How to Complete a Thru-Hike Without Killing Your Significant Other
In 2018 Jenny and I set off from London, having both wrangled six months off work to hike the PCT. While at the PCT starting monument on the Mexican border, the legendary trail angel, Scout, pulled us over to one side: “Have I given you the couples chat yet?”
Why would we need a couples chat? we thought. Surely hiking with your partner is easier, right? You’ve got that emotional support with you all the way, so don’t have to worry about finding a trail family and fitting in, you can share gear so you have lighter packs, and you’ve got a hot water bottle with you all the way through the snowy Sierra. In reality, a thru-hike is like injecting a triple shot of caffeine directly into the veins of your relationship in terms of how much it intensifies it.
From our experience, and from speaking to other successful PCT couples, here are a few tips that helped us get the most out of our time together on trail.
Find the Gear that Works for You
Gear is a personal topic, and one that the hiking community loves to obsess over. When buying gear as a couple, you’ll need to decide not only the gear that works for you, but the gear that works for you as a pair. We wanted a lightweight setup that didn’t cost the earth, which ended up sacrificing our personal space. Our sleeping setup was a double airpad (the Exped Synmat Duo), the Enlightened Equipment Accomplice Two-Person Quilt, and the two-man Double Rainbow from Tarptent. This setup meant that our big three, including our bags, came to just 5.5 pounds (2.5 kilograms) each and cost about $600 per person. For most, this setup is more than just a little cozy, it is cramped and overbearing. You have to put up with a lot more of the other person’s funk, and you can bet you’ll be woken up if the other person goes for a wee in the night.
Food and cooking setup is also a personal preference. We used two pots and one stove and found this worked well. One person was normally doing a job while the other was cooking. As I inhale my food on the trail, having Jenny cook first meant we normally finished eating about the same time. When we started the trail we ate the same thing for dinners and a similar amount of snacks. As hiker hunger set in I started eating a lot more, not caring too much about quality, eating ramen bombs (instant mash and instant noodles) 75% of the time. Jenny, on the other hand, started to miss “real food.” As a result of our diets and preferences changing, we ate different food and split up when we hit the supermarket to buy our own stuff—it worked for us.
Another British couple we hiked with had a three-man tent, two separate sleeping bags and pads, and slept with their packs in the middle of the tent. That said, they shared all of their food, having one massive cook pot. Whatever works for you, that’s great. The simplest way to find out is to test this slowly through practice hikes.
Practice for a thru-hike really does make perfect. You might know what you like, but you need to make sure that this gels with your partner. We did multiple shakedown hikes in the two to three years before we took the plunge. During these hikes we learned loads about ourselves personally, but also about the other person’s hiking style, preferences, routine, hygiene levels, etc.
As an example, Jenny likes to read before heading to bed. Knowing that beforehand meant that I knew that an early night would involve wearing a Buff as an eye mask to block out her headlamp. Being completely exhausted, cold, and with four months left to go isn’t the best time to figure out that something doesn’t work for both of you.
You’ll also start to work out what you are good at and start to develop routines. I’d put the tent up when we got to camp and Jenny would put the bed up and change while I boiled water for whatever was on the menu that night. This worked well and meant we knew what needed to be in each other’s pack.
The final aspect that a practice hike will prepare you for is the fact that you’ll start your hike spending every waking (and sleeping) hour within five feet of each other. You’ll know how regular your partner’s bowel movements are, how many liters of water they’ve drank, and pretty much every conversation they’ve had—because you’ve probably been a part of them. It is intensive, and it’s imperative to the success of your hike that you can do it for a week before you try it for five months.
Don’t Plan on Spending the Whole Time Together
So we lied in that last bit—you don’t have to spend five months literally glued together. This is where a trail family comes into its own. We were incredibly lucky in finding a brilliant group of like-minded folks who had different stories, life experiences, and future plans. To be honest, these guys and gals are the reason we made it to Canada.
While we’re sure your partner is amazing, you probably know lots about their past and future plans and are experiencing all of their present. 500 miles into the desert was probably our shakiest time in our relationship on the trail. We were trying to stay too close and were getting cabin fever—ironic for being in some of the most vast landscape we’d ever experienced.
After a good heart-to-heart we realized we needed to be more open with one another, and as Scout had told us, “Be kind.” Having your partner on trail is an enormous benefit; you’ve got each other to help you through all the hard bits. At the beginning of the trip Jen’s knee started to play up and I was able to take on more weight. She returned the favor in the Sierra when I got shin splints. Everyone has days they don’t feel like hiking, and having someone who knows you better than anyone else during those times is invaluable.
It is really important to be honest about how you feel, how your body is going and how you like to hike (with a height difference of over a foot, our styles were very different). It became a lot easier once we’d talked that through with each other. It also meant our trail became much more social as we hung out with our trail families, or if one of us needed some personal time they could hike on. We also developed time alone as part of our routines, writing a diary each evening to give us some space and decompression time.
Make Time for Each Other, Especially if You’re Part of a Large Trail Family
At the beginning of our trip we were very conscious not to blow our entire budget on hotels and towns. This meant we ended up sharing hotel rooms or staying at the campgrounds in town with the rest of our trail family. We never really got alone time and small things compounded.
It is easy to get wrapped up in the hiking life, and the tasks you need to do like filter water, pack up, resupply, organize a hitch, etc., that you forget to spend quality time together—one of the main reasons you probably chose to do this in the first place. In Buffalo we started a tradition of having date nights in town to take time out of the trail family, talk about anything on our minds, and make sure we were both enjoying the experience. This was one of the best things we did and helped us develop our relationship enormously. There are plenty of towns where a motel room is affordable so you don’t need to share a room with six others.
Hiking the PCT has definitely been one of the best things we’ve done as a couple but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without challenges. Remembering why you’re out there and making sure you’re both enjoying the experience will set you up for one of the best summers of your life together.
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