Lone Wolves to Trail Families: Who’s Who in the Thru-Hiking Social Dynamic

A large and integral part of a thru-hike is the social aspect.  As with most human endeavors, there’s a broad spectrum of interest—some people are in this for the scenery, some for the fastest known time, some for the solitude, some for the party, or somewhere in between. Many hikers coalesce into trail families or a crew, while others hike solo, or with a companion/partner.  There’s often cross-pollination between groups, especially at common choke points, like Cascade Locks or Kennedy Meadows South on the PCT, or Fontana Dam or Hanover on the AT.  At other times, ride-sharing and hotel spillover create ideal conditions for mixing things up.  For many people, their trail family is an integral part of their hike, while others much prefer bouncing between groups and extended solo time.

Based on my personal experiences on four long-distance hikes, I’m going to consider five main kinds of hiker groups, although a particular hiker may find that they move in and out of these categories over time.  I rank them in order of group size and complexity.

Lone Wolves

A Lone Wolf enjoying the newly opened section near Idyllwild.

For the most part I’m a Lone Wolf. I hike, camp, and resupply alone. I like people in general, but I’m out there for me. It’s also mostly my pace; I tend to hike slower but longer, with fewer breaks.  It’s not something a lot of people do, so trying to stay grouped up during the day gets hard. You’ll also see the occasional retiree, solo hiker from a foreign land, or refreshingly, a lot of women hikers who choose to hike alone. When I started in the East back in the ’90s, you never saw this.  Most Lone Wolves are outside the standard trail demographic of a twentysomething white kid.

Partners

A retired couple I met hiking the AT in 1999.

Usually romantic couples, Partners are people who hike and camp together, and who almost always share gear.  This is a somewhat specialized, specific subgroup of hikers.  On the PCT this year I occasionally saw siblings together, like the two big bearded boys I ran into in Washington, the SuperSiblings, or the Aussie girls, Beandip, Moonshine, and their mother, Birdie. Most of the time, Partners start grouped together.

Confederacies

Faceplant and me at the CA/OR border. We hiked and camped together on and off for about 2,500 miles.

If there’s a group of hikers that’s not a Partnership, but not as tight as a Trail Family, I call it a Confederacy.  It’s similar to a Bachelor Herd in other mammals (minus the mating aspects).  It’s generally accepting of Lone Wolves, as the core membership tends to be fluid.  This type of group is my favorite.  A loosely aligned group of hikers with similar goals, hiking speeds and temperaments, but where each does their own thing.  This works for me on many levels.  For me, the biggest positive here is that there’s no expectation of hiking speed, and no group planning of breaks/meals/campsites.  I also value my solitude.  After a while on trail, similar schedules may mean that a general group clusters together, with interest and affection between hikers, but there’s no dependency.

Finishing up the PCT, starting at around the Washington border, I started running into the same people.  There was general acceptance and some expectation to see one another each night, but nobody waited for anyone.  I liken this to a group of people doing their morning commute on public transportation—while you’re all strangers, you’re all going the same place at the same time, so a sense of camaraderie forms. There’s the woman with the weird briefcase, the kid with the pink cell phone, the old guy with the ponytail, etc.  You start to expect to see people, and it’s noticeable, and vaguely disturbing when they’re not there.

Trail Families

A Trail Family enjoying a meal outside Wrightwood, CA. Pictured left to right: Cheese, Cherry Bomb, Fireball, and Painter.

I think this is the classic, expected form of social group on long-distance trails. Probably because it receives so much attention, and for many people is a key component of their hike. Generally, after the first several hundred miles, membership is pretty sticky, meaning the Family neither adds nor removes members. It can border on clannish, as a Trail Family tends to do most activities together, and be focused somewhat inward. It’s not uncommon to see a Family arrive at a hostel, restaurant or post office, do their business, then leave, without engaging with any others. Maximum size is about six people; higher than that and the natural distribution of hiking speeds, temperaments, and priorities will tend to split the group. More than five to six people hiking and camping together is also a Leave No Trace no-no, as the concentrated impact on any given site is too high.

