Saturday, January 23, 2016

Trail Divorce: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly



I've seen a few trail divorces (break-ups between outdoors partners, not married couples) in my time. The worst case was when we were ambushed by a guy on the John Muir Trail. "Have you seen a guy..." he rattled off a description. We had not. The hiking partner said, "He was so slow, I left him. He might have gotten off the trail, I don't know."  Slightly horrified, we asked what the plan was. "I guess I'll just keep hiking." We left the guy to his fate with an oncoming thunderstorm, but strongly suggested leaving a note.

On that same trip, we passed someone else sprawled exhausted on a pass. "My hiking buddy (nowhere in sight) wants to do 20 mile days and I just can't," he moaned. "He wants to do this trail in a week." He looked completely defeated.

I've seen more amicable trail divorces, where the partners mutually agreed that this was not working, and went their separate ways. Or where they adapted: hiking separately during the day, but meeting up at night at agreed-on spots. Ultimately, a trail divorce occurs for many of the same reasons as a regular one. We all have our own expectations and dreams when we go outside, and it's rare to find other people who match 100% of the time.

I've never been part of a trail divorce, but I have wanted to a couple of times. Different paces, different camp routines, and hiking with a already bonded pair are all challenges to overcome. You don't know someone well  until you've slogged along a difficult trail for three weeks with them. You are both at your best and your worst in those circumstances.

I'm sure my partners have wanted to divorce me at times, too. As a former wilderness ranger, I've gotten used to doing things my own way. I don't go on the trail to chat all day, either. (I spend hours on the phone for work. Silence is good) I have a most likely irritating habit of being cheerfully uncaffeinated and ready to go very early in the morning. I love charging up mountains first thing. I tend to forget to eat enough and can bonk unpleasantly. All of these are things I continually work on.

I'm not going through a trail divorce but it looks like I will be without my trusty hiking buddy for this year. Separations can be good, though. They force you to think about how to be a better partner, and what you really want in another. You can work on skills that they always took over. It lets you meet others that may turn out to be long term buddies. 

As someone who has been through a real divorce, I recognize that trail divorces are not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. But they are sad and hurt All the Feelings sometimes. A few ways to avoid these are pretty basic: 

  1. Be upfront. This is especially hard for women to do. I just learned last year that my hiking buddy likes to get stuff done right away at camp, while I like to lie back in the grass and eat crackers and reflect on the day. We learned that sharing a tent isn't a good idea because of our styles. This way she can set up  her own tent and get all organized, while I can just laze around for a bit. If one of us had talked about this in the beginning, we could have avoided some (minor) issues.
  2. Be honest with yourself. If you take pleasure in pushing yourself to the redline, or want to do long, difficult days, that's fine. But make sure your buddy does. And if you find yourself thinking, oh, it's okay, I can do five mile days at a slow pace, make sure that's true! Otherwise you will seethe with resentment.
  3.  PAAR-TAY! Alcohol. Trust me, this can be an issue! I've had hiking partners who won't go without breaking out the flask. I'm not much of a drinker, and it isn't worth the weight. But if drinking bugs you, you'd better know it. (Same for other controlled substances that are now legal in some states-but not on federal land)
  4. Know your own flaws (and strengths).This means being self aware, and it's uncomfortable for most people. It's essential for a good trail relationship, though. If you always hike alone, it's easy to avoid the truths. When you go with someone, you learn things about yourself maybe you would rather not know. It's good though--it can make you a better person.
  5. Plan for the worst. What will you do if someone gets sick? Will you both leave the trail? How does your hiking partner react in a desperate situation (I've had partners who froze in place during storms)? How do you react? Could you make it out of the woods by yourself if you had someone depending on you to reach help?
  6. Are you the type that wants someone with you at all moments (waiting for you if you stop to pee, for example? It happens)? It's good to communicate this. Also, are you a planner or a wing it person? This can cause conflicts.
  7. Breaks on trail--I've hiked with people who like to take long lunches, and others who like to eat while walking. Still others have planned out breaks in advance, by time or mileage. It's best to have this worked out before starting.
  8. Talking on trail: I had a boyfriend who claimed our relationship was doomed because we didn't chatter incessantly. (It was doomed, but that wasn't the reason) I've hiked with people who like to stop and talk to every hiker they see; I am less interested in that. Same with music on trail. I've passed a couple groups with external speakers (so everyone can hear). Not for me, but some people love that. On day hikes, I do more talking, longer hikes for me are more meditative.
Trail divorces don't just happen when hiking. They can happen in any sport. Maybe your partner likes to take  more risks than you, or less. Maybe they are training for a marathon while you are running 5Ks. The good thing about trail divorces is that usually you can still be friends, and do different things together. 

