seem surprisingly overwhelming for what a small task it is. Basically, the more you can communicate about what you’re doing, what still needs to be done, and what you need help with at the beginning of your hike, the faster you’ll fall into an automatic routine where you get to camp and start getting set up without needing to talk at all.
Adam : I agree that frontcountry routines don’t always apply in the backcountry, but it can help to try to split up chores by what you are both most apt do. For example, if you’re the one who makes coffee in the morning, make coffee on the trail. If you make the bed at home, be the one to set up the inside of the tent. That being said, it’s also important on a thru-hike to stretch yourself from time to time and switch it up. Don’t let your partner be the only one to handle a particular chore. At the very least, this will help you to appreciate the person who is making the coffee all the more.
It’s also helpful to remember that splitting chores is just as important in-town as it is on the trail. Maybe more so, as the faster you can get through town chores like laundry, the sooner you’ll be able to relax and enjoy a beer with your new trail friends.
The couple that hikes together, stays together. (Or you can just enjoy your together time when you meet up later).
Adam: I’m not a fast hiker, so I’m rarely hiking far out in front of other people. I think it’s a good safety precaution to keep your hiking partner in your line of sight. If I’m the slow one in a group, I try to make sure I can still see the person if we’re not actively having a conversation. If I’m the fast one, I try to look over my shoulder every so often to make sure the other person is in sight.
Laura: We’re pretty lucky, in that Adam and I match pace pretty effortlessly and tend to want breaks around the same time. And that was something we knew beforehand, from years of hiking and running together. I think it does help to have a background of shared backcountry travel experience or even just training together.
Since we know that our tendency is to match one another’s pace, if we see that one of us dragging, we’ll have that person hike at the rear. We find that usually helps release that person from the not-insignificant mental load of trying to set their own pace. If one of us is really dragging, we’ll slow down and reevaluate our plan for that day or section.
I think it’s fine for a couple to hike separately during the day and meet up at camp. It just requires an extra layer of communication (such as picking out a campsite in advance for the next day), and knowing it will be tougher to stop early or hike longer. And you’ll have to double up on some gear like a water filter or maps, which can increase the weight you’re carrying. But, in the end, your pace is your pace and there is only so much you’re going to be able to do to adjust it to the other person.
Every so often you meet a couple who swears they never fight on trail. Don’t believe them.
Adam: It will happen—you are going to fight at some point. Sure, thru-hiking is about digging deep into yourself (and maybe your relationship), but it’s also about addressing elemental bodily needs. If you aren’t fighting over something that’s actually wrong in your relationship, you’re going to fight for less significant but still pressing reasons: You’re hungry, or you’re tired, or because you need to use the bathroom. So before you start a fight, try to ask yourself: Am I angry because I’m hungry? Am I angry because I’m tired? And know that you need to ask your partner those questions too, and to not take offense when they ask you. The simple act of asking your partner if she needs a snack could mean the difference between a pleasant stroll and a rage hike.
Laura: Thru-hiking is sometimes really hard, and exhaustion can bring out the worst in people. You aren’t always going to be as supportive or understanding of what your partner is going through as you would want to be. Try to remember that if you feel like you’re on your last legs, your partner might be too, and cut them some slack if you can.
Something that also worked for us was to get really attuned to our partner’s cues and behavior, so that we could prevent bonking whenever possible. I now know all the different ways my husband can say "I’m OK" and which ones mean he is not OK, and it’s time to adjust accordingly.
Finding Your Trail Family
This will be one of the best parts of your thru-hike. For your relationship? Not so much.
Her: We met some amazing people during our 2014 PCT thru-hike, and I wouldn’t take back a single mile we hiked with them. But we didn’t end up hiking with anyone but one another during our Colorado Trail, and we enjoyed that experience too, in different ways. One reality of thru-hiking is that, for the most part, the herd is following the same two-foot wide path, at the same time. It can be surprisingly difficult to find a few minutes alone together, and if you’re hiking with a trail family, it can be impossible. But it’s important to carve out that time together, even if it means missing a section of trail with your new friends.
