If you're married or have a Significant Other, there are a few things you might want to consider if you intend to thruhike the AT. Or maybe you're thinking about hiking with a partner - or maybe you'll find a hiking partner while you're out there. If you're not married or you don't have anyone serious in your life or you're not planning on hiking with a partner, there may still be something here for you - because eventually there will be someone, whether before, during or after the Trail.
This is a subject that some people get very sensitive - and sometimes defensive - about, so let's go back and review the caveats again:
- This is not a "Thruhikers Manual". It's a collection of my thoughts and feelings about the realities of thruhiking the AT.
- This is my personal experience, observation and opinion. There's nothing scientific or even necessarily logical about it. But then, people aren't logical, are they?
- I'm one of the "fringe" people whose life changed drastically on the Trail.
- What happened to me is NOT the norm.
- As a thruhiker I am, by definition, crazy and therefore cannot be held responsible for anything I say.
- I may wander off in strange directions.
- You may not like everything I have to say.
- Advice is worth what you pay for it - and this is free.
And for this subject, I'll add one more caveat - I'm not a marriage counselor or a psychiatrist, and I don't play one on TV. So - take this however it applies to you because it's based on personal experience and observation and on the subjective conclusions derived from those observations. Scientific method? Not exactly - a lot more like personal opinion.
Before the TrailHike Your Own Hike
I'll start in a place that few people think about - right at the beginning. Few people seem to realize that their hike isn't just a 5 to 6 month walk on the AT. It extends both before and well beyond their actual hiking time. Their hike starts the first time they see the word "thruhiking" in print - or hear someone talk about it - and say to themselves "I'd like to do that".
Some people know immediately that it's what they want to do and others take some time to let the idea grow on them. But all of us start to change from the first minute the idea takes root. And that change, small as it may be, will affect those around us, whether wife or mother , brother, friend or co-worker.
From the very beginning, my hike affected my wife and children, my brother and his family, and almost all the people I knew, because I started acting differently - and eventually I began to think differently. And none of those people understood the changes it made in me.
After 5 or 10 - or 30 years of building a life and a career, how many of the people that you know would leave their family, life, career, etc. to go hike the AT for six months? And how many of their friends and family would understand that?
Then why would you expect your friends and family to understand your motivation when you decide to thruhike? Don't you think they deserve at least an attempt on your part to explain what you want to do - and why?
So, what's your motivation? Why do you want to thruhike? I can't even begin to guess at what any particular person's motivation is. But I've heard a lot of people tell me that their present life is good, that they're happy or settled or content or even "mature", but they still want to thruhike the AT. And one thing I know for sure is that those people have yet to take a long look at themselves and their motivation. Happy, contented, settled people rarely, if ever, thruhike. If they were really happy, contented and/or settled they'd stay home, build a career, buy a home, start a family, go fishing, play golf, cuddle their grandchildren, bake cookies and be happily and contentedly settled. But they wouldn't be dreaming of six months on the Trail with all the attendant rain, pain, uncertainty and disconnectedness from "normal life" that goes with a thruhike.
Thruhiking is for those who want more out of life - for those who are restless and discontent - for those who hurt and need something in which to submerge their pain - for those who are bored or burned out at work - for those who have something to prove to themselves or to others - for those at transition points in their lives - and for those who feel the need for a reconnection with the natural world.
If you're a couple and you're both hikers, by all means, try to do it together. The trail becomes extremely important to a thruhiker. It's really good to have someone to share the fun and excitement of planning, the long trek, and all the memories afterwards. Someone who hasn't done a thruhike CAN NOT understand what you have been through the way another thruhiker can. It can strengthen the bond between you in ways you can't even imagine.
Lets start by defining a partnership as two or more people who intend to thruhike the AT together. Some people arrange their partnerships beforehand, some find each other on the Trail, and some are married couples or other family relationships.
If you're starting the Trail with someone you've hiked with before, then you may have some idea about your mutual compatibility. In other words - you know you can hike together, and you think you can stand to live with each other for 6 months.