Any trail divorce stories to share? Any tips for avoiding them?

20 comments:

  1. Different breed of dog but maybe how Cale was thinking on the trek to the ski hut! Will you find another "marriage" or go solo?

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    1. I'm going to do a partial solo, may hike some with a woman who is doing the same section. This summer, I don't know yet. Hard to find people who want to hike that far in such a short amount of time.

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  2. I'm pretty picky about who I will take on long trail runs. I'm not a fan of people who never, ever shut up. Thankfully, I can tell who these people are ahead of time.

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    1. I typically run alone though I never used to. It's a rare moment of quiet I really like. You do such long runs that I can imagine it is important to have compatible people.

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  3. It's really tough screening partners especially if you haven't hiked or backpackers together and live far distant. I'm an open candid person but many are not, especially women. I've had great and horrific experiences. I'm not nearly as tolerant as I use to be. I blame my solo adventures.

    I plan to continue taking risks to find compatible partners so I have opportunities to share trails that I might not otherwise hike solo.

    It's all about compromise!

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    1. I like a mix of solo and company. I think in a perfect world I'd do a lot of hiking alone and meet up at camp, but that's because it's been hard to find pace that matches. You don't want to sprint after someone all day, nor does altering normal pace all day feel good either. I've been lucky with a few people but living where I do, the pool is small.

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  4. I've had two trail divorces! Both took place over abuse with regards to safety. In both instances, I had definite plans in place and they were agreed upon by all others when accepting the invitation. During each event, someone tested the plan and went about their own agenda while mid trip. Conern was created in both cases and upset others in our group. Divorces were definately deserved! For me, safety and respect for all is always at the forefront!

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    1. That's definitely a good reason for a trail divorce. Luckily I haven't been in that boat. I have turned back when people have had safety concerns, even when I didn't think they were valid. But it was their reality, so I had to honor it.

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  5. Interesting post. I once read a shelter log book detailing a trail divorce. One partner was really laying into the other. I couldn't believe what I was reading, but I guess without social media in the backcountry, this guy just really needed to publicize his thoughts!!!
    FYI, we did our hut trip this weekend ... we all XC skied and Justin and another gal took turns with the sled! It definitely has a learning curve!

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    1. That reminds me of a story I read about a huge expedition across Siberia or something where in the book all the writer did was complain about his partner. Glad to know all survived the sled!

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  6. This is so true! When I hiked the JMT we were a big group - of 8! - and I definitely noticed how the small things make a difference. You spend so much time with just a few people that you either have to adjust your behavior or attitude or make alone time. I bet you could do psychology research based on trail relationships!

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    1. That would be an interesting study. 8 people! That's a lot. I usually try to keep it to 4 max. Just easier that way.

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  7. A few years ago I was headed over the Ballfield on O'Malley and observed two guys SCREAMING at each other; one standing on the lip of the up-gully and the other heading away over the Ballfield. It was comical! Awkward, but comical.

    I have been ditched by partners who decided they didn't want to help with a MTB mechanical - we had to hike out the way we came while they continued on over the trail without stopping, even though they were carrying all the tools we needed. That's the last time I ever rode with them! I feel that if people venture out on the trail together they should stick together; that's the point of doing stuff, you know, together. I feel that if one doesn't want to wait or accommodate someone else, they should go alone. Really, so what if someone has a bad day and the trip has to be cut short? It's not like the mountain isn't going to be there tomorrow.

    It really bugs me when I hear of people abandoning partners because they're slow, or what have you. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

    That said, I rarely go on any excursion with more than one other person; that's quite enough "dynamic" for me most of the time.

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  8. P.S. I ALWAYS bring my own tent. I do not dig sharing space that small. It makes my husband pout, but it's worth it to get fully rested, which I can't do wedged into a miserable nylon coffin.

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  9. Good list of suggestions!

    I've witnessed some pretty harsh instances of people getting trail dumped. But in the end, it's better than sticking it out and being miserable.

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  10. This is the first I have ever heard of a trail divorce. However, I understand the concept all the same. It is the result of different expectations. Of course, when it comes to hiking, different people have different limits on how much they can travel. While some people are able to adapt, there are others that fail to make the necessary adjustments.

    Joanne Krueger @ Kurtz and Blum

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  13. This is so interesting. I had no idea that this kind of thing happened. I mean I suppose it is human nature. I suppose it is important to make sure that you really do get along very well with the people who you are going to spend some very strenuous and challenging times time. I have found that I'm particular.

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