Caravans

A Caravan of hikers heading into the Sierra. We numbered nine at one point, a size that rapidly became unmanageable. Pictured left to right: Painter, Faceplant, Happy Feet, Gargoyle, Fireball, and Scooch.

A supergroup of multiple groups forms a Caravan (or Convoy).  As an example, a six-person Family I was in connected up with a three-person Partnership when we entered the Sierra. A combination of aligned goals and speeds, as well as some fear of the unknown challenges ahead glued us together for about 100 miles. The caravan splintered and then briefly reformed later, to ultimately splinter after Mammoth.  The three guys went off to do Yosemite Valley and hike faster, I hiked straight through, and the rest of my Trail Family veered off to do Yosemite Valley (and later San Fransisco).  Larger groups are more common in areas where conditions are unknown, or outside most people’s experiences. For instance, there was a lot of bonding together around Campo as nobody quite knew what they were in for, people were still figuring out how gear worked, and the pressures of blisters, water carries, and the unknown weighed heavily.

Final Thoughts

One of the great things about a long-distance hike is that you meet interesting people from all over the world.  Even if you’re a total Lone Wolf, you’re going to run into people from all walks of life and demographics.  You’re not going to like all of them, but that’s OK—there’s plenty of space for everyone, and there are more people to meet.  The social and human interaction is a great counterpoint to the massive, omnipresent scenery.  There’s also something of a primitive, caveman need to share a campfire or even just a dinner circle with people—a need not often filled in our postmodern society.  We had a campfire at mile 64 (Chariot Canyon) this year on the PCT, with about 20 hikers all meeting up and swapping stories of their first few days in the desert.

I recall vividly the night on the AT when we crossed over into North Carolina from Georgia. Everyone had spent the night at the Blueberry Patch Hostel, the weather was good, blisters were healing, and things were starting to look up. There was a big fire ring at the site, so someone got a fire going. A bit later, Walrus (above) came up to us, and with some formality, asked if he could join the fire. We sat around, a bunch of strangers in the dark, talking about things we had seen, hopes we had, and challenges we’d already faced in that first week.  Eventually it wound down, and we all went off to our own tents.

It calls to mind a certain scene in the Silmarillion, by J.R.R.Tolkien, where Finrod (an Elven king) comes across a group of men singing around a campfire in the wilderness:

“Now these were a part of the kindred and following of Bëor the Old, as he was afterwards called, a chieftain among Men. After many lives of wandering out of the East he had led them at last over the Blue Mountains, the first of the race of Men to enter Beleriand; and they sang because they were glad, and believed that they had escaped from all perils and had come at last to a land without fear.”

As much as a long-distance hike is ultimately a deeply personal experience, the human aspect of it is one of the great rewards.

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Comments 5

  • Rob Martinez : Nov 25th

    Great read, I really enjoyed it. I enjoy meeting people on the trail even though I tend to be a “lone wolf” as well.

    Reply
    • Smokebeard : Nov 26th

      Thanks for following along. I feel like an Anthro student could write their PhD thesis on the trail.

      Reply
  • Rachel : Nov 27th

    Great article. One of the many remarkable things about the Appalachian Trail is that so many different people come together for a common goal.

    I loved the reference to “The Silmarillion,” by J.R.R. Tolkien. In his day, walking was a part of life. We have lost that and are struggling to gain it back.

    Reply
  • Faceplant : Nov 28th

    You nailed it, Smokebeard. Particularly about trail families and the unknowns. Sometimes it’s a maturation process and learning to HYOH. While I missed the fun and camaraderie of my trail family as I moved north, I did find fun and camaraderie as a Lone Wolf and in a Confederacy. Different sides of the same coin. As you so eloquently say, it’s fluid.

    Reply
    • Smokebeard : Nov 28th

      Thanks for following along. I think the different social groups play different roles at different times in the hike. Sometimes its necessary, either physically or mentally, to hike with a group, other times, its different.

      Reply

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