I Need Some Space: Hiking with Partners, Solo, and with Trail Families

I had always pictured myself alone. Alone on Springer, alone at Harpers Ferry, alone on Katahdin. After a troubled childhood and a series of failed relationships, I had decided that it was me against the world. I would complete my lifelong dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail by myself.

The idea of making friends didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t consider for a moment that I’d have a trail family. People were people after all, and I didn’t seem to do so well around other humans. That was part of the appeal of being deep in the woods for six months.

One of the gifts hiking gave me was the way it completely changed this attitude and aversion toward company. The social dynamics of backpacking became one of the most appealing parts of the adventure.

Hiking with a Partner

Not long after I’d decided I was going to hike the AT alone, and that I’d do it in 2018, I reconnected with a boy I’d known in college. We both wanted to do the AT, and suddenly my plan to go alone had changed. In the year leading up to the hike, our relationship imploded and it was clear that we should not embark on a six-month journey together when we’d have to share a tent and constantly be in each other’s company.

Against all rational thinking, we did it anyway. I’m sure he wished as much as I did that he was alone. Caught up in our failing connection, I didn’t manage to connect with other hikers. I never had a real trail family, and I felt isolated from the whole community of people walking to Katahdin.

I learned how impossible it is to know what’s really going on between two people walking through the woods. Some couples seemed happy together, while others acted completely indifferent to each other. I knew people who met on the trail and got married and started a family after they finished hiking. By the end, I could confidently say to anyone who asked that you should really take a look at your partnership and decide that it’s solid enough to withstand months of not only campfires and town food and swimming in waterfalls, but also frustration and exhaustion and injuries and heat and cold and tents falling apart in storms and nightfall coming too fast to find a safe place to sleep.

 Any long trail will test your relationship and honestly, if you make it to the end and still love each other, you may have found the one.

The trail will change you. Sometimes the two of you might grow in opposite directions, and sometimes you might grow closer together. I imagine that hiking with someone you’re compatible with, who doesn’t isolate you from others, would be a magical way to walk thousands of miles.

Hiking Solo

After my Appalachian Trail thru-hike didn’t go quite as I’d hoped, I felt restless. My ex and I had broken up soon after returning home. I felt the need to prove to myself that I could have hiked alone like I’d originally planned.

So I decided to do the Long Trail the following year. Three weeks of just me and the Green Mountains of Vermont. In 2016, I had hiked the 96-mile West Highland Way in Scotland by myself and I’d spent most of my actual hiking hours on the AT alone. I knew I could handle the solitude.

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I think many people are drawn to long trails in order to escape from society. If you’ve never tried solo travel or solo hiking, I highly recommend it. It’s in the moments you spend with yourself and the sounds of the forest that you find out if you’re comfortable with who you are. When you let your mind wander, you allow it to go to places that you might normally bar your subconscious from visiting. And while your body follows the white blazes, your mind will have nothing to do but wander.

What solo hiking did for me can be summed up in these words: it woke me up.

Hiking with a Trail Family

Despite my intention of hiking alone on the LT, I made friends within the first week and spent the final weeks hiking and camping with them. My tiny trail family of four people became the most treasured part of that hike. The laughs we shared and the way we embraced the misery together kept me going on the difficult days. One of the biggest benefits of opening yourself up to other people on trail is getting to share the ups and downs with them (sometimes literally—who else remembers/can’t forget the Roller Coaster in Virginia??)

It can be hard to reach out to other hikers if you have social anxiety. I’ve often struggled with this, but I’ve never regretted initiating a conversation with someone on any of the three long trails I’ve hiked. Some people become friends, some people become bizarre stories and memories, and some people become very special parts of not just our trail experience but our lives, as those of us who have happened upon a trail romance can attest.

When you hike a long distance, you can sometimes feel like a misfit among misfits. Like even though you’re surrounded by dozens of other people running away from “real life” (quotes because there’s actually nothing more real than being in nature), you still don’t quite fit in.

But I know personally that those feelings can change.

You Can Choose

You can choose to enjoy a trail with whatever level of social interaction makes you the happiest at any given moment. On trail, you have the freedom to hike on with no explanation when you need to be alone. Other hikers will understand precisely what you’re doing.

I recently hiked the West Highland Way again, and this time I went with three friends from university. While I was soaked by the never-ceasing rain and shivering in the cold of the Scottish “summer,” I still managed to laugh and sing. I still managed to enjoy meals of noodles and foraged mushrooms beneath the stars. When the pain in my feet was so bad that I needed to be alone to cope with it, I hiked ahead or behind the group. I even met someone very special when we built a communal campfire one night, and we still speak every day.

