Deciding to thru-hike is a lot like planning to go to school or switch careers—it’s a really big deal. Typically, there are months of consideration, preparation, amassing gear, shaking down, reassessing gear, and ultimately mentally preparing for what’s to come involved in the process, not to mention the excitement and nerves on top of all the planning. So, what happens when you throw a significant other into the mix?
I thru-hiked the AT SOBO in 2019 with Sweets, my significant other of three years. Of the 187 days it took us to complete our hike, we only spent five days hiking separately, and only one night apart (in different locations, not including the hostels that split men and women). Let me tell you, we learned a lot, not just about each other, but about ourselves and how we shaped each other’s hikes. In these six months, we compiled a list of the pros and cons of hiking with your significant other that we think would be helpful for any couple considering thru-hiking together. Keep in mind, however, that our experience was on the AT and may not translate perfectly to other long-distance trails.
Pro #1: Safety
Hiking with a partner is safer than hiking alone simply because someone knows generally where you are at all times. This person is expecting you to be at camp by the end of the day and has a good idea of where they saw you last in case you aren’t there. Having a partner around can also be crucial in the event of an injury or medical emergency. This person will be able to get help for you if you are unable to do it yourself and will generally lessen the amount of time it takes for search and rescue or another emergency service to get to you.
While the need for emergency services is rare, it is nice to have peace of mind that someone is with you every step of the way in case you need help. This is also why many hikers will hike in groups or form tramilies. I know I felt safer with Sweets by my side from the slippery Maine roots and rocks to our wild hog encounter in Georgia.
Pro #2: Splitting Gear
When you’re hiking with another person, you have the option to split gear (not carrying everything you may need all on your own but splitting it with the other person). For example, because Sweets and I slept in the same tent, I carried the tent poles while Sweets carried the tent body and rain fly. I carried our stove burner while Sweets carried the fuel canister. There were small items that each of us carried for the other as well; for example, I carried our bear line while he carried the toilet paper. This helps both of you keep your base weight down, and we all know that a lower base weight means easier hiking and more enjoyment out of your hike.
Splitting gear can also be extremely helpful in the event of an injury. Sweets ended up with a stress fracture in his foot while we were in Rocksylvania, and he needed to shed some weight in order to keep hiking (against doctor’s orders, of course). In this case, we switched the gear that we split, and I took the heavier parts of the tent, stove, and anything else I could take off his back. Sweets told me that he doesn’t think he’d have been able to keep going if it weren’t for me being able to take some weight from him while his foot healed. Having the ability to swap gear around based on how you feel is a great perk.
Pro #3: May be More Fun
Sharing your hike with someone is so special, and you may find that it’s more fun to hike with your partner than if you hiked alone. This is, of course, not true for everyone, but in our experience, we loved adding thru-hiking to our relationship repertoire as something we did together. We had the privilege of spending six straight months together while we swam in lakes and hiked through rainstorms and enjoyed 360-degree views and slept in freezing temperatures. Sharing the highs and lows with someone you love is an incredible experience, and we shared so many laughs, and I mean SO many laughs, that we would have missed had we not hiked the AT together.
Pro #4: Personal Photographer!
Documenting the amazing moments on a thru-hike is so great for future-you when you get to look back across everything you saw and accomplished, and let’s be honest, it’s just nice to have some badass photos of yourself to post to Instagram! While you certainly can carry a tripod or selfie stick, having a partner to take photos of you is lighter, quicker, and easier than trying to take photos of yourself. Sometimes your partner captures moments in ways you wouldn’t have thought to, giving you some amazing portraits for that post-trail photo album. Sweets captured some amazing candid photos of me that I have cherished since we finished our hike.
Pro #5: Support
Hiking with a partner can be an amazing way to stay accountable to your commitment to thru-hike. Confession: There were plenty of times that I wanted to quit and go home for this reason or that reason, but Sweets supported me and reminded me how far I had come, how badly I wanted to finish, and why I had come out in the first place. I was able to provide the same support for him, and having someone who loves you with you as you go through some of the toughest and most breathtaking experiences of your life can be a huge motivator to keep going and see it through together.
Pro #6: Post-Trail Adjustment Buddy
Adjusting back into the “real” world post-trail can be jarring, confusing, and scary. Part of what hurts the most in coming back is that those around you don’t truly understand what you went through, what you accomplished, what you experienced, and how it changed you. When you walk a long trail with your partner, you both change along the way and experience this growth together, and you truly understand what the other is going through when you finish the trail. Having someone who understands you and is going through the same things you are is reassuring to say the least, and it eases the harshness of readjustment post-trail.
