Preparing Your Relationship for a Thru-Hike

Thru-hiking with your significant other?

Get your relationship ready for the challenges of the trail. . .

There you both are, sitting starry-eyed in the middle of a pile of new gear, intoxicated by the smell of new nylon and fresh tech-fabrics.  There are romantic notions dancing in your mind about taking a stroll along the green tunneled path known as the Appalachian Trail, laughing, smiling, snacking, meeting new friends, spending cool, clear nights snuggled in your tent, listening to the woodland sounds, bellies full from a delicious meal, and drifting peacefully and comfortably off to sleep together on the adventure of your life.

It’s easy to get caught up in the happy version of trail life in your head, and while some of your joint thru-hike may be exactly like that picture in your head, chances are that a lot of it won’t be.  It’s one thing to be prepared to push through the tough times on your own, but it’s entirely another to push through those tough times with your significant other.  There may be times, when having them with you takes some of the stress of trail life off of you.  A teammate can certainly lighten the workload (one of you cooks, the other filters water), but having the emotions (not to mention the scents!), of two people in one tiny tent can also make life on a thru-hike more challenging than going it solo.

Preparing your relationship is key:

There is a lot of mental and emotional preparation behind a solo thru-hike, and there is even more when you are heading out with a significant other!  Living in the woods is a lot different than living your normal day to day life.  Heck, that’s probably a big part of why you’re going on this adventure!  That means that there are some considerations and adjustments that you and your partner will need to make in order to make your thru-hike a joint success.

Here are six tips for preparing your relationship for a thru-hike:

  1. Make sure you are on the same page:  You’ve heard that there are a lot of different ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  Some people are absolutely committed to the idea that they must walk every inch of white blazed trail carrying all of their gear, others are fine with blue blazing around parts of the AT, some don’t feel like less of a thru-hiker if they hitch past a section or aqua-blaze the Shenandoah.  Some people want to make good time and do big miles, others want to take it slow, see the sights, and break to drink in the experiences along the way.  Some people want to sleep in their tents as much as possible, and others would rather use the tent for the nights when the shelters are too full.It’s important that you and your significant other work out any differences in your thru-hiking philosophies before you find yourself on the trail, hungry, tired, and screaming at each other over one of these potential differences of opinion.  It’s good to weed out potentially conflicting ideas about thru-hiking ahead of time so that you can talk it out and resolve it from the climate controlled confines of your life at home.
  2. Come up with ground rules: You want this experience to be a mutually fulfilling one that makes your relationship stronger at the end than it was in the beginning, right?  Chances are better for that happening if you establish some ground rules that will keep you both happy.  These might be related to division of labor in camp, when to take a zero, when to take breaks, how to decide when and where to stop at night, when to get up, and how to decide where to eat in a town.Maybe the rule is that neither of you use any luxury items until all of the in-camp chores are done.  You take turns picking a restaurant in town.  Either party can call a break if they need one.  Maybe you agree that hiking separately through the day and meeting at night is best for you.  Maybe you agree that you will always stay in sight or earshot of each other.These rules you make for yourselves can always be renegotiated on the trail as your adventure unfolds, but having a starting place from which to negotiate changes is better than jumping in without a plan at all.
  3. Budget:  The number one subject of marital arguments is money, and that’s when you’re well fed, with a steady income, a roof over your head and have showered within the last week.  Imagine how the potential for arguments over financial decisions escalates with the added stress of being cold, wet, hungry, stinky, and not having paychecks coming in at regular intervals.Financial mismanagement is also way up there on the list of reasons that people leave the trail before reaching their destination.  Don’t let money derail your relationship or your thru-hike!Make your budget well ahead of time, and stick to it.  It’s best to overestimate the amount you will spend and build in a contingency fund for unforeseen expenses like emergency room visits or extra zero days.  It’s something you don’t want to have happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and it’s better to be prepared to pay for it than to have it cause an argument and potentially end your hike.  You can’t stash away too much money for a thru-hike, and that goes double when you’re hiking as a pair!
  4. Decide on your off-trail bucket list:  There are a whole lot of cool things to do both on and off of the trail!  Some people are dead set on going to Trail Days in Damascus, others really want to get off the trail and spend some time in Tennessee’s tourist Mecca, Gatlinburg.  Others like to take time off to tour Washington, DC or New York City, since the trail passes so close to each.  It’s good to reconcile your idea of the perfect off-trail activities with those of your partner.First of all, these should be included in your budget and savings plan long before you leave for the trail.  It’s also good to know if the idea of spending time in a city is something that sounds like torture or heaven to your significant other.  Decide ahead of time how many off-trail adventures you want, and what they will be, so that neither of you end up hurt or angry over derailed plans.
  5. Communicate:  Obviously, there is no possible way to pre-plan and pre-negotiate every single aspect of life as a couple on the Appalachian Trail, but if you start out by communicating about potential challenges unique to living in the woods for six months, you’ll have a good starting place to negotiate from when new challenges pop up.Promise each other that you’ll do your best to speak up honestly and quickly when something is bothering you, and that you’ll listen to your partner when they need to tell you something.  Committing to this can keep little grievances from turning into huge issues down the trail.
  6. Take time-outs:  Take some trail time for yourself.  If you are committed to walking together, spend a little time in camp journaling or meditating on your own when you need to.  Take a stroll down a blue blaze while your partner naps.  Just be sure to keep each other informed about your plans and your whereabouts.  Your normal life wouldn’t usually include being together 24/7, and trail life doesn’t have to either!Similarly, part of the fun of life on the trail is meeting some great new friends who are as adventurous as you!  It can be a very social experience as you share shelter space, hostel bunk rooms, and meals with your new hiker friends.  Don’t forget to take some time out from the social side of the trail to nurture your relationship.  Spend a night camping away from the shelters.  Hike to an overlook by yourselves to see the sunset.  Enjoy a romantic freeze-dried delicacy by headlamp.  Just try not to blind each other like we always manage to do!

Finish stronger than you started:

If you plan and communicate well with each other before and during your thru-hike, you can experience not only exponential personal growth, but a deepening of the bond between you and your partner as well.  Your trail experience, from planning to the final summit, can give you new insight into how you operate as a team, and can give you strategies for dealing with all of life’s challenges.

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Comments 1

  • Lauren : Apr 7th

    Fantastic, honest article! This is something I haven’t thought too much about, in the past. My wife and I have been dreaming about a trip on the Appalachian Trail for a few years now, and plan to make it happen in 2017. We’ll be on the trail this time next year. Here is where the real planning begins! Thank you for your thoughts and vital relationships-on-the-trail tips.


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