Something about backpacking and getting away from our normal lives and our comfort zone helps us connect to ourselves and others in a way that doesn’t feel possible elsewhere. In our lives of technology and commuting and paying rent, we often pass by strangers without a second thought. And we distract ourselves from our inner thoughts with many forms of entertainment.

But when you’re out there, somewhere in the mountains, with everything you need on your back, you learn so much about what kind of interaction suits you best. You take chances and talk to people you might never speak with otherwise. You might start the trail alone, hike it with a trail family, and finish it with a partner. Or maybe you’ll start with a partner, then go off on your own, and maybe even discover the joy and camaraderie of being part of a trail family.

The only way you can find out what will happen for you is to get out there and hike.

 

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Comments 29

  • Cesar Alfaro : Sep 15th

    I really admire what you got out of your experience in hiking alone, because that’s something I might just need to do – wake up! Thank you for your story and inspiration to travel alone!

    Reply
    • Linda B : Sep 16th

      In 1978, I set out from Springer Mt, Georgia, to hike the AT. My original partner changed his mind at the last minute. I met some wonderful people on the trail, and hike with them a great deal. I never felt threatened or lonely.
      However, in New York, I was attacked, beaten and stabbed. I was alone on that night. After five and a half days in Tuxedo Memorial Hospital, my mother and best friend drove me home.
      Looking back, I do not believe it would have happened had I been with a few other hikers. But I survived it all…

      Reply
      • Ben N : Sep 16th

        It’s a well written piece and I enjoyed reading the story as it resonates with my experience. Where can I read your fiction stories?

        Reply
      • ANNETTE : Sep 17th

        Wowza. I hope you have healed. Was the attacker a person high on drugs or a pervert? Did law enforcement or rangers ever do anything? I hike alone

        Reply
    • [email protected] : Sep 20th

      Thanks for sharing ur thoughts well written hit home for me I spend soo much time in nature equal time in winter wishing I was with someone too appreciate the beautiful moments visuals and just plain incredible time in nature it seems like a waste to me that I cant share my passion

      Reply
  • Linda B : Sep 16th

    In 1978, I set out from Springer Mt, Georgia, to hike the AT. My original partner changed his mind at the last minute. I met some wonderful people on the trail, and hiked with them a great deal. I never felt threatened or lonely.
    However, in New York, I was attacked, beaten and stabbed. I was alone on that night. After five and a half days in Tuxedo Memorial Hospital, my mother and best friend drove me home.
    Looking back, I do not believe it would have happened had I been with a few other hikers. But I survived it all…

    Reply
    • Saoirse Ibarguen : Sep 16th

      That is so terrifying! I’m sorry that happened to you, and I’m so glad you made it through. Safety is such a concern for me. I never wanted to stealth camp by myself anywhere, just in case. But bad things happen in all kinds of hiking situations, so it’s hard to feel 100% safe.

      Reply
  • silky : Sep 16th

    You can really chart your growth through this article. Hiking trails can give us that space to rediscover ourselves and learn who we are. Hopefully those we go with help us not only on our physical journey (the hike), but our personal journey too. Maybe we uncover the meaning of life.

    Plus it’s nice to meet someone special along the way 🙂

    Reply
  • Riley Long : Sep 16th

    What the hell is a “tramily”? Please tell me that someone’s journalistic integrity is so poor that they didn’t bother to proofread at least the title of their article. Its pathetic that the only qualification to be a journalist nowadays is having access to a cellphone.

    Reply
    • Saoirse Ibargüen : Sep 16th

      Hi there!
      1. I did not write that, and it’s not the title of my article. It’s something the editor added for people to click on before they see the article.

      2. If you’ve done any long distance hiking, then you know a “tramily” is a term that was coined for “trail family”, or people you meet along the way and hike with. I don’t use the word myself, but plenty of hikers do. Hike your own hike!

      3. I have a master’s degree in writing, and I write on my computer, not a cellphone. Thanks for the input, and have a wonderful week!

      Reply
      • BLACK IBEX : Sep 17th

        Troll. Don’t react.

        Reply
    • R. Cranford : Sep 16th

      Trail + Family = Tramily
      People you meet on the trail who feel like family.
      It’s just a contraction of the two words.