If you're starting the Trail with someone you've never hiked with before, you may have to spend some time finding out who they are - and how they hike - and what kind of hike they're expecting. If they want to do 20 mile days in Georgia and you want to do 12 mile days, you might not be together very long.
In a lot of cases, hikers find partners while they're on the Trail. You share the same shelters for a couple nights, then you find yourself hiking with them for a couple days, then you share a room in town with them -- and at some point you may decide that you'd like to be partners. Or maybe there's no formal decision - you just keep on hiking together.
In any case, if you manage to stay together and stay friends, hiking with a good partner can make a big difference in the quality of your hike because you'll have someone to share the rain and the pain and the beauty and the laughter and the tears.
While most of the individuals in casual partnerships each carry their own gear, there are some who share - the tent, cooking gear, water filter, first aid kit and sometimes food drops. Being able to share gear is a major advantage of some partnerships because it means you can both carry lighter packs. On the AT my wife carried 35 to 40 lbs - more than I did. Now we both carry less than 20 lbs. Now we only need one tent, one camera, one stove, one filter - it helps. But it does have some possible disadvantages.
One of the things a lot of partnerships overlook is -- what happens if you split? If one of you gets hurt and has to get off the Trail? Or just decides they've had enough and they want to go home? Who gets the tent? Or the stove? Or the water filter? If you're carrying a 7 pound tent because that's not too heavy for two people to split, what happens if one of you goes home - because then that 7 pound tent becomes too heavy for one person to carry. If your food is packaged together, how do you handle that - especially if one of you is faster than the other?
I know -- you don't intend to split - but it happens. Sometimes, apparently positive relationships don't work out. Why? Often it's a matter of different expectations or capabilities. Sometimes one of a partnership will develop a romantic interest with someone else on the Trail. Sometimes it's wanting different speed or distances, or getting tired of each other's jokes or any of ten thousand other reasons that suddenly become the biggest problem in the universe to one or both of you. And people DO get hurt. And a lot of people get tired or discouraged or -- whatever -- and go home. It's happened to a lot of my friends - it's even happened to married couples.
So -- what will you do if one of you gets injured or bored, and wants to quit (will they stay near the trail and drive a slackmobile, or go home and get a job again, or go to the beach for three months, will both have to leave the trail, etc.).
You also need to talk about what kind of hike you want (i.e. lots of town time vs. very little, speed hike vs. leisurely, etc.). If your expectations for the hike don't match, your partnership might not match either. If you want to be a purist and your partner turns out to be a blue blazer - you might not end up at the same place each night. If your partner is an experienced 20 mile per day hiker and you're a novice, the partnership might not work out. If you spend a lot of time in towns and your partner doesn't like towns, you might not hike together very long. There are only about 50,000 reasons why your partnership might not work out - and you need to talk about some of them before you get on the Trail. If you haven't talked about them beforehand, they can become big problems. As someone once said - "Plan ahead, it wasn't raining when Noah built the Ark."
And sometimes it works the other way. My wife and I met on the trail, hiked together in a group, became friends, became best friends, became more. We did long distance hikes in 1999 and 2000. Our ability to hike together is not in question because we've hiked over 13000 miles together and we look forward to continuing - together.
Or sometimes it works both ways - more than one partnership has split, with the original partners finding new partners as they travel along the Trail. The end of a partnership is NOT the end of the world - or even the end of your hike unless you so choose.
Partnerships also need a lot of flexibility and tolerance, but you'll find that in the next section so keep on reading - a lot of what applies to couples also applies to partnerships.
Couples on the Trail
OK - why do I distinguish between "Partnerships" and "Couples"? Because a partnership may or may not be committed to each other for the long term. And for this context I'm gonna speak from the viewpoint that a "couple" is two people that have a formal commitment to each other, usually in the form of marriage, parent/child, siblings or other family relationships. It's a lot harder to say "sayonara" to someone you will always be connected to.
A lot of the same considerations apply to both "Partnerships" and "Couples", but a "Partnership" is less certain to make it (intact) all the way on the Trail. There are many couples who walk the Trail together. Some of them survive, some don't. A long trail (2000+ miles) is a LOT of togetherness - more than most couples will experience in a lifetime. Sometimes it's too much.
