Deciding on Kicking It Solo or Selecting a Hiking Buddy on Your Next Thru Hike

Originally posted on The Trek on September 27th 2016

Some thru hikers brave it alone when packing up and walking into the woods on their own path to discovery. Others choose the company of a friend, family member, significant other, or man’s best friend. I found hiking with my spouse has been beneficial, but there are also plenty of perks having a go at it alone. Sometimes hiking with another can strengthen a relationship, while other times it can strain and shatter it. Fortunately, when my husband and I decided to hike the AT together, this hadn’t been our first trial run practically living on top of one another 24-7 in a new environment. We had done some long travels together, and even lived in a van for 6 months while road tripping across the great U.S. of A. When you’re hiking with another person for such a long period of time, you need to learn to give space when needed and work well together when times get tricky.

Just because you’re great in a relationship, whether that be a romantic one, a friendship, etc., doesn’t mean you’ll hike well together. For example, you may have a person you work with and work with well, but when you leave the work atmosphere you realize that you don’t have much of a connection otherwise. The same goes vice versa, you may have a friend you love and adore, but if you were to get them hired where you work, you may soon realize that you just want to murder them when their work ethic doesn’t mesh well with yours.

Don't make me get all "Stranger Things" up in here! (credit: Doug Richardson)
Don’t make me get all “Stranger Things” up in here! (credit: Doug Richardson)

I know plenty of people who are compatible with one another, but have even said so themselves that they would kill one another if they were spending that much time together. This isn’t to say our relationship is superior by any means. We’ve just had more experience knowing when to goof off, and when to get serious and work as a team. Building this sort of team work doesn’t go without its arguments and screaming matches (which may or may not occur more often in romantic relationships), but if you’re willing to work on it, it will occur less frequently. You may first want to consider the positives and negatives of hiking with a partner versus hiking solo.

PROS & CONS OF HIKING WITH A COMPANION:

Pros:

  • You can divvy out shared gear, if this applies. My husband carries our tent and I carry certain toiletries and gear repair. If one of you is ill-prepared, you may be able to rely on your team mate who may be carrying what you need. Just be sure if you’re traveling with Fido, you’re carrying the bulk of the weight. Most hikers I’ve witnessed do, but I’ve seen a couple scenarios where the poor pup was overloaded. It would be a shame to cause injury to your fuzzy friend.
  • You have someone you know to talk to. That is, if you choose a hiking companion that you already know well. You will never be alone on the trail, and will likely make friends quickly. However, when phone reception is bad or nonexistent, it’s nice to talk to someone who knows you well when you’re feeling blue or frustrated. This can also help if they’re more on the encouraging side and they motivate you to push more than you normally would. Having someone who supports you when you’re feeling physically, emotionally and mentally battered is a bonus, just be sure to return the favor!

    You can always go for crazy and talk to yourself with an imaginary phone!
    Solo hikers can always feel less lonely by frightening day hikers while talking to themselves on an imaginary phone! Extra credit: use a banana instead!
  • It can strengthen your bond. The stresses of a thru hike may teach you how to better work as a team. You will be forced into doing the more vulnerable things in life together (ie. potty business, smelling each other), and you will be experiencing each other’s company more than ever. These things can bring people closer together and it’s an experience you’ll be able to relate to with one another for a lifetime.
  • Safety. Your partner will likely know where you are or where you’re headed most of the time, and may be there with you during more vulnerable areas like road crossings, during hitches, and during the night. Like it or not, when hiking alone you are put in a more vulnerable position than when hiking with someone who can vouch for where your basic coordinates are at all or most times.

    Safety Meeting Mike says, "Stay Safe out there ya Freeloaders!"
    Safety Meeting Mike says, “Stay Safe out there ya Freeloaders!”

Cons:

  • You may be carrying extra weight. If you’re sharing gear with one another, one may be carrying more than the other which may or may not be frustrating. If you’re hiking with a dog, you’re going to have to carry the extra calories not just for you, but for your pup as well. Thru hiking is physically strenuous on the body, and both you and your partner will need to consume more food than usual along the way.
  • You’re not always hiking your own hike. You will sometimes or will always be hiking theirs. This is especially true with a dog from what I’ve heard. You may hike at different paces or have more or less struggles with certain terrain than the other. Injuries do happen and you may be held back over your partner’s injury while you are perfectly healthy. Solo hikers have the flexibility to hike at their own pace and take breaks when they want to without having to discuss it with their team mate. They are also able to choose solitude when they desire which can’t be done with a partner unless agreed upon by both parties. If any of this becomes a huge issue, you may want to discuss temporarily going your separate ways and being independent of each other on the trail, or at the least hiking alone during the day with a place to meet up later.

    "For once I can embrace being single! Suck it Valentine's Day!"
    “As a solo hiker I can embrace being single! Suck it Valentine’s Day!”
  • This can weaken your bond. Similar to how it can strengthen it, you may find yourselves arguing more than helping each other, and not being too pleased with one another’s company day in and day out. As I mentioned earlier, some people work better together than others and just because you get along well at home may not mean you’ll work well together on the trail. One way to prevent this would be to give each other space when needed. Worst case scenario, this may lead one or both of you astray from the trail and/or each other.
  • You may be dependent on your partner, or vice versa. When solo hiking, you are forced to develop the skills required in the wilderness. As a pair, if tasks aren’t done separately or interchangeably, you won’t feel as self sufficient or the opposite, you may feel irritated that you’re doing everything while your partner does the bare minimum.

I also noticed it takes a certain someone to be a worthy hiking companion and felt it necessary to discuss some important things to consider in order to help your hike become more successful and more comfortable. Some questions you might ask when deciding on a thru hike companion would be:

Are they a lover of the great outdoors?