Him: It’s pretty incredible how you can meet someone on trail and, within a week of knowing them, feel as if you’ve known them for years. That can also make it hard to have a private conversation with your partner, who you have actually known for years. Your trail family, just like a real family, won’t always know when you need space, so you need to do what you need to in order to keep your relationship a priority.
Months on end of backpacking with your favorite human makes for the best conversations.
Laura: One of the best things about thru-hiking is that it eliminates so much of the background noise of the real world, and leaves you alone for days and weeks on end with nothing but your own thoughts. You’d think that would mean you end up having a lot of really deep insights about the direction of your life, for example or how to be a good person. Sometimes that does happen, but for us, we found ourselves paying attention to all the weird memories, ideas, and emotions rambling around in our minds and sharing them.
During our first thru-hike, we made up songs for the trail towns we hiked through, named our future children, tried to imagine what our cat was up to without us, and dissected fights that had happened years prior. And sometimes we didn’t talk at all—one of the key lessons we learned was how to be mere feet away from one another and still give that person space when they need it.
Adam: Maintaining an open mind about conversation is key. Start with the day-to-day, then do a deep dive, and end by talking about your innermost thoughts or dreams. In between you will probably talk about things that are objectively boring, or gross, and that’s fine as long as it’s interesting to you. You’ll develop theories about everyday events you know nothing about, like how water comes out of the ground, and talk for two hours about it.
You don’t need a shower or clean clothes every day, but making an effort is an important way to show your partner that you still care about your appearance (and, just as importantly, not repelling them).
Laura: Your idea of what clean means will change over the course of a thru-hike. Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s not. I try to do the best I can with what I’ve got and to encourage Adam to do the same, even if he doesn’t always listen. If there is a stream, use your bandana to wipe some of the dirt off your legs. If there is a lake, jump in it. But there are going to be times when you get pretty gross, and there isn’t going to be much you can do to clean up all that dirt and sweat and grime. You just have to go with the flow (and the B.O.) and embrace this part of the adventure. * *
Adam: It’s important in a relationship to be look good for the other person, and that doesn’t just go away on the trail. I really strive to be cleaner than I think I need to be on trail. I try to wash up a little bit more than I would ordinarily. For instance, I wouldn’t normally care about how clean my feet are at the end of the day, but I know it’s important to Laura, so I try to clean them up for her—even if she is less than thrilled at the job I do. I was also pleased to see that my insistence on carrying extra wet wipes "just in case" meant that we had another way to keep clean when water resources were scarce.
It’s Just You and Me, Baby
One of our biggest lessons from our first thru-hike is that there is a big difference between hiking together for five miles and hiking together for 2,600 miles. The easy rapport we had during that initial conversation was helped by the familiarity of our surroundings: being close to civilization, with hot showers and comfortable beds waiting back at our apartment. Once we were out in it, there were some rough waters to navigate before we got into a groove with another.
Laura: It can be tempting to see how you fare on a thru-hike as a microcosm for your whole relationship—if you’re able to get through this together, then you can get through anything, and if you can’t, well, maybe it’s better to cut your losses now, right? While there may be some truth to this, thru-hiking is only loosely related to the "real" world. Some couples with strong relationships find that they are incompatible hiking partners, and some couples who meet on trail find that they are incompatible in the real world.
One of the best things you can do for your relationship before an adventure like a thru-hike is promising to take the good with the bad. And to be flexible. If hiking with your trail family isn’t working, set out from the next town without them. If splitting your pack weights evenly is slowing one of you down, let the other person take a larger share of the load. There isn’t a right way to thru-hike as a couple—there is just the way that works for you.
Adam: Yeah, and I was right that what works for us is to always carry extra wet wipes.
Laura: If nothing else, at least that way we’re always able to wash our feet at night.
Written by Laura Lancaster