      Reply
    • MICHAEL L KESTER : Sep 16th

      “Tramily” is an intuitive and obvious playful reference to “Trail Family” in the context in which it was given. It wasn’t that hard to figure out and certainly didn’t warrant the attack you engaged. Lighten up, grumpy.

      Reply
    • Patrick Danahy : Sep 16th

      Douchebag!

      Reply
      • Jhon : Sep 16th

        Well said. Truly a FOOL.

        Reply
    • S Alderman : Sep 16th

      Tramily means trail family. Next time just ask, don’t judge.

      Reply
    • Captain alba : Sep 16th

      hahahahah gimp, what a waste of time even coming to this blog to comment on something you clearly know nothing about? What a waste of energy even writing this.

      Reply
    • Flintstone : Sep 17th

      Aggressive…..
      Tramily is pretty standard term in the long distance hiking community and actually a term of endearment among those who are fortunate to have a great trail family experience. So….how about a little love, relaxation, enjoyment, entertainment, and witness to someone else’s experience? ….for what it’s worth.

      Saoirse, your story made me smile today, so thanks for that.

      Reply
    • Gary : Sep 18th

      How are you on the trek and have no idea what a tramily is? Plus you have to insult the author with your ignorance .

      Reply
  • Chris aka Han Slolo : Sep 16th

    I have completed 1800+ miles of the AT but I pulled out because I didn’t feel safe enough in the White’s to hike alone. Up to that point I had hiked alone and lived in the moment of right here and right now. I take my time and enjoy the adventure and not in a hurry to get to the finish line. I was willing to try and finish this summer but covid restrictions changed my plans. I went to Colorado and hiked the CT and had a great time. I usually don’t I with a tramily because I hike slowly but I still see the same people for short sections because I get up earlier in the morning and stop earlier in the afternoons. Hike your own hike.

    Reply
    • Annette : Sep 17th

      Why the Whites” not akone?

      Reply
  • Murph : Sep 16th

    Good for you, I understand and relish the hard-to-explain benefits of being on your own when hiking, camping, driving long distance, and the like. For me it is solitude but not loneliness. I happen to be one of those Scotch Irish types anyway! And one of the best companions to take along is a dog…anyone know this joy?

    Reply
    • Polar Bear and Bear Cub 2020 : Sep 17th

      Yep! My best hiking companion is my Lab. She even has her own trail name, Bear Cub. She’s a black lab and a number of people walking down the trail at first glance thought she was a bear cub! 😆😆😆

      Reply
  • Polar Bear and Bear Cub 2020 : Sep 17th

    I loved my tramily! It definitely helped having people around to encourage you in your down moments and keep you motivated. To laugh with at the end of the day and to share a snickers bar, band-aid, massage, Vitamin I or even toilet paper! But sometimes being with a tramily also pushes you too hard. If they are in better shape it could push you to injury. Or maybe you need a rest day and they are pushing on. On days of bad weather I liked hiking with them because of the encouragement. Other days I wanted to be alone and just enjoy being by myself in the woods picking my own speed and making my own decisions. Either way time spent on the trail is magical.

    Reply
  • Russ1663 : Sep 17th

    You have mastered hiking your own hike. Mine is the solitude, hearing the earth, greeting a fellow traveler kindly. The thrill of being off grid and depending on one’s own skill and not being afraid to be there. Note that I do carry a PLB so family can see where I am. Take care, listen to the earth.

    Reply
  • Harrison : Sep 18th

    My problem is that I’m not only a loner but anti social. People won’t leave me alone in the small City where I live and well known. I imagine they would prster me to death on a trail hike. BTW those are some long legs.

    Reply
  • Special K : Sep 20th

    I enjoyed your article. I have hiked solo for years, and have also met some incredible, good people on the trail. I read your bio and I also attended USF when I lived in Florida. Cool!! Best.

    Reply
  • Jennifer (Truck) Selzer : Sep 25th

    Hi, Story! Great article, so happy to read your work. I enjoyed meeting you on the AT, wishing you the best!

    Reply
  • Dogwood : Sep 25th

    Whether hiking solo, with a SO, or with Tramily it does not always have to be only approached that way. That’s the great thing about hiking/thru hiking; we each have the opportunity to mix things up, be adaptable and flexible.

    Some may attempt to rigidly box us in with a extroverted or introverted labeling as if all things are a duality. At times each of us can appreciate both those experiences and beyond. Don’t let them box you in!

    Reply

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