Trail Families—How to Find Your People on a Thru-Hike

Elina Osborne

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

A transition in life, the call of adventure, heartache, heartbreak, a desire to achieve something for ourselves, a longing to achieve something beyond ourselves; we all have similar reasons for starting a thru-hike. Despite knowing the connection we’d all share, why was one of my biggest fears not making friends?

Like a lot of those who head out there, I’d never done a solo hike in my life and was terrified at the prospect of being alone. But in the year that was 2019, all of those fears dispersed as quickly as the odd 20 of us starting at the monument that late-April morning. 

A sense of urgency was present despite the 2653 miles it would take to get to Canada, and from the get-go it was evident who walked a similar pace, who wanted to chat, who wanted to stop in the same shady spot, who was as passionate about peanut butter… 

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

My first day on trail was overwhelming. I was out there to be present in experiencing this journey, but I couldn’t help my mind from being acutely aware of the people around me — they may well be the hikers I’d form a traily family with. 

No one had told me my fear of commitment would follow me out there too, but wherever you go, there you are.

What I learned long after those Day 1 nerves subsided was that forming a trail family should be effortless, and should just feel right. If I were to put “finding your trail family” into a 3-way venn diagram to find the sweet spot, the three categories would be (physical) pace, (emotional) connection, and (serendipitous) timing.

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

Through the desert-section of the PCT, my pace was similar to that of two others so, naturally, we stuck together as we fluttered around a larger bubble of hikers. As we got closer and closer to the highly anticipated Sierra Nevada, we merged with this little bubble to form a Sierra fellowship consisting of ten. 

But not long after entering the Sierra, our group dispersed. Why? We’d formed because of timing, but it became apparent that our paces and priorities were different, and our emotional bonds weren’t strong enough to keep us all together.

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

The trail provides a deep connection to that inner voice that knows what’s best for you and what isn’t, and that voice is pretty loud when it’s all you’ve got for most of the day. After completing the Sierra Nevada stretch, and after reaching the halfway mark, the two whom I shared a deep connection with had their voices tell them to slow it down a little, and mine was telling me to change things up.

This came in the form of a trail family of 11. 

When I’d met them for the first time, I assumed I’d see them once and never again. They were a big group, especially for that late along the trail ... and a little obnoxious. But I guess that’s what happens with any group of hikers over six — you’re happy, and you’re loud. 

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

I couldn’t tell you how it happened, but it felt effortless. Pacing matched across us all, the timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous, and through having conversations with each of them, it wasn’t hard to share a connection. I ended up reaching Canada with my new-found trail family we affectionately called The Blob (for its tendency to pick up and absorb anyone along the way).

Like all relationships, a trail family serves a purpose, a lesson, for when you need it most. Maybe you need this particular family at this time to have fun, to learn to be present; maybe you need these relationships for survival, or to learn the value of trusting others, or even for motivation to keep pushing. Getting through tough times is always harder alone, so to experience it with others, even if it looks like chatting over a fire or just talking through the walls of a tent; these relationships provide a source of comfort you otherwise wouldn’t have. 

Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

The fear of being alone out on a thru-hike is a completely rational fear, but there’s so much power in realizing that nothing is fully in your control, and that includes who you end up hiking around.

My advice for those afraid to hike solo? Be independent, be prepared, and lean into your intuition — it’s the only way to find the right people, because you will find them.
Trail Families Family Thru-Hike PCT Pacific Crest Trail

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