Being on the Trail together can create unbreakable bonds - or it can break a bond that's already weak. Don't try to do the Trail as a way to "fix" your marriage. The probability is that the Trail will break it because the little flaws that you haven't been able to deal with at home will be magnified and become major flaws in the Trail world. If you couldn't deal with them at home, you're not likely to deal with them on the Trail.
If you're going as a couple, you need to like each other. I DID NOT say you need to love each other. There's a world of difference. There are a lot of people that I like - but don't love. And there have been a few that I've loved - but I don't like very much. Do you like each other? If you don't understand the difference, you might want to clarify it before you try to thruhike together. If you really like each other, then constant companionship is not a problem. My wife and I are happy being together 24 hours a day because we not only love each other, but we really like each other as well.
Some couples do a thruhike as their honeymoon - and I think it's a really good idea. After all - they're in love, they're focused on each other, they're more likely to be flexible and tolerant of each other's faults and they'll learn more about each other in six months than most couples learn in twenty years. What a fantastic way to start a marriage!!
If you're not on your honeymoon and you find that the togetherness gets to be too much, it's easy enough to hike separately for all or part of the day, and just meet up at lunch and dinner. Then different hiking speeds or styles won't matter. You won't get seriously lost on the AT, and as long as each of you is self-sufficient (ie. both carry food and warm clothes) there's little danger in hiking separately on the AT.
Whether you hike together or separately all day or meet occasionally in the middle - you need to be interdependent but self-sufficient. More than one couple has had a bad experience because they've gotten inadvertently separated and one of them has no food - or no matches - or no sleeping bag. Shared weight does NOT mean that either of you should ever be unprepared to spend a night alone. My wife and I are rarely far apart on the Trail - we know how easy it is to get separated. And we genuinely enjoy each other's company.
Once in a while I've found couples where the wife is "just soooo helpless" that she carries her 15 pound pack, while he labors under 100 pounds in the interest of "keeping her happy". That may work for a weekend, or even a week. But for 6 months or 2,000 miles, it just don't float. For a thruhike, if you're not each pulling your share of the load, then whatever cracks exist in your relationship are gonna just explode. And so will the relationship.
Don't get excited, ladies - I've seen males play the "helpless" role, too. And it's no prettier a sight than when a female does it. If the male gets to camp and crashes and expects his wife to do the "women's work" - he's in for a BIG, but not very pleasant surprise not too far down the Trail. There's no such thing as "women's work" on the Trail. It's share and share alike - or the partnership won't last to Katahdin.
Be a partner - not a burden. And partners share - the good things, the bad things - and the work.
Life is really better when it's shared. Hiking with a good partner provides the mutual support that we all need once in a while. It can make the good times much better, and the bad times a lot easier to bear. Laughter, tears, beautiful sunsets (or sunrises), rain, pain - and mountain tops are all things that are better if you have someone to share them with. Learning to work together, overcome obstacles together, solve problems together - share your lives with each other - is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life. To quote Spirit Walker, AT '92 - "There's no day so bad that it can't be made better by a hug or a good laugh."
Tolerance is another trail/life lesson. It's necessary to an enjoyable thruhike and also to a successful marriage. You put up with each other's bad moods in the "other world" - why wouldn't you be able to do so on the trail? You'll have to put up with the smells, the sounds, the bad jokes and the grumpiness at the end of a long day. And sometimes there are the crazy stories to distract from foul weather or off key singing to distract from aching knees. Just remember - your partner has to put with your idiosyncracies, too. One of the first lessons of backpacking (or any travel for that matter) is the need for flexibility. Things rarely go exactly as planned. If you can't bend, you'll break. That seems to work in relationships as well.
Compromise is inevitable in a successful relationship. If you are happily married, you've probably learned how to work through problems and find mutually acceptable solutions.
When only one walks the Trail
There are married couples where the wife stays home and the husband walks the Trail (or vice versa). Most of them survive, a few don't. A long trail (2000+ miles) is a LOT of loneliness if a couple is separated - more than most couples will experience in a lifetime. Sometimes it's too much.
