When asked, ‘why do you hike?’ One of the most popular answers I hear is, ‘to get away.’

Well-known naturalist and writer John Muir once said,  “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”

I am in total agreement with him on most of his writings, but this one truly rings home in this fast paced world where everyone is in a hurry to get nowhere. For some the first few footsteps on a trail into the woods make the burden of daily life slip away. For others, it’s hard to let go – they tend to stuff in earbuds connected to their iPod and drown out the sound of nature with wailing that is considered pop music. Or stumble over branches and rocks because they are texting on their smartphone instead of looking at the trail and taking in the life surrounding them.

I too struggle with letting go to my connection to civilization, I tend to shoot photos on my smartphone instead of carrying a real camera, I feel better when I can text my wife and let her know I’m safe (and more importantly that she is). And I’ve used music to get me through rough patches where I feel like giving up and turning around. But there is one thing that allows me to easily turn off the modern world, and that is hiking with a friend.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hiking alone. The peace and solitude really does “wash your spirit clean,” as said by Muir. But we are social creatures. We get lonely quickly and I believe that it’s harder for people to disconnect when they are alone. Loneliness and a feeling of isolation are quoted as two of the main reasons people abandon their dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. They can be as physically prepared as possible, have the best equipment and plan, but if they haven’t prepared mentally for the challenge of being alone, it’s easy to talk oneself right off the trail.

Personally, I enjoy the company of a good friend on the trail. Having someone to talk to, challenge you, support you – and doing the same for them – makes disconnecting from the modern world much easier. Being two instead of one makes us feel safer when we are far from civilization, and, God forbid, an accident does happen, the chances for survival and rescue are much greater if hiking with a partner.

But picking a good hiking partner is as important as physically preparing for the hike, or having proper gear and the knowledge to use it. Just because you are beer-drinking buddies, or go to the spa every week together, doesn’t mean that you will fare well together when you are two days into a week-long hike. Here are some things to consider.

  1.    Does your hiking partner share the same love of the outdoors as you? Do they really love nature, or do bugs, snakes, bears, pooping behind a tree, or drinking filtered water freak them out?
  2.    Does your hiking partner share the same goals? Talk about your hike before hand and make sure you agree things like pace and distance.  If you want to take a leisurely pace and stop at every waterfall and wildflower to shoot a photo, and your hiking partner just wants to blaze down the trail to get to camp, is that a problem? How important is the distance covered or the peaks climbed compared to the experience of being in the outdoors and the challenge thereof? Some hikers are what I call “baggers.” Hiking and backpacking is like hunting to them, they need to “bag” so many miles a day or make it to the top of X number of peaks. While accumulating miles and peaks is rewarding, for me it takes the fun out of hiking if success is only measured by such things.

Are your hiking partner’s physical abilities comparable to yours? This is a big one. Know your hiking partner’s capabilities AND if they have any medical conditions. It can be crucial down the trail.

  1.    Does your hiking partner share the same political, social, and family values? Having a hiking buddy can be a great thing, until the conversation turn to politics or religion. If you don’t share the same values, think twice about picking that friend as a hiking partner unless you can agree to not discuss such things on the trail. Sounds stupid, but when you are 17 miles in, that is not the time to realize your hiking partner believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if you are, say, a Mormon.

I have two good friends whom I hike with on a regular basis. One is a guy I met on assignment (I’ve spoken about David in a previous post), and one is a long-time friend whom just recently started backpacking. Both are great guys to be in the woods with, both are knowledgeable and capable outdoorsmen who are fun to be with.

One is a slow and steady hiker. Where I tend to zoom along at 3.5 miles per hour, he trucks along at a pace that is comfortable for him. And that works for us when we are hiking together. We start off on the trail and at some point I realize he is out of sight. So I will stop for a snack and a drink of water and wait for him to catch up. We rest up, and then we start out together again. It is accepted and agreeable for both of us. But we always hit mile-points together and end the day together. That is the rule. If I am well ahead on the trail and am ready to hit a peak, I wait for him so we can do that together. At the end of the day, I will stop and wait so we can finish the trail or arrive at camp together.  It’s just the way we hike.

My other hiking buddy is a relative “newbie” to being on the trail, but already has as much – if not more – trail miles on his boots as I do. We only get to hike together once a year. He lives in the south, 10 hours away, so we plan vacations together to conquer a section of trail. We’ve hiked in northern PA, the Great Smoky Mountains, and deep in South Carolina. We have similar paces and capabilities, though he has some medical conditions that I always keep in mind. Our time is spent catching up on life, jobs, and family. We talk about gear; both of us are gear junkies and are constantly buying, selling and trading packs, footwear and other stuff. I can’t imagine going south of the Mason-Dixon and not hiking with him. The only real difference we have is that I like to use a hammock and he prefers a tent. Just means we have to find a campsite with two nice trees for me.

So find yourself a hiking partner. If you don’t know anyone personally, check out local hiking groups. Many outdoor retailers (REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, etc.) host hiking events. This  is a great way to learn new things and meet new people. Social media is another place to meet fellow hikers. I have several ‘friends’ on Facebook that I never knew hiked until they saw photos I posted and responded. Moral of the story is, solo hiking is great, but hiking with a friend is better.

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