12 Tips for Thru Hikers Separated from Their Spouse
In April of 2014 I set off on my six-month long journey from Springer to Katahdin, but left my husband behind. It was the perfect time in my life to set off on this once-in-a-lifetime voyage, but for my husband, Andrew, the timing was awful.
I successfully finished the trail on October 6, 2014, where Andrew joined me for the summit. At home now, we feel like our relationship is stronger than ever. For people who are considering doing the same thing, I would like to offer 12 tips on how to make it work for you.
Before the trail
1. (Not) Breaking the news
What I mean is, there should never be a point when you turn to your partner and announce your intentions to leave for six months. Even if this is something that you desperately want to do, the decision to leave is not yours alone. The decision to hike the trail needs to be made together. Let your spouse know that a thru-hike is something you are interested in doing. Research and learn about the trail together. Ensure that it is a good time for both of you. On the trail, I learned of a man who was thru-hiking while his future wife stayed home to plan their wedding. While it may have seemed like good timing for him, I would have to guess that it wasn’t a great time for her.
2. Decide if your relationship can handle it
Once you have both agreed that the option of thru-hiking is on the table, there are still a lot of hurdles you will face before the decision is final. First, you must talk about how this separation will affect your relationship. It is important that you have a strong and healthy relationship prior to this moment. The rigors of the trail may last longer than six months, and once that is over, coming home will have its own challenges. One of the biggest things that you both need to realize is that you will be different people at the end of your prospective journeys. Andrew and I believed that our separate experiences would help us grow as individuals, and that this growth would benefit our relationship.
3. Address any feelings of guilt
So you and your spouse decided that you can go…and you feel…horrible.
I felt a lot of guilt about leaving. Even though Andrew was completely supportive of the decision, I felt like I was being selfish. He had to stay home and hold down the fort while I frolicked through fields of flowers. Once I left, Andrew would have to take on all of the responsibilities that I previously shouldered, and he would be alone. But there is a flip side to this; if I decided not to go because of Andrew, then he would feel guilty for causing me to stay.
While it is very important to discuss your feelings of guilt with each other, try not to dwell on them. Be confident as a couple that you have made the right decision.
4. Make the transition easier for your spouse
Consider how much they will have to take on when you are gone. Think about all of the chores and responsibilities that you currently perform and realize that you will be handing all of them off. Take some steps to ease the burden. Here are a few things that I did in preparation for leaving:
- Cancelled extraneous expenditures (for us it was Netflix, gym memberships, and cable)
- Set up automatic bill-pay for other services
- Made sure the dog was up-to-date with vaccinations, and got a six-month supply of medicine for him. I also marked on the calendar when to administer the medicine and showed Andrew how to apply it.
- Helped Andrew get caught up on his to-do list
- Organized the camping gear so Andrew could find what he needed when he would visit me
- Cleaned the ever-loving heck out of the house
5. Fighting loneliness
Sitting around the house in their free time is bound to have your spouse feeling lonely. You are about to try something new and exciting, so why can’t they? Is there a hobby or sport that your spouse has always wanted to try? When was the last time they caught up with friends? It is important to fill the gap you are leaving with something. Andrew excitedly joined a soccer league as I was leaving. He made new friends, and had something to fill up his spare time. On the weekends, he went out of his way to catch up with friends and family so that he wasn’t spending too much time alone.
During your hike
6. Make them a part of your experience
The more involved in your trip your spouse is, the more connected you both will feel. If they would like to pitch in, there are a ton of things they can do to help. If they love to cook, have them make dehydrated meals to send to you. If they are into planning, they can help schedule your mail drops. Get a map of the AT and let them track your progress by pinning it on the wall. If they live near the trail and want to meet other hikers, they can get involved by setting up trail magic. Involving your spouse in trail-related activities will also help them gain an understanding of your experience and allow them to share in the joy of your accomplishment.
