Thoughts on Trail Life, Part 6

For those who have been following along, this is the final entry in my series of posts about what hiking life is like. I’m more than happy to answer any questions though so please feel free to ask away, even if the question may seem silly.

Part 6: Who do you hike with?

When I talk to people about thru hiking they often tell me that they would only consider it if they had a friend to go with them. It makes sense. The idea of hiking thousands of miles is pretty intimidating and knowing you have someone committed to being there with you can go a long way toward making it less scary. As I mentioned in a previous entry however, it’s really easy to make friends on the trail so there really is no need to worry about hiking alone if you’re concerned about that. A number of hikers even end up in groups that stick together for long stretches. I’ve seen some that were more than 10 people and some groups even end up with their own group trail names.

On the other hand there are some people who prefer hiking alone. They aren’t scared off by the idea of spending lots and lots of time by themselves in the wilderness. They like the peace and simplicity that comes with it. They like the fact that they don’t have to coordinate plans with another person, match their hiking pace, or change their schedule to meet the other person’s needs.

Others, like myself, take a mixed bag approach. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail I did almost the entire thing solo except for about a week at the beginning and another week at around the three quarter point. For the Pacific Crest Trail, I had no initial plans to hike with anyone, but ended up doing more than half the trail with various hiking buddies. I had one group for the first couple of weeks, then by myself for a couple weeks, then another group for about a week, then on and off again with a number of different people for a couple of months, and then ended up with a regular hiking partner for most of the second half of the trail. During the second half my hiking partner and I were sometimes with other small groups, and sometimes it was just the two of us. The reasons for all of these changes were just because of people’s schedule changes. People took breaks, sped up, slowed down, jumped around, or ended their hike. There was one common factor with everyone I hiked with; they were all really great people. I truly mean that. I can’t say enough about how wonderful the people I shared the journey with really are.

I should also mention that hiking “with someone” means different things to different people. Some hike with a partner in a fairly pure sense. They’re together pretty much all the time. They start each day at the same time, take breaks together, camp together, and mile after mile they’re only a few paces from each other. My observation has been that most partners don’t stick this close together though. What seems much more common is a routine where you camp together and take some breaks together, but most of the time aren’t hiking in the immediate vicinity of each other.

What typically happened in my experience was that I was usually the last person to leave camp each day (I like slow mornings). I hike relatively fast though so I would usually catch up with my partner(s) later in the day. We’d often take breaks together and then camp together at the end of the day. There were times when we’d hike right next to each other and chat for a while, but most of the time we were some distance apart. I like this relaxed approach. Each person can feel free to go at their own pace, stop when they want, and leave when they want, but you have the advantage of having a friend or friends to chat with, plan with, and look out for each other’s well being.

There’s an interesting effect that most hikers experience when no one else is in sight. You feel all alone. Of course if you stop to think about it you’re certainly aware that other hikers are not that far away, but in the moment it doesn’t feel like it. You’re rarely more than a few 10ths of a mile from another person and the miles you hike any given day are also hiked by dozens of others that day, but the experience you’re having is so solitary. You start feeling like you have the trail all to yourself; like it’s just you and this vast wilderness.

You’re not alone though. Most of the time when you start thinking you are it’s only a matter of minutes before you come across another hiker walking the other direction, or you catch up to someone stopped to get water, or you take a break and find that one of your friends was just a few minutes behind you.

But there’s another sense in which you’re never really alone on your journey. And that’s all of the other people who contribute so much to make your adventure so amazing, and even possible in the first place. The family, friends, and loved ones who follow along, help you out, give you encouragement, and celebrate your milestones with you. There’s the amazingly kind and generous trail angels who help out in more ways than I could ever enumerate. There’s the random strangers along the way whose acts of kindness, small and large, touch your heart and keep you going when you need it most.

And then there’s all of the folks behind the scenes. The Forest Service and National Park workers. The private property owners who allow the use of their land. Looking back in time, there are the people who fought to preserve wilderness places and make them available to everyone. The people with the vision and determination to make these trails a reality. And of course there are the thousands and thousands of trail volunteers and trail organization members who work so hard for us hikers. Without all of these people the trails we hike wouldn’t even exist in the first place.

Whatever your personal approach may be; whether you hike with a partner, a group, or prefer going solo, there are so many, many people whose presence, hard work, kindness, support, generosity, and love come together to make your hike what it is. They all truly are a part of your journey.

No one hikes alone.