Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: Solo Hiking Vs. Companion Travel
The Trek Editor’s Note
Welcome to our third Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis. In case you missed it, we’re taking hiker’s questions and passing them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis.
JPD has solo thru-hiked the AT and PCT, set the self-supported FKT on the Long Trail, and the supported FKT on the Appalachian Trail. Her AT FKT landed her the honor as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year. She has authored multiple books, most recently The Pursuit of Endurance. But the real reason we love JPD and ask for her input? For such an accomplished hiker, she is “relatively normal” (her words) and incredibly humble. She has figured out how to have a life off-trail as a wife, mother, and professional… and continue hiking. She has kept it classy amid the negativity and tense confrontations that can be part of the hiker trash community, and she has always found ways to give back to the trail and conservation organizations.
Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on.
I know thru-hiking is a combination of being solo or with companions, but if you were forced to choose, which would it be and why? -Arthur Hamilton
Reading through the mailbag this week, this was the question that stood out to me… mainly because I didn’t have an immediate answer. And while it does not directly solicit advice (a welcome reprieve), this question does hold larger implications for how individuals and groups approach long trails.
As a side note, I was also partial to this inquiry because it harkens back to my college years when I stayed up way too long swapping “Would You Rather” questions with my roommates. Our most popular scenario was “Would you rather marry someone without a sense of humor, with the immaturity of a third grader, or someone who was perfect in every way but had elephantiasis?” After nearly ten years of marriage, I can say with some confidence, “It depends on the in-laws.”
When it comes to hiking solo or in a group, the ideal answer is obviously a combination of the two. But, if I had to pick one over the other, I would pick hiking alone. Yet, even as I type my response, I am tempted to change my mind and punch the delete button. After all, the long-distance community is an incredible subculture. We are a mix of quirky, eccentric, brilliant, and compassionate individuals. (If you think a Comic-Con is eclectic, try a hiker gathering.)
I cherish being hiker trash. Many of my closest friends are the men and women who I have walked beside on long-distance trails, and those experiences would not have been as memorable, humorous, or meaningful if I had been by myself. I should also add that I have hiked a couple thousand miles with my husband who is an amazing partner. Still, if I had to choose between hiking with Brew or going solo—assuming we are happily married—I would set off on my own.
So why would I chose to set out alone as opposed to with my favorite person? Well, if you know my husband Brew, then you know he talks a lot. But beyond than the factor of incessant—albeit charming—banter, I would choose to hike alone because while I have had deep, rich, life-changing relationships on and off of the trail, I discovered something hiking solo that I have not be able to experience anywhere else in life.
Hiking alone hones self-reliance, creative problem solving, and intuitiveness in a way that being a part of a group does not. I once had an embarrassing, yet frightful, episode in which I choked on a sour gummy worm and quickly made plans to give myself the Heimlich over a fallen tree. Another time I lost my spork, and as opposed to borrowing another hiker’s utensil, I turned two fallen branches into chopsticks. On a larger scale I became proficient with map reading, bear hangs, and river fords in a faster and more comprehensive manner than many of my peers who were part of a group. There is a sense of pride that comes with learning how to take care of yourself.
A hiker’s connection to the forest is can also be closer without other hikers around. When I hike by myself I am more attuned to the weather patterns and I also see and hear more animals. Typically after several days spent hiking alone, I can give accurate weather forecasts and identify an animal by the sound of its movement through the forest.
But the real reason that I would chose to hike solo goes beyond the independence and competency derived from spending time alone or the deeper connection with nature. It’s because I have a deep, primal need to be bored.
In our culture of constant stimulation and multi-tasking, it is a rare gift to have time and space to yourself and not know what to do with it. On my first thru-hike, I remember feeling terrified at the start of the journey. I was scared of bears and snakes, I was worried about being cold and wet, but most of all I was frightened that I would spend the next five months feeling bored and lonely.
Then after a few weeks on the trail, I had my first afternoon of being bored. It was a strange sensation, but the more time passed, the more I grew comfortable with the expanse of my surroundings and my mind. Within a few days, I no longer identified the feeling as boredom, but rather peace.
This is something that even the most extroverted hiker should experience, but it no longer comes as a natural result of long-distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The popularity of these footpaths has grown in number, and technology has altered the long trail experience. Now, if you want to experience the transformative boredom of thru-hiking you must choose to spend a few days apart from a larger group and turn off your phone. Make that choice.
Being in relationships is more important that spending time alone, but true community is not possible without a knowledge of oneself that comes from spending time alone. And I have never discovered solitude and peace in society the way that it is offered on the trail.
Fortunately, backpackers can and should experience both.
I hiked through 12 states as a self-proclaimed solo hiker before I joined two young men and enjoyed the grind of New Hampshire and Maine in a group setting. The last two states, the hardest two states, were my favorite. I was able to embrace the end due to the strong friendship and deep conversation I shared with my companions but also because I had gotten their on my own. I discovered things about myself in the first 1,800 miles that I would not have otherwise.
When you hike by yourself, your bad decisions are all your own. When I make a wrong turn I spend the next few hours cursing myself, if I ford across a stream that is too deep and swift for comfort, there is little use in calling for help, and when my lazy bear hang results in fat squirrels I am the one who goes hungry. But this is how you learn. Experience is the best education.
Want to chat with JPD about this subject? She’ll be hosting a live session on the Trek AT Facebook Page on Friday, March 16th at 1:30pm EST. This week, whoever asks the best “would you rather” question during the session will receive a signed copy of her first book, Becoming Odyssa.
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