Why Relationships are Easier on the AT
If I had a dollar for every time a well-meaning individual gazed at Rocky and I, saying: “If you two survived the Appalachian Trail, you can survive anything together,” I would stop buying expired dairy products and finally get my truck’s oil changed. But as it is, we nod politely and think about how tragically misguided they are, at least in our case.
Thru-hiking the AT was the most easy, mindless five months of our relationship. The only time we seriously argued on the trail was when Rocky caught a cold in NY and snored so loud I didn’t sleep for a week, and I made sure he didn’t sleep by kicking him all night. But for the most part, our relationship on the trail was so good that it made the whole hike seem easier. This was almost universally the case with other thru-hiking couples I saw. We didn’t hear any horror stories of on-trail breakups, and the few couples in our hiking bubble were consistently wonderful to be around.
Then we went home.
Our reentry to the real world was stressful. We were broke and living in Rocky’s parent’s basement, struggling to find a place that would allow dogs. Rocky had sold his truck before the trail, and my truck promptly broke down upon our return. My job didn’t take me back, so I ended up delivering sandwiches and feeling sorry for myself. We argued over money, finding a house, transportation, money, who used the last of the coffee, and money. Thankfully, things got better after we found a place to rent, put a few dollars in the bank, and I landed a real job and could stop driving a sandwich van. But still, the AT was the most idyllic five months we’ve ever had, and this is my reasoning why ours—and other—relationships thrive on the trail.
1) You are together 24/7. Instead of creating tension, that actually makes it more important to diffuse arguments immediately. In the real world, if someone is pissy in the morning, you go your separate ways during the day—resolving the issue doesn’t seem paramount to your emotional survival. During a thru-hike, escalating tension can be disastrous because you can’t escape each other. Even if you hike apart during the day, you’re going to wind up at the same location at night. I’m blessed with a partner who refuses to let things escalate, and calmly talks me off my ledge before things blow up. Unless it involves snoring. Then nobody’s safe.
2) You will both have good days and bad days, and sometimes they might even coincide with one another. If I was having a bad day and Rocky was having a good day, he tried to make it better for me, and vice versa. You’re both working towards the same goal, so it does nothing to help if you gloat over your partner’s misery. If you’re both having a great day, wonderful. And if you’re both having a lousy day? Cut your miles short and relish in being able to complain to each other.
3) A thru-hike is a simplified version of the world. You have one goal, one thing to do each day. It leaves a lot less room for disagreeing. The rest of the world fades away: oil changes, rent, sifting through mail, dishes. Camp chores become routine, resupplies become routine, your budget is pared down to the minimum requirements. There’s not a lot of room for decisions and options and screw-ups. If we disagreed about our mileage plan, we would just start walking and see where we ended up. Sometimes I wanted to stop early, sometimes he did. Usually we agreed to keep moving. But disagreements of such small consequence rarely became an argument.
4) Living on the trail makes you appreciate the little things. Until you’re out there, you can’t comprehend the magnitude of appreciation you feel when you come back from getting water and your partner has inflated your sleeping pad. So you filter their water for them in return, and it’s the biggest deal in the world. That can be a tough thing to hold onto in the real world, where everything comes so easily.
5) You have the same goal in mind, and you share everything. This means you can relate to each other like never before. The terrified/excited flight to Georgia. The thrill of turning the guidebook page and seeing your next resupply approaching. The pride of hitting the 1,000-mile marker. Taking bad selfies with the state line signs. The scariest hitch you’ve ever taken. Tallying the number of times you fall on the rocks in southern Maine. Touching the sign on Katahdin. Each obstacle and each achievement are shared with your partner, and if you can retain what that connection felt like, you’ll have a good chance of surviving the real world.
So thank you everyone who congratulates us on staying together throughout our hike. It means a lot! But don’t be surprised if I correct you and say The hardest part is coming back.
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insightful as always. having never done the AT (or completed any task more arduous than finishing a bottle of wine in one sitting) i can only relate this to experiences traveling, and have found similar things to be true. perhaps most notably for friends/partners/coworkers, a. there is no pressure to be pretty, because it is understood that everyone is dirty, broke, and living out of a backpack. b. there’s a big sense of communal support, because everyone can relate to what you and your partner/friend/travel buddy are going through, so you don’t run into the challenge of diverging societal expectations that create external strain on relationships (no backpacker in kuala lumpur is going to chide you for not having a 401k). c. you don’t get trapped in your own mental whirlpool about what your “needs” are, because you know what they are – water, food, place to sleep, and ideally a change of clothes. d. you can’t lie to each other. you have seen each other when you are inspired, exhausted, proud, frustrated, spent, optimistic, and diarrhea-stricken. there’s no benefit to saving face and hiding weaknesses from each other when you’re on the trail (mountainous or metaphorical), but instead there is great incentive to compensate for what your partner is currently lacking.
i love reading your articles and desperately trying to draw parallels to my own life of wilderness avoidance. keep em comin
Basically loved readi. This. 75% of people that hear my boyfriend and I are hiking the AT together seem to think one of us is going to end up murdering each other. Despite the fact we have a REALLY positive supportive and loving relationship. I don’t wanna jinx it though… So we’ll probably end up killing each other.
So why won’t Rocky ever hike with you again?
I always hiked solo for long trips, but have taken weekend to week long trips with my wife. We do quite well on the trail together despite being different hikers – she’s a rabbit and I’m a locomotive. Of the decades of observing couples on the trail together I came to the conclusion in my mind that hiking is like being sloppy drunk. It doesn’t change your personality, it amplifies it. So the couples I saw on the verge of a breakup probably were never meant to be together, and the other ones seemed to be in total bliss – very few in the middle. So maybe a thru-hike is a better option than couples counseling. If you are having relationship troubles – go hiking. You will have your definitive answer in a few months (possibly sooner).
What an amazing post. So many good points. I wrote a pretty long comment on tandemtrekking about the same subject, but to be brief, I absolutely believe that life on a thru hike or traveling is easier because it’s not the real world and if you can’t hack that, then you’re kind of doomed.
Great article! I hiked with my partner (Ukelady) and we had a very similar experience. Although, unlike your experience, we saw a lot of couples crash and burn. Like Blitzo says, the trail amplifies your relationship. It could last a long while after the hike or end during the hike. I don’t believe there are many cases in the middle of that spectrum.
A lot of people told us the same thing after our hike, that if we survived that we could survive anything. I wholeheartedly believed that before, during, and after hiking.