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Big Steps: Tips from Thru-Hiking Couples

Thru-Hiking Couples Offer Tips on Tackling the Appalachian Trail Together

Brianna “Sea Legs” Abernathy felt like she was dying. Her chest tightened and her vision blurred as gale-force winds threatened to shove her off the exposed spine of Saddleback Mountain in southern Maine. 

She thought about turning around and following the footpath back to the mountain’s base. But descending would be even more treacherous. The only way through was up. Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to do it alone. Her spouse, Samuel “Owl” Abernathy, would be with her every step of the way. 

“I’ve always had a minor fear of heights when hiking, but I’d never had a full-blown panic attack like I did on this section of trail,” says Brianna. “The wind was blowing so hard it pushed my feet out from under me. I was so thankful to have Owl there.” 

Photo by Dave Pidgeon, courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Both native Oklahomans, Brianna and Samuel began hiking the Appalachian Trail together on April 12, 2022. The next six months were fraught with challenges: aching knees, wrong turns, exhaustion. But difficult times brought the two closer together. “We learned to meet each other where they are—good days, bad days, and everything in between,” says Samuel. 

Logging 2,190 miles with a significant other has some interesting dynamics, so, in addition to insights from the Abernathys, BRO also interviewed two more thru-hiking couples about their time on the trail. Here are their top four tips for conquering the A.T. together.

Tip 1: Practice unabashed vulnerability. 

Julia “Footloose” Urh pooped in front of her husband in Pennsylvania. It was an accident, really. 

After noshing on greasy town food during their thru-hike last April, she and her beau, Justin “Humo” Nolen, headed back to the A.T. Half an hour later, Urh stepped a few feet off the trail and squatted to pee. That’s when things went awry. “I quickly realized I needed to do more than pee. Except, I didn’t have my trowel or toilet paper,” Urh says sheepishly. 

Stranded in the woods with her pants down, Urh had no choice but to request assistance from her husband of less than three months.

“Most couples wouldn’t even dream of peeing with the bathroom door open,” says Urh. “But on the A.T., there are so many moments filled with intense vulnerability.”

That said, you must be comfortable “baring it all” to your partner. Sometimes, this has literal applications (e.g., asking your hubby for help amid an unexpected number two). Other times, being vulnerable involves sharing your primal fears or expressing your needs in a raw, honest way.

Julia Urh and Justin Nolen. Photo courtesy of Urh and Nolen.

Tip 2: DHWH (don’t hike while hangry).

According to the American Council on Hangriness, low blood sugar is the leading cause of divorce. Just kidding. But it can lead to needless bickering during a thru-hike. 

“Justin and I got really good at noticing when the other was hangry,” Urh laughs. 

But since telling your lover to shove trail mix down their gullet and stop being such a jerk will probably cause more harm than good, Urh and Nolen developed a kinder approach. “Whenever I noticed that Justin needed to eat, I would take it upon myself to stop and grab us a snack,” says Urh. “He did the same for me, and it was such a gentle way of meeting the other person’s needs.” 

Nolen agrees. “Everything on the trail is amplified by hunger or tiredness,” he says. “So, supporting each other really comes down to having a little extra patience than you would in regular life.”

Long story short, if your partner is disgruntled during your thru-hike, feeding them a granola bar or bowl of ramen can do wonders. “But sometimes,” says Nolen, “the best way you can support your partner is to just let them ‘sit in the stink’ and be grumpy.”  

Austin and Madison Garren at the start of their journey. Photo courtesy of the Garrens.

Tip 3: Plan for setbacks. 

In a perfect world, both you and your spouse would summit Mount Katahdin unscathed. But injuries and illnesses do happen, so it’s important to “talk about what hiking the trail looks like for each of you before your feet hit the dirt,” says Samuel.

For instance, let’s say your better half develops a gnarly case of giardia. Do you both spend a week camped out in a hostel? Or do you forge ahead while he recuperates? What if running water and two-ply toilet paper lure him back to the “real” world? Do you keep hiking?

When North Carolina native Madison “Squirrel” Garren developed tendonitis in her foot in the Great Smoky Mountains last year, she and her husband Austin “Boojum” Garren began asking these tough questions. After much debate, they agreed to take a short respite. However, if Madison’s tendonitis persisted, Austin would continue the northward journey alone. 

“We wouldn’t have both quit. I would have done my best to encourage Austin to continue,” says Madison. Luckily, her foot made a speedy recovery and they were able to finish hand in hand on October 6, 2022. 

As high school sweethearts, Madison and Austin have spent virtually every second together since freshman year. (For reference, they are both now in their late 20s.) But spending every second together in the woods for six months, exhausted and un-showered, is a whole different beast. 

Austin and Madison Garren summiting Mount Katahdin. photo courtesy of the Garrens

Tip 4: Cherish your time together.   

“We definitely had a few bad days,” says Austin.

This seems to be the case for most thru-hiking couples. When you’re tired, sore, and in desperate need of a hot meal, the miles drag. The littlest things infuriate you, from your partner’s loud chewing to their incessant flatulence, and you start to wonder why you embarked on this journey in the first place.  

These emotions are natural, says Austin. “Once the initial thrill and infatuation of thru-hiking wears off, and especially as you near the end, it is easy to start taking it for granted and even wish the time away,” he notes. 

Be that as it may, you must remember to cherish each mile with your better half, even those filled with hangriness and anxiety.

“This is a very unique time in your life, the likes of which you may never see again,” Austin advises. “Every second is highly valuable; don’t let the moments slip away.” 

Cover Photo: Brianna and Samuel Abernathy. Photo by Justin P. Goodhart

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