The couples who seem to be the happiest about the Trail experience are those where the stay-at-home spouse visits as often as possible and sometimes hikes sections of the Trail. It gives them some understanding of what the Trail is and how it affects their thruhiker spouse. And it keeps the bond intact. That's important - if she's at home and you're on the Trail, you'll be living in different worlds. It's easy - too easy - to lose each other. Your spouse's world will consist of things that you know about but can't relate to because your mind and energy and focus have moved away from that world. Your world will consist of situations and people that they don't know and sometimes can't even imagine. It's hard - but certainly not impossible - to maintain a solid relationship like that.
Second - if the stay-at-home spouse dumps all their problems when the thruhiker calls home or when they see each other, it just might have a negative effect on the hike. Or they just might not call as often. What a thruhiker does or doesn't need to be told is a matter of judgment. If it's minor, or it's already been resolved or thay can't do anything about it - do they need to know about it? I don't know. That's not my decision to make. Thank God!
Third - You're on vacation and they're not. That's not true, but some spouses and others (family - especially in-laws) tend to take that attitude. And it can breed a lot of resentment. After all, they're home coping with the kids, house, bills, etc. Do they understand why you have to do this? Do they understand about dream fulfillment? Do you? I'm not sure I could explain it either. But it might be a real good idea to at least try.
At one point in my life I learned that real love is wanting your loved one to be the best that they can be. If you need to hike the AT in order to be the best you can be, and your lady (or husband) accepts that and has the patience to deal with it, then you've been blessed. Go for it.
Fourth - If the thruhiker constantly worries about what's going on at home, about whether their spouse can handle life - it just might have a negative effect on their hike. For me the questions here are - Do you trust your spouse? Do you believe they could survive if you weren't there? If so, then why are you worried? That doesn't mean you shouldn't worry - but personal opinion is that you should know why you're worrying. And then - does it have to be a constant thing?
A bit of personal philosophy here. I don't know how long I'll live. I've lived through a lot of situations that should have killed me, so I understand very well that every time I walk out the door may be my last. Knowing that colors everything in my life - especially my relationship with my lady. It means I have to trust her to be able to handle life if I'm not there. And it means that I NEVER leave her without doing my best to be sure she knows how much I love her. I think I've brought the good parts of my Trail experience to our relationship and one of those is that right NOW is the only time we have. I can't wait until "later" or tonight or tomorrow to tell her how I feel, because I might not be here "later" or tonight or tomorrow. I can't wait until some other time, because there is no other time. The only time I have is NOW.
Fifth - after finishing the Trail, a thruhiker needs time and understanding. Thruhikers live in a different world, and it takes time to re-integrate into the "real" (???) world, to adjust to a different life, a different pace, a different 'noise' level. Anyone who expects their thruhiker spouse to jump back into the life they left 6 months before as if nothing had changed is making a BIG mistake. And sometimes putting more strain on the relationship than some relationships can stand.
After the Trail
Your hike isn't over when you climb Katahdin. When you go home you'll be different. For some the changes are minor - but they are there. For others the changes are literally life-changing. In either case, you'll live with those changes for the rest of your life, so in a purely pragmatic sense, your hike will never end.
Many, possibly most, thruhikers don't start back to work for 3-6 months after the Trail. When they start work (usually out of financial necessity) they don't fit in the way they used to. A few of us never really do adjust. Remember, whether you were together or not - your spouse changed while you were gone, too.
I have no idea what your relationship is, or how you'd change on the Trail, or how your spouse would change while you're gone, or how those changes would affect your relationship. I do know that you can't judge how your life would change by what happened to me. A lot of the changes in my life were due to a synergy between the Trail and my personal situation. I hope you never have that problem.
Does that mean you won't have some adjustment problems when you get back? I hope not, because if you haven't changed to some degree, then you've wasted your time and energy and you might as well have stayed home. Growth - both personal and in relationships, comes from the process of understanding and working through problems - preferably without anger. So relax and enjoy your adjustment problems - at least you'll know you're alive and growing.