I really can’t say enough about how much I loved hiking the AT with Sweets. In my opinion, the pros far outweigh the cons. However, there are a few drawbacks to consider when planning to thru-hike with a partner.
Con #1: More Expensive
Of course, adding an additional person to a thru-hike is going to mean a higher expense when it comes to resupply, hostel/hotel stays, shuttles (most charge by occupants), etc. Planning ahead for the expense of two people versus one is the best way to mitigate this con.
Con #2: Not Much Privacy
Unfortunately, privacy options on the trail are limited, which can inhibit couples’ ability to be intimate. For Sweets and me, this was really hard because cuddling is a huge characteristic of our relationship at home, and because of the unsanitary factor as well as having a sleep system that wasn’t necessarily conducive to cuddling at night in our tent, we didn’t get the luxury very often. If intimacy is a big factor in your relationship, this can be disheartening on trail.
Hiker hostels do not always have private room options for couples, and if they do, they’re typically much more expensive than bunks. Many hostels have men’s and women’s bathrooms, preventing some couples from being able to shower together, and some hostels even have men’s and women’s bunk rooms, preventing some couples from being able to stay in the same room at night.
Even so, if hostels have a coed bunk space, most bunks are twin-sized beds, not an ideal size for a couple to sleep in the same bed. Many times, Sweets and I would sleep in separate bunks just to ensure we got good enough sleep to hike the next day because squishing together on a twin could cause us both to be restless. Plus, every hostel we encountered required pay for two bunks, regardless of if we slept in the same one, making us feel a little silly for not using the extra bunk.
Sometimes Sweets and I would get a hotel room solely so we could cuddle up while clean and free of hiker stink, even though it was typically much more expensive than a hostel. Depending on your relationship, the scant opportunities for intimacy on the trail can be cause for frustration.
Con #3: Hike Your Own Hike Becomes Hike OUR Own Hike
This could be seen as a pro or a con depending on the way you see it, but when hiking with a partner, the experience changes from “my” hike to “our” hike. Even if you hike at different paces, stop at different places along the way, or camp in different spots based on what you want to experience, if your partner gets sick or injured or needs to leave the trail for some reason, you have to decide if you’ll wait for them or continue on your own.
Sweets got sick while we were in Harpers Ferry, putting us off-trail for five days while our hiking partner pulled ahead of us. I was antsy and bored while I waited, but of course, I wanted to continue with my partner. Later on in Damascus, I got sick for five days, forcing Sweets to wait for me to feel better before getting back on trail. We decided to wait for each other because we wanted to complete the hike together, but we fell behind the hikers we knew and ended up finishing three weeks later than we wanted to because we waited for each other when we needed time off.
When hiking with a partner, you should discuss what will happen if one of you needs time off from the trail or one of you needs to end their hike entirely and set expectations in case these situations arise. This way, you’ll both have a good understanding of what to expect from your hikes and hopefully it’ll lead to more enjoyment for both of you.
Con #4: You Won’t Always Get Along
Even if you love each other more than anything in the world, it can still be trying to be attached at the hip for four to seven months during a thru-hike. The reality is, you won’t always get along, and this can cause tension in the already high-emotion setting of thru-hiking. Sweets and I definitely had days where we were less than peachy to each other, and that’s OK. It’s normal. Talking to your partner beforehand about what to do when you’re just not jiving is a good way to plan for these days, whether that means taking some space and hiking separately for the day or sitting down and working it out then and there. In our case, we would give each other a little space, maybe listen to music while we hiked, and chat about what was bugging us over dinner at camp. This way, our moods didn’t affect our hike for the day too much and we avoided going to bed upset.
Con #5: Splitting Up Can Ruin a Hike
Thru-hiking is truly a visceral experience, and it can certainly change relationships and the people in them. Good or bad, this could cause a fallout to happen even in the strongest of relationships. If you split up from your partner during a thru-hike, it can definitely throw a wrench in your plans for your hike, from making it financially impossible to the possibility of constantly trying to avoid each other if you both remain on trail. It’s a good idea to have a plan for what you’d do if you and your partner split up, however unlikely it may seem.
After our thru-hike as a couple, both of us wouldn’t change a thing about hiking it together. As long as you’re prepared, understanding of one another, and willing to work through whatever the trail throws at you as a team, thru-hiking with a partner can enhance the experience for both of you and lead to some irreplaceable memories made with someone you love that will last a lifetime.