7. Let them visit
Andrew joined me for overnight hikes a number of times during my trip. Whether or not this is a good idea depends on the couple. Don’t make your spouse feel obligated, especially if they aren’t hikers or athletes to begin with. They will be joining a thru-hiker in the midst of a group of people they have never met and who probably look and smell very intimidating. It is also very important to realize that they will not be able to hike as fast as you. Plan for much shorter days, and also for carrying more weight than usual. You may have a different tent, more food, and may want to help them out by carrying some of their gear.
I loved it when Andrew joined me. He would bring little surprises like a bottle of Jim Beam or extra food and his car was stocked with extra gear in case I needed to switch anything out. Spending time together always raised my spirits, but I will warn that after these visits, I almost always slumped into a bit of a depression for a few days. This was because being with Andrew reminded me of how much I missed him.
If your spouse doesn’t hike, there are still plenty of ways to visit. You can:
- Explore landmarks like Harpers Ferry, Shenandoah National Park, Washington DC, or New York City
- Spend the night car camping
- Take a day off with them at a random hotel
- Enjoy other sports together like canoeing or shorter day hikes
You can also choose to visit home, but this can be dangerous since home can be very difficult to leave. I visited home for a weekend when I was passing through Pennsylvania and I kept my visit short and scheduled so I wouldn’t be tempted to stay. Nevertheless, leaving the comfort of home and family was still one of the hardest things that I had to do while on the trail.
8. Stay connected
There are so many ways that you can keep in contact with your spouse on the trail. Andrew has told me that talking often is what helped him through my absence. While I encourage talking often, I did make a point of only calling while in town. You should both be comfortable with the fact that you may go several days without speaking. Even though you may have cell service on the trail, it is generally discouraged to make long calls around other hikers. Spending too much time on the phone will also take away from your experience. A few days without contact should be no problem. Let your spouse know when they can expect to hear from you, and do your best to follow that schedule.
Aside from talking on the phone, I sent Andrew every photo that I took by sharing a photo stream with him. I wrote a blog in town so he could keep up with some of my experiences and share it with his friends. I also sent him a few postcards from notable towns and landmarks along the way.
After the trail
9. Post-trail depression
Make your spouse aware that post-trail depression is very common. Many hikers deal with this after the trail and your spouse may be worried or confused. Make a point to share how you are feeling and why you feel that way. Look up ways to deal with it so that you can move through it quickly. To read more about post trail depression, check out the links below:
10. Be patient with each other
Understand that there will be an adjustment period. Neither of you will be used to seeing each other everyday. There will be new struggles and old ones. Take it all in stride and realize that you have both been through a lot in the last few months. Be patient and understanding as you readapt to each other’s company.
11. Strengthen your relationship
No matter the amount of planning you do prior to leaving, being separated will still be difficult. If you plan well, however, you can end up with a stronger and healthier relationship than ever before. Your partner may not have had the life changing experience that you did, but they encountered many new obstacles of their own and have learned a few lessons as well. Both of you will have new perspectives and opinions. Talk to one another about what you have learned and respect the differences you see in each other.
12. Jump right back in!
You’re home! Welcome back to the real world, where there is stuff and things to be done! Give your spouse a well-deserved break. Clean the whole house. Do all their laundry. Do the shopping and cook the meals. Take the dog for a walk. Most importantly, shower your partner with love and affection. As mentioned above, you will be struggling with some pretty crazy feelings. It’s important to step back and appreciate what your partner did for you.
It’s a joint effort
Even though you may not be hiking together, you and your partner will be working as a team to make your dream a reality. While apart, you will learn to appreciate one another and better identify strengths and weaknesses in your relationship.
There will be tears and no small amount of heartbreak. There were times when I wanted to quit so that I could be back at home with Andrew, but he would always give me a dose of tough love and kick me back into gear.
There will be peaks and valleys along the way (literally and figuratively), but if you work together, you will both be successful.
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