• “Snorkel”, “Allgood”, and “POD” on the Sierra High Route. This crew is all smiles because they worked as a team and had an agreed plan for each day, then adjusted as needed. Photo by Unknown Hiker

How to Pick the Perfect Hiking Partner

Words and photos by Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa.

It has been said more than once that I am the “pied piper of hikers.” This little comment was made because of the fact that I rarely go alone on a long-distance hike, and instead generally hike with 1-3 other people.  It’s not that I am afraid to be alone in the woods or feel a need for constant companionship.  The real reason is that for me hiking is more fun with a good partner or partners.  You can help lift each other up on a tough day, laugh at the adversity of weather or terrain, and also help each other out with the little things, like taping a rolled ankle, or having a patch of tenacious tape to fix a tear in a puffy.

Deep down inside though there is another reason: the transformation and peace I have personally found in hiking has been so impactful, and to keep that to myself seems very selfish. For a couple of years, I walked thousands of miles alone as a ridge runner. I have always valued this time alone and how it changed me, but it also made me realize that others could benefit from this same time outside. Sharing a trail with someone is intimate, time slows down. You get close and share such personal details about your life, and the honesty of bearing one’s soul surprises me at times.  To not share this with close friends, to me, seems selfish.

“Butter Cup”, “Allgood”, and “Princess Cheezy”. The Author hiked over half the Continental Divide Trail with these two German thru-hikers. The joy of sharing not only a hike, but one’s culture with visitors is one of the many joys of hiking with partners. Photo by Unknown Hiker

I thought I was alone in this thought, but in May I listened to a talk by Appalachian Trail legend Warren Doyle. He echoed these sentiments, and it struck such a cord with me because he was able to articulate what I had often felt, but could never explain myself.

One other reason I love hiking with good partners is because they are generally close friends of mine that I don’t get to spend enough time with due to my extensive travel schedule for work. Whether walking together for a weekend or many months on a thru-hike, it is an opportunity to spend time with those people in my life that I care about.

With all that said, having a good partner(s) can make a trip super enjoyable and will add to your experience.  On the other hand, a bad hiking partner(s) who complains or doesn’t have the same hiking style, can suck the fun right out a trip.  To ensure you make the best choice in a hiking partner, here are some tips to help you choose the right trailmates for you.

In 750 miles of hiking the Oregon Desert Trail, these were the only hikers the author saw: his partners. “Swept Away” and “Salty” we’re solid hiking partners. They never complained and kept the smiles and laughter up, no matter how hot the temps or difficult the terrain. Photo by Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa

Ask Questions Before the Hike

Let’s face it: you and your hiking partner are going to be together a lot out there. Depending on where the adventure takes you, they might be the only person you see the entire time, so some screening beforehand is a must.

Before I agree to go on hike with someone, I ask a lot of questions.  There are 3 main areas I like to evaluate with a potential partner: hiking style, general health, and preparedness.

“Tatu-Jo” and “Allgood” at St Mary Falls, Glacier National Park. With matched styles of waking at 4:30am and grinding out a minimum of 30 miles per day, these two zipped along the trail to finish the Continental Divide Trail together in 2016. Photo by park visitor

Hiking Style, and Experience Level

I use these questions to make sure that our hiking styles match up, and ensure that once on the trail we have well-matched habits and similar daily expectations.  Having this understanding beforehand really helps reduce the potential for conflict.

  1. List of previous hikes they have done successfully, and time frame they were completed in.
  2. List of previous hikes they had to bail on, and what caused them to bail.
  3. What is their hiking style, and does it match with mine?
  4. What time of day do you wake up on trail, and how long does it take you to break camp?
  5. What is your level of navigation skills on trail, and off trail?
  6. Do you only use a GPS, or are you proficient with a map and compass?
  7. What is your average hiking pace?
  8. Do you take breaks, and how many and how long are they?
  9. When you get to town for a rest day, are you a crazy party animal, or do you like to chill?
  10. Do you mail boxes for resupply or do you buy along the way?
  11. Do you have a sense of humor when things go wrong or do you hit the panic button?

“Sasquatch”, “Average Joe” and “Allgood” along the JMT in 2011. By focusing on health and fitness prior to the hike, including numerous training hikes and overnights to make sure their styles matched, the crew of 3 were able to complete the entire 211 mile JMT in just 10 days. Photo by Whitney “Allgood” La Ruffa

Health

By understanding my hiking partner’s health I can assess that this person isn’t going to show up out of shape, and also be aware of any health issues that might make them have to bail out of the excursion.

  1. What is your current fitness level?
  2. Do you exercise daily? What do you do to stay in trail shape?
  3. Can you do 25+ mile days off the couch?
  4. Do you smoke, chew, or have any other habits that might affect your health?
  5. Do you have any allergies? If so do you carry an epi-pen?
  6. Do you have any past injuries that affect you or flare up during a hike?
  7. Are you currently on any types of prescription drugs?

With over 200% snow pack in 2016, this group was well prepared with snow shoes, ice axes and micro spikes. Despite being a group of Ultra-Light hikers, conditions dictated that heavier snow gear would be needed to ensure safe passage. Photo by Felicia “POD” Hermosillo

Preparedness

After many trails with partners who were ill equipped for the conditions, relied on me for items they didn’t want to carry, or were unprepared mentally for the terrain we were traveling through, I now ask questions to make sure my potential partner in the wilderness is truly prepared for our trip.

  1. What is your general base weight? How much does that change with food and water?
  2. What is your water carrying capacity?
  3. Do you carry a field repair kit?
  4. Do you carry a PLB such as a Garmin inReach?
  5. What type of clothing do you carry for inclement conditions?
  6. Do you have a gear list, and will you share it with me to look over?
  7. What do you bring for back-up navigation?
  8. Have you ever traveled in the type of terrain we are going into?
  9. What is your level of first aid training?
  10. If one of us gets injured or we just don’t get along out there, are you prepared to go it alone? (This might be the most important question of all)

The Band of Misfits, “Marmot” , “Erwin the Wonder Dog”, “Allgood” and “Inter Planet Janet” along the Appalachian Trail in 1996, our author’s first hiking partners on a long distance hike. Photo by unknown thru-hiker

Conclusion

This is just an example of some of the many questions and screening I will go through when talking with a new potential hiking partner.  The most important things I have found in a successful trail partnership are that everyone has similar hiking styles and expectations of what they want out of the hike.

On my most recent hikes I have adopted a style of maximum efficiency. I am not the world’s fastest hiker, but I am disciplined with a daily routine that starts at 4:30am and typically ends at dusk.  I now know the ideal partners for me are ones that are willing to wake up early and grind all day without complaining. It’s easy to see that if you don’t share that style, neither of us would have much fun hiking together.

I have been very fortunate to have many wonderful hiking partners over the years who had a similar hiking style, and we were both willing to compromise to accommodate each other when needed. I have also seen and been part of some crazy combinations of hiking partners on long-trails.  We’ve come from completely different walks of life, and you’d never guess we’d get along back home, but on trail it worked.  There is sometimes no rhyme or reason why some hiking partnerships work, and others don’t.  But, with a little work beforehand you can minimize conflict while on trail, and hopefully get to share one of the greatest trips of your life with someone.

A big shout out to all my past hiking partners! There are too many to name, but you all know who you are. I hope we share some time in the backcountry again soon, making new memories while exploring this wonderful world we live in.

  • The Lost Children of the ODT, “Allgood”, “Salty”, and “Swept Away” at the Western Terminus of the trail. These are the author’s most recent hiking partners and “two of the strongest and best matched hiking partners I have ever had the pleasure of walking beside.” Photo by Premila Pickett