Honeymoon on the Rocks
|Together on the Appalachian Trail|
Okay, so it was an extreme reaction. I admit I have convictions on the subject. One of them is that nothing turns a new hiker into an ex-hiker faster than a miserable first trip. And another is that couples cannot successfully hike together unless they can develop a backpacking style that takes into account both of the partners' limits, both of their expectations, and both of their goals.
Backpacking as a couple sounds romantic, and indeed, it can be. If you're like most hikers, you consider your love for wilderness a big part of who you are, whether you spend a few days a year in the backcountry or a few months. When you share time in the wilderness, you share a part of yourself. And talk about quality time! No TV, no junk mail, no traffic jams; no bills to pay or calls to return or last minute errands to run. Nothing, in fact, to do but enjoy the wilderness and each other. No wonder it sounds romantic!
But that doesn't mean that it's easy. As any hiking couple knows, there is more to backcountry romance than a picture-perfect vista. But despite the challenges which can include such unromantic components as heavy loads, steep mountains, and days of rain and stink and sweat relationships can thrive. Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Larisa Fisher met her husband when she was planning her journey."I didn't want to hike alone, and Ken answered my ad," she said. "The whole trip was really tough for me. And it never really got easy. But the hardest was at the beginning. We started as just hiking partners, so we had two of everything: two tents, two stoves. My pack weighed fifty pounds. Ken is much bigger than I am, and I just couldn't keep up."
And that's the bottom line. Lots of things are negotiable on a backpacking trip. You can compromise on your wake-up time, meals, snack breaks, mileage, and chores. But you can't negotiate away the differences in your physical strength. One of you is going to be stronger than the other. Or faster. One of you is always going to get to the top of a mountain before the other. You're not going to walk at the same pace, or get tired at the same time, or need to take the same number of rest stops. And if you happen to be one of the rare exceptions a couple so well-matched physically that you stay together stride for stride no matter what the terrain you probably don't need to be reading this article. Because the overwhelming majority of problems in the backcountry among couples (assuming that the couples otherwise get along) stem from the way they cope with the discrepancies in strength and endurance. To some extent, these are problems experienced by all hiking partners whether romantically involved or not. But with partnerships involving men and women, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that strength is at least partly a function of size.
That's not to say that women can't hike as far and as comfortably as men. As in any endurance sport, the gap between male and female performance lessens as the distance lengthens. Certainly, there is a large and enthusiastic number of female long-distance hikers. Moreover, most backpackers agree that hiking is a physical challenge but they say that even more, it's a mental challenge. One-hundred-pound women have hiked the AT; so have 250-pound men and a whole collection of people of in-between sizes, shapes, and levels of fitness. For couples, the question is not, can women backpack, or even, can women backpack as well as men, it's: How can men and women deal with their differences so they can backpack comfortably together?
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication