I spent ten years thru-hiking solo before venturing into it with a partner. My partner was almost the opposite; she’s hiked thousands of miles in the company of others. So it’s taken some trial-and-error and intentionality to figure out hiking as a team.
After a summer spent backpacking together in Montana, in November we took to the Ouachita Trail in Oklahoma and Arkansas. The 223-mile trail is where I learned how hiking with a partner differs from thru-hiking solo.
While the experience was a very positive one, there were also definitely a few lessons learned along the way — and, it turned out, the things I was most concerned about prior to leaving had the least impact on our success as hiking partners.
There are so many benefits to hiking with a partner. Whether it is dividing and conquering tasks in town and at camp or having double the hands and pack space, a partner can make thru-hiking more efficient.
On the Ouachita Trail we would take a break each morning to make coffee. To be efficient, Maggie and I would schedule the break to coincide with a water source and one of us would treat water while the other made hot coffee. Each task took only a few minutes, and by the time coffee was ready, we were both able to sit down and enjoy the mid-morning treat.
Splitting up the weight of the tent is a benefit to hiking with a partner. We were able to bring a free-standing tent because the weight split between us was only negligibly more than a less versatile tent.
At the end of long waterless stretches and significant resupply segments, we also shared food and water.
A partner also provides a benefit emotionally and physically. Some nights we built a fire and filled the evening with conversation, rather than the seclusion of hiking solo. And, in a downpour on our last day of the thru-hike, we successfully suffered together. It didn’t feel hard to keep walking through the mud with a partner enduring the same discomfort.
All in all, the positives drastically outweighed the negatives on our 223-mile thru-hike.
One of the major cons of thru-hiking with a partner takes place before hitting the trail. Scheduling is hard when hiking alone, and having to work with the schedule of someone else makes it even more difficult.
On the Ouachita Trail, we had a two-week window to complete the hike. I couldn’t start any earlier, and Maggie couldn’t start any later, so we penciled ins the only time block that worked. Scheduling has never been a cause for canceling our adventures, but collectively we have had to be more flexible and creative with how to go on long and short backpacking trips.
The other major con of hiking with a partner is planning out the day. Never is it a source of stress, but still questions lurk in the back of my mind …
Is a good time to stop for a snack?
Is the other person tired?
How much longer should we hike?
On our Ouachita Trail thru-hike we cut the day in half. We would form a tentative plan in the morning for where to have coffee and lunch, and then in the afternoon, we would agree upon our camp spot for the night. A hidden benefit of working together is we each grew much more aware of the topography and trail through this planning.
Luckily, my partner and I seemed to work really well together in the backcountry. But, it took a while for each of us to feel comfortable voicing our opinions on things as small as snack breaks and issues as big as health concerns.
My face blew up with an allergic reaction in Arkansas, causing my eyes to be so swollen that it hurt. I voiced my desire to have a short day and spend the evening in a hotel. Maggie easily agreed. It was a small decision, but a much easier one after I voiced a desire early on, instead of springing the decision upon my partner last minute.
The biggest and most practical tip I can give for backpacking with a partner is to handle all the snacks, lunch, and breakfast separately. Sharing dinners has never been an issue, but throughout the day we have such different tastes that simply taking care of our own food and carrying the weight associated with it really dispels any potential animosity.
As it turns out, Maggie brought 4 pounds of candy on the Ouachita Trail, a decision I personally would not have made.
Hiking with a partner adds to the experience. The immense bonus of sharing joy and misadventures with each other overpowers even the most uncomfortable disagreements about schedules, food, water, and pack weight.
Maggie and I both look back positively on our time in the Ouachita National Forest despite having nearly everything go wrong. It made it easier to accept adversity with another person around to laugh at blunders and misfortunes. It was a great experience and one we are already planning on repeating.
Jeff Garmire is a hiker, author, and writer who lives in Bozeman, MT. Since 2011 he has hiked 30,000 miles and set 15 trail records. He is the co-founder of BackpackingRoutes.com and the author of the book Free Outside.