This is a bit redundant, but you are not just going to be enjoying the pleasantries of the birds chirping, the smells of wildflowers, and the warmth of the sun on your face.

Instagram does a damn good job making hiking look all "sparkles and rainbows and glitter!"
Instagram does a damn good job making thru hiking look all “sparkles and rainbows and glitter!”

You will be dealing with unpleasant weather (i.e. ice cold rain, snow, miserable humidity), and unwanted wildlife (i.e. gnats that power dive into your eyeballs and up your nose, mosquito bites, bugs in general, possible confrontations with snakes, bears, and other creatures). This introduces the next question…

Are they willing to put their comfort on hold?

Aside from the annoyances of nature, they will need to be someone who isn’t afraid to get a little dirty. Let me rephrase that, a whole lot of dirty! On average, you will be 3-4 days without showers at a time, sometimes up to 7-10 days. Being smelly is a rite of passage in the thru hiker world. The comfort of a mattress will be a rarity as well unless you go for the heavier sleep mat. You will also be sore most every day. There will also be undesirable scenerios when nature calls (ie. accidentally exposing yourself to another hiker, accidentally stomping through poison ivy during the urgency, or privies filled to the brim in addition to the swarm of flies and pleasant smells).

"...and I forgot my toilet paper. Brilliant." (credit: Curt Smith)
“…and I forgot my toilet paper. Brilliant.” (credit: Curt Smith)

Do they like to hike…like A LOT?

You could be hiking an average of 15 miles a day if not more with little down time unless otherwise agreed upon by both parties. You should be equal in pace and fitness level, or willing to sacrifice your desired mileage until your teammate gets their hiking legs and is able to keep up (and the same applies to them).

Do you tend to problem solve well together?

Not only will you have to come to agreement on the daily mileage, but shit WILL hit the fan eventually. If you can work well together and come up with quick solutions without choking each other out, this is a bonus! If it makes things easier, you can even prepare by discussing some common scenarios that may be worrying either of you and come to a possible solution prior to your hike. It may not be fool proof and you can’t prepare for everything, but it could help.

Do they have any habits that drive you batshit crazy?

You will have to buck up and get used to different people with different habits, but if it’s someone you’ll be up close and personal with, it could be a deal breaker. Examples:

  • Do they complain a lot? Avoid this sort of hiking buddy! Their misery will rub off on you if you don’t run away screaming from them during the process. You both should be aiming to enjoy yourselves.
  • Are they an absolute slacker? Are they the type who want you to do everything (ie. retrieve and filter the water, hang the bear bag, set up the tent, cook all the meals), while they sit on their ass and munch on their Snickers bar? Unless you’re the caretaker type, this could ruin your hiking experience.
  • Are they a snorer and you’re a light sleeper? This is especially true if you’re sharing a tent together. If you’re of the light sleeping variety, I’d recommend against sleeping in the shelter as well! People who snore are attracted to shelters like a hobo to a ham sandwich!
  • Are you a saver and they’re a spender? This is especially concerning when you’re on a budget. You will be passing through a lot of towns along the way so the opportunity to splurge will be frequent. This could hurt your bank account if you share one, or if their well runs dry and they start mooching off you the second half of the hike.

All of these examples are possible complications that may arise between you and your hiking partner. These things should be considered and if you differ, you or your partner may need to compromise or perhaps find a new person to pair up with. Although, I can’t stress enough that there will be many people on the trail with different mannerisms and dispositions than your own, and you will need to learn to develop patience and tolerance regardless. If you don’t, this will result in making your hike and that of others miserable.

Both solo hiking and hiking with a partner are great in their own ways, so either decision can be awesome! If hiking with a partner, just know when to give each other space, and try to work with each other. If your partner is of the canine variety, do your research first so you know how to make their hike as pleasant as your own. If you want a hiking buddy prior to your thru hike and don’t know anyone personally, there are websites out there to help you find fellow hikers with similar goals, and there are also hiking groups and clubs you can join. Some people may just want someone to start with who they can break away from later when the time comes. That’s okay too.

Me and my Team mate
My Hiking Comrade & I!

If you can’t find anyone to hike with, don’t fret. You will notice in only a few days of hiking that there will be the same people at the shelter you stop at during the end of each day. These are the people going the same pace as you and are likely the ones you’ll be bonding with and will be most compatible with. The ones you’ll hang with the longest will be the ones with common goals (keeping on schedule vs. going with the flow), and similar pace (but make sure you’re not trying to force miles where you’re getting injured or dropping back too many while mellowing out in the party atmosphere). If you’re rolling solo, that’s super rad too since you have all the flexibility and independence you want, and really won’t ever feel too lonely since your hiker family is everywhere! Regardless of your decision, hike happy and never forget what you’re out there for!

3 thoughts on “Deciding on Kicking It Solo or Selecting a Hiking Buddy on Your Next Thru Hike

  1. I tend to think starting solo is best until you are best buddies or going with your loved one. Too many differences can arise on the trail. Simple things like you want to start hiking early but your partner wants to sleep late, you walk faster than your partner, you like to stop and ‘smell the flowers’ while your partner likes to pound out the miles, you like to socialize at shelters and your partner likes to cowboy camp. So much to consider. Any long distance backpacker will inevitably meet other like minded people to hang out and hike with.

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    1. Hey Peter! I agree! I think a big concern for a lot of first time thru/long-distance hikers is going it alone. I feel it has a lot to do with the whole uncertainty of the matter and when all the folks at home are filling your head with unnecessary anxiety, it makes people question it more. Finding a partner that compliments your hiking style is tough to come by, often for the reasons you’ve mentioned, and so solo hiking is more ideal. I think more people would try going solo if they knew how incredible the camaraderie of the hiker community was pre-hike! Thanks for your feedback! 🙂

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