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In It for the Long Haul: Friendships on the Long Trails

By Jeff Garmire

Thru-hikers and backpackers share more than the trails; they share a goal and a tight-knit community. Since the purpose of backpacking is simply to enjoy it and complete it, relationships formed on the trail are built on camaraderie more than competition.

Sometimes there is a timeline, but often there isn’t. The trail is simple and makes building relationships natural. To me, friendships develop faster and more organically there than any other place in life. 

I have always been an introvert. But, when I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail at 20 years old, I didn't have a problem meeting new people and building friendships. It was as if the commonalities were everywhere. The ease of conversation and connection radiated from the other people hiking the trail. I shared miles and became friends with people of every age, background, and income level. Our common goal of thru-hiking the PCT trumped any differences we may have had in other corners of our lives. I was friends with lawyers, new college graduates, parents, retirees, former Wall Street workers, dirtbag climbers, and just about any other person you could imagine. We could all relate to each other in the moment, and nothing else seemed to matter. We shared the same objective.

The simplicity bred genuine friendship, and it released all the inhibition I commonly have as a shy individual. So, I kept going back to thru-hiking for more, and I kept making friends on the trails.

These were the friendships that could lapse for months or even years and immediately picked up where they left off. It was a particular type of relationship built on core values, shared experiences, and the thirst for adventure—the kinds of friendships that are much harder to come by off the trail.  

“These were the friendships that could lapse for months or even years and immediately picked up where they left off. It was a particular type of relationship built on core values, shared experiences, and the thirst for adventure—the kinds of friendships that are much harder to come by off the trail.”

2011 was before the age of lotteries and quotas. Hikers could get PCT permits at the last minute. The community was small, and the trail angels were well-known. Only a few hundred people started the trail, and only 200 of us reached the finish line. And we were all connected. 

The record snow year brought us closer together—appreciation for the intensity of the Sierra and the experience created a bond. Whether we hiked many miles together or none, the adversities of 2011 were shared amongst all. The appreciation for what we hiked through bred new friendships that have withstood the test of time. We had to rely on each other.

We used paper maps and a compass, learning to read contours and orient over the snow-covered trail together. Social media was absent, not yet a part of the thru-hiking community, which only strengthened our in-person relationships. Interpersonal interactions were real, genuine, and unique to the trail. Trail names were all we used, and they were all we needed. We hiked for ourselves and the experience. It was wholesome and disconnected from the “real” world. 

“Trail names were all we used, and they were all we needed. We hiked for ourselves and the experience. It was wholesome and disconnected from the “real” world."

Friendships began to form at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail but were not solidified until we prepared for the daunting Sierra Nevada Mountains. After 700 miles, we all waited a week in Kennedy Meadows for the snow to melt. The idle time, lack of cell service and closeness of our tents led to lifelong friendships. Not only were we waiting for the snow to melt, but I had to figure out a pack to take through the mountains. And I needed the help of others to do it. 

Forty miles from Kennedy Meadows, my external frame pack broke under the 55 pounds I had loaded it with. I was in desperate need of a solution to continue my hike, and with little else to do in the Gateway to the Sierra, my new friends helped me out. Buddha, Canadoug, Java, Hot Cheese, Chonzy, Little Bug, Squirrel, and Escalator all jumped in to shake down my gear. The weight quickly dropped from over 50 to the low 40s as they rid my pack of spare clothes, heavy bottles, a metal cup, and too many stuff sacks. Buddha found an old backpack in the hiker box and showed me how to sew it with dental floss. As a group, they helped me repack my gear, construct a new backpack, and set me up for success for the next 2,000 miles. 

But, the generosity didn’t end there. Hot Cheese and Escalator had their old pack, sleeping bag, and tent shipped out to Mammoth Lakes. It would cut my pack weight down into the 30s and be gear I continued to use for years. In return, they asked for nothing. It was kindness, as I had never experienced before. People I had only met weeks before gave me everything they possibly could. It describes the friendships that have been a part of trail life for the last decade. 

On a long trail, the complications of the “real” world are gone, and left in its place is a task so simple, defined, and shared amongst a community that it sprouts genuine relationships. As social media, accolades, coverage, and influencers have crept into the thru-hiking scene, it has been more difficult to strip away the excess and get back to the rudimentary goal at hand. However, it still is the most natural place for me to find lasting relationships. It is the place that is focused on the success of the community and not the victory of a single individual. 

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