Hiking is a solitary endeavor. Taking on miles of trail requires self-motivation, perseverance, and a certain internal mindset. The appeal of long hikes is exactly this meditative experience, but behind the zen are some real hazards, and a lonely day hike can quickly turn for the worse without a partner there to help you. Not just any compadre will do, however. Picking a perfect hiking partner is not unlike choosing a romantic partner; it is a commitment to spend an exorbitant amount of time with another human, even if they smell, are occasionally naked, or sometimes listen to Creed. Here are a handful of important qualities to consider when selecting your trailhead suitor.
Perhaps the most objective characteristic to find in a hiking partner is someone with a similar hiking pace as you. Are you a high-speed hiker chasing summit-time records? Or do you like to go a bit slower, taking in your surroundings and becoming one with nature? These are two completely different and equally valid styles of hiking that will drive you crazy if you and your partner subscribe to opposite schools. Pick a partner that works with your pace. Nobody wants to feel like they’re dragging behind, and nobody wants to feel like they’re leaving others in the dust. Fitness level, age, and how long you’ve been at the game may also determine the pace at which you hike. If you go with your Aunt Bertie that just came from sea level and is used lounging by the seashore with a strawberry-marg in hand, don’t expect her to fire off mileage like a Tibetan Sherpa.
Find a partner who understands your hiking goals and motivates you to achieve them. Do the same in return! If you have the same goals, even better. People go hiking for all sorts of reasons, and if you’re looking to bag all four peaks on a ridgeline before 2pm, you won’t be psyched when your partner stops every 15 yards to photograph a crop of Columbines. Avoid the suck by just chatting with your partner about what they want out of the day, and what you want. When you’re on the same page, the whole experience is that much more enjoyable.
Creating and setting limits is one of the most critical steps to follow in the sport of hiking. You and your hiking partner should reach an understanding over what is difficult, but possible, and what is downright dangerous. Ending a hike when you are just 300 yards from reaching the summit because you are experiencing altitude sickness is defeating. Running three miles downhill to get below tree line before a storm arrives is miserable. Quitting for any reason that is out of your control before you’ve reached your goal is flat out disappointing. Perhaps the only thing that can make these situations better is sharing the misery with somebody who will remind you, “there’s always another day.”
A seemingly obvious trait to look for in a hiking partner is trust. Hiking with someone requires reliability and accountability, so having trust that your buddy will be there for you if anything goes awry is necessary. If you get severely injured on a trail, it is your hiking partner that is going to have to take the reins and get you down safely. Understand that you will have to do the same for your partner, should the situation ever arise. Trust is doubly important if your hiking ever involves technical climbing. You should feel confident in your partners ability to handle things when they turn sour.
Meshability is totally a real word that I did not make up. It describes the personal quality of just jiving on multiple levels. It’s the sidesplitting campfire conversations, or the five mile stretches of total comfortable silence. It’s about loving the same music or food, or entertaining one another for three days in a tent as you wait out a midsummer storm system. Hiking with a highly meshable partner can forge lifelong friendships beyond the trail. There’s no greater joy than looking out on an expanse of valleys and peaks with your best friend from atop a mountain that you worked your ass off to climb, except for maybe cracking jokes and a beer with that same compadre once you return to your camp.
Hiking is a unique sport with a broad range of participants in it for an even broader range of reasons. Finding the right partner for the activity is not only necessary for safety, but also makes the experience even more gratifying. Being able to have someone you care about by your side through the endless ups and downs (get it?) is what makes the whole process worth repeating. Plus, you’re going to have to deal with their stinky feet for the whole drive home, so it doesn’t hurt to have someone that can equally tolerate yours.
Field Agent Thomas Evan West travels cool places, takes badass photos, drinks tasty beers, and eats a LOT of burritos (he apparently ate 201 tortilla-tubes in 2015). He is a fully meshable hiking compadre. Follow him on instagram!