Boyfriend or Best Friend: Who is the Better Thru-Hiking Partner? (part 1)

Out of the many difficult decisions required before embarking on a thru-hike, one of the most daunting and crucial is: who, if anyone, are you bringing with you? While I enjoy backpacking alone, there can be something comforting and motivating about having a partner by your side for all the moments on trail — the good, the bad, and the “ugh, what the heck are we doing here?”.

For some personal context, I’ve done long trails both with a partner and alone. I did the Appalachian Trail in 2021 with my then-boyfriend, now-fiancé, Mitch. I followed that up with the Colorado Trail, which I did solo. There, I met my best friend, Katie, and this year we will be doing the Continental Divide Trail together.

This pattern of thru-hiking with significant people in my life got me wondering: who definitively makes the better thru-hiking partner?


Selecting a Thru-Hiking Partner

Choosing a hiking partner is akin to choosing a romantic partner, aside from the obvious connection that they are often the same person. As someone who genuinely enjoys backpacking solo, I want a thru-hiking partner who enhances my experience instead of just being a part of it. To me, “enhancing my experience” looks like filling in gaps in support that I am not always able to give to myself. This includes:

  • letting me process my emotions out loud instead of to my Notes app
  • verbally reminding me that quitting is an option so that I remember that it’s not
  • motivating me to go that extra mile
  • being a calming presence when my brain is anything but calm

I recognize that my specific needs may not entirely resonate with you, so it’s important for you to contemplate what your ideal thru-hiking partner would be like. This extends from how they can support you to how they complement you and your experience on trail. For example, is having a similar mile pace necessary for you? Do you skip a lot of off-trail vistas and want someone who will talk you into doing them, or do you want someone who will spurn them with you?


Thru-Hiking Partner Compatibility Categories

In my incredibly valid and professional opinion, there are three main categories of partner compatibility for a thru-hiking partner: personality, communication, and hiking style. These categories should work together in symphony to create a harmonious thru-hiking experience. I don’t think any category can afford to lag. No surplus of another category can compensate for a deficit in another. It is important to evaluate each category honestly when it comes to selecting a thru-hiking partner, or you run the risk of leaving your partnership strewn about somewhere on the trail. We’ve all seen this with friends-turned-roommates; either they come out on the other side closer than ever, or they become mortal enemies. Thru-hikers have enough challenges to overcome, so don’t let your hiking partner be one of them!

I am fortunate enough to have had backpacking experience with both Mitch and Katie before deciding to embark on a thru-hike with either of them, so I have a head start. If that doesn’t sound like you and your potential thru-hiking-partner-to-be, I suggest you consider the following categories.


Personality Compatibility

This one is fairly self-explanatory: how well do your personalities mesh? Do you actually get along? Can you handle being around this person for a long time? I sure hope so, because you have a few weeks to a few months to change your mind. Think you won’t? Prove it.


Mitch and I met in college at The Ohio State University (don’t come at me about the name, the “The” is in the charter!!), and we were actually roommates before we were friends. His sister and I were living in a house with a bunch of other friends, and Mitch needed a place to rent for a semester. Our acquaintanceship began with Game of Thrones rewatches and me using him for his free engineering prints, and our friendship developed for many months before evolving into a more solidified relationship. We like each other enough to live together without six other roommates, and I said yes when he proposed, so you could say we get along alright.


Katie and I met 5 days into our solo Colorado Trail journeys. It was pouring rain, and we fell into a rhythm hiking our booties off to get into Breckenridge and out of the storm. She says she didn’t make a note of my name because she assumed we’d never see each other again, but we re-met coming out of Copper a few days later and hiked together for maybe 3 days before our trail journeys split. We saw each other intermittently over the following days, but we really became friends when she moved to Denver a few months later. Now, we have a lot of similar hobbies that we do together, and have become each other’s go-to person for good news, bad news, and what Katie understandably calls “goblin thoughts.” We’ve actively had to ration the amount of time we spend together for fear that we’re going to get tired of each other’s company before we get to the Continental Divide Trail, where we will be surrounded by very few other people for months on end.

Katie and me skiing together at Winter Park


Communication Compatibility

One of the most important facets in any relationship, whether it be a friendship or partnership or hikingship, is communication. In a romantic relationship, there are so many organic opportunities to get to know how the other communicates and how to assess what the other needs in different situations. For friendships, learning how the other communicates is a more conscientious and explicit affair. Regardless of status or title, how can you be sure that you won’t get into relationship-ending altercations that stem from the everyday challenges of a thru-hike?


One thing you have to know about me is if there’s an opportunity to argue-escalate-fight, I will take it. Mitch and I have been together for 5 years, and in all that time, we have only gotten into a few arguments and no real fights. Even when I’m ready to absolutely pounce, Mitch has always been able to diffuse the situation. He knows when I’m fighting out of anger or out of insecurity, and he always responds the way I need him to. When he is in a bad mood, I’ve figured out whether he needs time to vent or time to be alone and remove himself from the situation. There have been many opportunities for us to learn about how we need the other to respond no matter our mood.


