The Isolation and Loneliness of a Thru-Hike

The trail is a very odd place, as a culture. It doesn’t follow the same rules for culture and society as we experience them off trail. We form bonds very quickly, often before we even know each other’s names. We generally dispense with a lot of the hollow and meaningless conversations of day-to-day life. The artificial guarding walls that separate most interactions, keeping us from connecting our authentic selves with those around us, are rare. We’re all on the same arduous but rewarding journey, so friendships are made quickly and the community is tight-knit.

But at the same time, almost paradoxically, these tight bonds can be incredibly transient. So quickly the people who we bonded with instantly, and would have been happy to spend hours with every day all the way to Canada, are gone.

The Friendships Are Forever, but Trail Families Are Not

Our paces vary so much. Especially in the beginning while your body is adapting to the rigors of trail and while you are learning the skill that is long-distance backpacking. Figuring out when you want and need to get up, when to take breaks, when you need days off, and how many miles a day your body can sustain. We come from so many different backgrounds of health, fitness, and activity. Any group of thru-hikers starting together is going to have a mix of styles and speeds. This changes over time for everyone. Often rapidly in the beginning, while sometimes it’s a slow evolution over many weeks or months. In either case, it can make it very hard to stick with the hikers you have come to call family.

Even once you start getting up to your full pace it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in a trail family will want or need to take days off at the same time. Some hikers may need to push more, to minimize cost or meet a deadline, skipping rest days, towns, and side trips. For others, their motivation to thru-hike is to push themselves. That may mean a single max mile day here and there, or seeing what constant pace they can keep nonstop. Even if your pace is similar to the bulk of the pack, sticking with a consistent group of people is hard to maintain.

Inevitably emergencies or life events will take people off trail. Some unforeseen and unstoppable, others planned. Injuries and illnesses, deaths, weddings and graduations, stressed relationships, sudden costs, and endless other possibilities come up for us all.

For some trail families, separations happen because the addition of people who just aren’t compatible, as with any group of friends or friction among blood families.

Sometimes people are just done hiking, and leave.

The Cost

So in the middle of this tight-knit community, this like-minded tribe set out on the same pilgrimage, isolation and loneliness can be very real. It can be in spurts, or a constant part of your experience. Even later in the trail injuries still happen, money gets thin, and the bubble shrinks and disperses.

Trying to push miles or slow down to stay with trail family members can cause a lot of extra stress on the body and the mind. We have seen so many people injuring themselves by trying to keep a faster pace. Finding themselves even farther behind to heal, or being forced off trail entirely.

Even without injuries, we’ve seen many hikers spending their days crying on and off. Some because of the pain and effort to catch up. Others being held back by slowing down, feeling Canada get farther away. The hike simply isn’t theirs anymore, and the reasons they started can be harder to find.

We’ve talked with many hikers who just weren’t having fun because they were alone. They didn’t have anyone to consistently share the trail with. They couldn’t quite feel that sense of community. Some of them may not stay on trail because of this potential for loneliness and isolation that comes with trail life. Even if it doesn’t lead to something as intense as depression, it can take away the fun of the trek.

Finding Ourselves Alone

My wife and I are on this journey together, and while that helps enormously, it does not make us immune. Immune to watching friends be taken off the trail, or disappear into the distance of the vast journey north. Or to simply watching people who could be friends pass us by, never seeing them again. Sometimes our connections can be measured in miles or minutes.

We met our first trail family member (the legendary Frog King) at the monument, and started hiking together from Hauser. We met the other four as we left Lake Morena. That stretch out of Lake Morena was the best experience we’ve had on trail because of these amazing people. The belonging was real, and the fun was intense, but it only lasted a day and a half. Their slow day was our fast day. Within a few weeks Frog King also pushed ahead, needing to travel at his natural pace.

Since then we’ve met so many incredible people, but as happens on the trail, things come up. People decide to skip sections and go ahead. Packages show up late, holding you in town. We’ve had worse luck than many in these regards, but it is just part of the trail. Most of the time our respective paces are just simply not compatible from the moment we meet.

We quickly exchange Instagram (an apparent trail favorite) and other contact info. We stay in touch and chat as we’re able to, passing info and trail reports south. But it’s not the same. Naturally, it’s far more intense for those traveling solo, and more likely for SOBOs.

Finding Community

I wouldn’t say we are lonely, but the isolation is palpable. It’s not rare for us to be invited to join the dinner circle of a tramily we share a camp with, but we know it’s only for the night, because of our slower pace. We may leapfrog for a day or two, but rarely for much longer. We know we’re part of this community, but the literal and metaphorical distance can be hard to deal with, month on month.

For many, this is such a big part of why town stops and hiker havens (like Mike’s Place, Hiker Heaven, and Casa De Luna, to list a few notables) are such a vital draw. Whether it’s a hiker haven, a hiker town, or just a popular watering hole, we all fall into conversation easily. Hours, days, months in the quiet wilderness, and then even without a trail family these oases of community give everyone a chance to reconnect with each other. To bond over shared experiences and worries, trade information, and rest up together.

I try to make the most of these times to chat and simply take in the experience of this shared journey. Luckily, while not everyone is a social butterfly, I don’t think I’ve met anyone who didn’t enjoy the community. Social anxieties don’t seem to exist much out here, and everyone is friendly. I ask for some pictures and try to get some interviews. I do what I can to help other hikers while we’re temporarily holding still. All of it gives us a chance to be social for a time. And then we break off in groups and one by one, to continue the great journey north.

Coming to Terms

We still love this life, but also know we may not find anyone with our pace to consistently hike with for quite some time, and don’t expect it any sooner than Northern California. We just have to accept this as part of the journey and soak up the good inherent in the rest of this incredible way of life.

As many of us find out at some point on this trail, it’s simply not always possible to stick with a group. Not that putting effort into sticking together is a bad thing, but trying to force it too hard seldom works out well. As with all other parts of trail life, we put in our effort and all things must come organically.

Even with the isolation, it’s still worth it for us. For some hikers that isolation is part of why they’re out here. A more pure form of tranquility and reflection, I suppose. But personally, I look forward to our next tramily. Until then we always make the most of each chance for good conversation and community on trail and in town.

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