I had always pictured myself alone. Alone on Springer, alone at Harper’s Ferry, alone on Katahdin. After a troubled childhood and a series of failed relationships, I had decided that it was me against the world. I would complete my lifelong dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail by myself.
The idea of making friends didn’t even cross my mind. I didn’t consider for a moment that I’d have a trail family. People were people after all, and I didn’t seem to do so well around other humans. That was part of the appeal of being deep in the woods for six months.
One of the gifts hiking gave me was the way it completely changed this attitude and aversion toward company. The social dynamics of backpacking became one of the most appealing parts of the adventure.
Hiking with a Partner
Not long after I’d decided I was going to hike the AT alone, and that I’d do it in 2018, I reconnected with a boy I’d known in college. We both wanted to do the AT, and suddenly my plan to go alone had changed. In the year leading up the the hike, our relationship imploded and it was clear that we should not embark on a six month journey together where we’d have to share a tent and constantly be in each other’s company.
Against all rational thinking, we did it anyway. I’m sure he wished as much as I did that he was alone. Caught up in our failing connection, I didn’t manage to connect with other hikers. I never had a real trail family, and I felt isolated from the whole community of people walking to Katahdin.
I learned how impossible it is to know what’s really going on between two people walking through the woods. Some couples seemed happy together, while others acted completely indifferent to each other. I knew people who met on the trail and got married and started a family after they finished hiking. By the end, I could confidently say to anyone who asked that you should really take a look at your partnership and decide that it’s solid enough to withstand months of not only campfires and town food and swimming in waterfalls, but also frustration and exhaustion and injuries and heat and cold and tents falling apart in storms and nightfall coming too fast to find a safe place to sleep.
Any long trail will test your relationship and honestly, if you make it to the end and still love each other, you may have found the one.
The trail will change you. Sometimes the two of you might grow in opposite directions, and sometimes you might grow closer together. I imagine that hiking with someone you’re compatible with, who doesn’t isolate you from others, would be a magical way to walk thousands of miles.
After my Appalachian Trail thru-hike didn’t go quite as I’d hoped, I felt restless. My ex and I had broken up soon after returning home. I felt the need to prove to myself that I could have hiked alone like I’d originally planned.
So I decided to do the Long Trail the following year. Three weeks of just me and the Green Mountains of Vermont. In 2016, I had hiked the 96 mile West Highland Way in Scotland by myself and I’d spent most of my actual hiking hours on the AT alone. I knew I could handle the solitude.
I think many people are drawn to long trails in order to escape from society. If you’ve never tried solo travel or solo hiking, I highly recommend it. It’s in the moments you spend with yourself and the sounds of the forest that you find out if you’re comfortable with who you are. When you let your mind wander, you allow it to go to places that you might normally bar your subconscious from visiting. And while your body follows the white blazes, your mind will have nothing to do but wander.
What solo hiking did for me can be summed up in these words: it woke me up.
Hiking with a Trail Family
Despite my intention of hiking alone on the LT, I made friends within the first week and spent the final weeks hiking and camping with them. My tiny trail family of four people became the most treasured part of that hike. The laughs we shared and the way we embraced the misery together kept me going on the difficult days. One of the biggest benefits of opening yourself up to other people on trail is getting to share the ups and downs with them (sometimes literally—who else remembers/can’t forget the Roller Coaster in Virginia??)
It can be hard to reach out to other hikers if you have social anxiety. I’ve often struggled with this, but I’ve never regretted initiating a conversation with someone on any of the three long trails I’ve hiked. Some people become friends, some people become bizarre stories and memories, and some people become very special parts of not just our trail experience but our lives, as those of us who have happened upon a trail romance can attest.
When you hike a long distance, you can sometimes feel like a misfit among misfits. Like even though you’re surrounded by dozens of other people running away from “real life” (quotes because there’s actually nothing more real than being in nature), you still don’t quite fit in.
But I know personally that those feelings can change.
You can choose.
You can choose to enjoy a trail with whatever level of social interaction makes you the happiest at any given moment. On trail, you have the freedom to hike on with no explanation when you need to be alone. Other hikers will understand precisely what you’re doing.
I recently hiked the West Highland Way again, and this time I went with three friends from university. While I was soaked by the never-ceasing rain and shivering in the cold of the Scottish “summer,” I still managed to laugh and sing. I still managed to enjoy meals of noodles and foraged mushrooms beneath the stars. When the pain in my feet was so bad that I needed to be alone to cope with it, I hiked ahead or behind the group. I even met someone very special when we built a communal campfire one night, and we still speak every day.
Something about backpacking and getting away from our normal lives and our comfort zone helps us connect to ourselves and others in a way that doesn’t feel possible elsewhere. In our lives of technology and commuting and paying rent, we often pass by strangers without a second thought. And we distract ourselves from our inner thoughts with many forms of entertainment.
But when you’re out there, somewhere in the mountains, with everything you need on your back, you learn so much about what kind of interaction suits you best. You take chances and talk to people you might never speak with otherwise. You might start the trail alone, hike it with a trail family, and finish it with a partner. Or maybe you’ll start with a partner, then go off on your own, and maybe even discover the joy and camaraderie of being part of a trail family.
The only way you can find out what will happen for you is to get out there and hike.