Friendships are interesting. Even in close quarters, most friends don’t have to know exactly how to respond when one of them is in a bad mood. Usually, worst case scenario, you can just have a small spat and then talk it over in a few days once you’ve cooled down and taken your space. But what if you’re alone with little or no company but each other, several days’ walk away from the closest town? How do you manage an argument when you have nowhere else to go, no one else to talk to, and nothing but yourselves to diffuse the tension? Katie and I have been asking each other for months now, “What do you need if x happens?” “How do you need me to respond when you feel y?” It’s been a really interesting exercise in friendship development, and I suggest that, if you plan to thru-hike with your friend, you figure out the best ways to communicate with them when (not if) things go awry.

a precursor of what’s to come (photo editing by Katie Jackson)


Hiking Compatibility

This is the category that people often overlook before a thru-hike and quickly discover, for better or for worse, whether or not the compatibility is there. Some factors that need to be considered are:

  • Time together  vs. time apart. Some people like to hike step-for-step the whole way with their hiking partner, and others prefer to hoof it solo. I like to hike alone and take breaks together. I prefer our paces to be similar over the course of 5-10 miles but different over the course of 1-2 so we can have time to hike alone but reconvene at water sources or camp without feeling that one person is lagging.
  • Daily mileage. An ideal partner is someone who wants to hike approximately the same amount of miles in a day as you do. Definitely discuss this one pre-trail, and keep coming back to this during the hike, as this metric can vary as a result of improved endurance, personal health or injury, or timelines.
  • “Smiles Before Miles” or Git ‘Er Done? How are the aforementioned miles going to get done — as quickly as possible or with as many snack breaks as you can squeeze? As much as I would love to be a dilly dallier, I simply am not one. My ideal hiking partner forces me to slow down and appreciate some breaks, but I overall prefer to get where I need to be with as few side quests as possible.

These are some factors that need to be discussed prior to the thru-hike. They also can be updated every so often along the way. As long as you’re both on the same page, the hiking part of the thru-hike should go just fine.


Neither Mitch nor I had backpacked until our first trip together in 2019. We learned the ropes of backpacking and the intricacies of backpacking with a partner from the get-go, together. Our first couple of trips together, we stayed next to each other every step of the way. When we did the Appalachian Trail together, we quickly learned that it was not sustainable to hike that way. Not only were our paces different enough, but we both like our alone time, so we very rarely actually hiked together. We fell into a rhythm of hiking the first mile or two together, meeting up around lunch time, and then meeting up again at camp. At first, we took every blue blaze side quest to see any and all views; by a few hundred miles in, we decided that we didn’t want to do that anymore. Had our hiking not been compatible, there’s a very good chance that our thru-hike, and our relationship, would not have ended well.

L: our first backpacking trip at Zaleski State Park; R: finishing the AT together


Fortunately for us, Katie and I met while backpacking solo on a long trail. We already know each other’s backpacking style. Even so, thru-hike preparation has been really interesting for us. Although our backpacking styles are similar, our planning styles could not be more different. Katie has a PowerPoint presentation neatly made about which towns we are likely to stop in, spreadsheets about what gear will likely need to be replaced and when, and a Wikipedia page memorized about how many days we are likely to be in each state. I… do not enjoy looking too far ahead. I will prepare for what potential dangers may come about on the trail. I will research the trail up to my first, maybe second resupply, and then plan the next resupply from there. Even though the hiking part of our hiking compatibility is there, we have had to balance each other’s planning attitudes leading up to the hike.


In this Battle of the BFs, we will see who makes the better thru-hiking partner: my then-boyfriend or my best friend. Find out the winner in part 2 after Katie and I finish the CDT!

Who will win: Mitch or Katie? Comment your thought below and we’ll see if you’re right in the fall!

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Comments 7

  • Definitely Not Katie : Feb 5th

    Boyfriends are lame. Best friends are forever. Katie will win (and her spreadsheets sound sexy????????)

    • Not Mich (seriously, I'm not him) : Feb 6th

      Friends are lame. Fiancés are forever (until marriage.) Mitch will win (and his engineering prints sound sexy????????)

      • the best hiking partner! : Feb 6th

        Friends and fiancé’s are lame – dogs are the best hiking partners! Looking forward to following!

        • Madelyn Dukart : Feb 6th

          If I had a dog, it would have to be an adventure dog for sure!

      • Madelyn Dukart : Feb 6th

        Haha they apparently were sexy enough! And we get married soon so his title promotion in my posts is imminent!

  • Steve : Feb 6th

    I went to graduate school at OSU. I always tell people that it is THE Ohio State University, not just any old Ohio State University. Good luck on your trek.

    • Madelyn Dukart : Feb 6th

      Go Bucks! And thanks so much!


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