My wife, Kathleen, and I have not yet thru-hiked the JMT together (although we have a hike planned for this year). We have hiked together often, though, including a seventy-mile stretch of the John Muir Trail. We both look back at the experience with very fond memories.
Unfortunately, not all hikes-for-couples work out so well. Three rules made the difference for us:
- The most important was: no complaining! Morale on the trail is a fragile thing; we didn’t want discomfort on the hike to wield power over our experience. Either of us could point out that we were cold (and needed a layer), or had a headache (and needed a pill), or were dragging a bit (and needed a break). Commenting on a problem with the intent of finding a solution was fine. Just no gratuitous griping.
- The second rule was: the slower person leads. In our case that happened to be Kathleen, and she led every step of the way. Our goal was to hike together, and by putting her in front, with an agreement that she could walk at any speed she wanted, we accomplished just that. One afternoon, we met an older gentleman who was hiking the trail with his son—except that he wasn’t. His son had sped ahead to, well, we weren’t quite sure where, since we hadn’t seen him. (They were hiking northbound; we were going south.) Apparently, the son had decided to take a side trip and dad was on his own. Perhaps the son was having fun, but the dad (who was an inexperienced hiker) was worried that perhaps he had made a wrong turn.
- Last, both of us got to do what we wanted. Frequently, I would want to stop to take a picture (which often entails much more than, pause, click). Either one of us could call for a break. When we got to camp and had chores done, I liked to wander around, talk to other hikers, and explore. Kathleen preferred the commodious confines of the tent where she indulged in a bath (accomplished with the use of a couple of baby wipes). Even though we were together, we hiked our own hike!
A couple of last notes, particularly for male backpackers. Assuming you succeed in getting your other half out on the trail, do whatever you can to make her comfortable while she’s there. Do more than your share of chores, like setting up camp and cooking. Don’t be the guy who lets his wife do everything, and then can’t understand why she doesn’t want to go backpacking again!
Last, if you’re trying to get your wife or girlfriend to try a long, multi-day hike through the backcountry, be prepared to hear all kinds of objections revolving around the bugs, the dirt, and sleeping on the hard ground. None of these may be the real problem. You can allay her worries by introducing your wife to an experienced female hiker so she can answer the question that really is bothering her: how does she do what bears do in the woods?
Good hiking, Ray