Well, our preparations for walking 1000 miles across Spain on the GR1 this spring are well under way and we’ll be posting some details of our gear choices and other preparations very soon. But the physical aspect and gear choices are only part of the process, the mental preparation for the trip is crucial, and looking back on the GR11 last year reminds me that there is a lot to improve upon! In some ways our GR11 blogs could give an impression of harmony on the trail, but this is not the whole picture, in truth hiking as a couple can be tough. Barry and I are very used to spending at lot of time together, but hiking the GR11 did test us, and sometimes I felt I was putting more energy into our relationship than the hiking! And yet, here we are contemplating another 3 months hiking and living in a tent together, so it can’t be all bad! The following issues are a reminder to us what we did well and what we could do better, they might even be familiar to some other long distance hiking couples out there…
1. Motivation: Getting on the same wavelength.
Are our motivations the same? Well, yes and no. We both approach long distance hiking from slightly different angles, and in the ‘pressure cooker’ of being together 24/7, even slight differences can cause problems. Barry is a later convert to long distance hiking than me, in fact it took months of persuasion on my part to even get him to agree to do the GR11. In the end I think he said yes just to shut me up! My reasons for hiking tend to be more idealistic/philosophical, I see the process of hiking as end in itself, whereas for Barry, hiking is secondary to observing nature.
This causes tensions as Barry likes to walking slowly and observe things in detail, whereas I like to keep a more steady pace and absorb the broader atmosphere of a place. This different focus often leads to differing pace, and we did have an ongoing argument about this. Luckily as we walked, Barry’s reasons for hiking broadened, and our motivations have dovetailed into our love of simple-living and closeness to nature. Our differences still exist, but as relative newcomers to long distance hiking, we have a lot to learn, and with each mile walked together our reasons are evolving and we are discovering new meanings and motivations to these journeys we make together. We need to approach our hikes as a blank slate rather than holding fixed ideas of ‘how’ we want to walk it and what we want to ‘get out’ of the experience.
2. Temperament and mood management
In our relationship, Barry is the laid- back one and I am the worrier. As long as we are well-prepared he takes things as they come. I however, get nervous with uncertainty and tend to plan and worry too much about situations which have not even happened yet! Generally Barry’s approach works, but sometimes, my lower threshold of danger awareness has helped us evade a risky situation, such as not getting stuck on an exposed ridge during a lightening storm or being aware of rivers flooding. By contrast, other times my worry led us to do pointless things, like break camp in the middle of the night to escape a ‘herd of stampeding cattle’…which turned out not to even be in the same field as us! In general our different temperaments strike a reasonable balance, but I still have work to do in ‘going with the flow’ and living with what is unknown and uncontrollable.
Despite the glorious scenery and simple living, on a hike of weeks or months, good and bad moods and little frustrations all happen, though maybe less than they do at home. There is always a settling-in period when we are adjusting to a new mode of life, adapting to our routine and the challenges of keeping clean, fed, rested and healthy. On any trip, it usually takes me a least a week to let go of all the stress of leaving home and open-up to the new experiences we encounter. Over time though, the simple living and fewer outside influences not only make for a happier existence, but also our moods tend to harmonise and mellow.
When they happen, we know in theory not to take each others bad moods personally, and just give the other space to let it work through their system, but sometimes reacting back is too tempting! Bad moods blow over, but a snappy or offended remark in response can escalate things quickly! We meditate regularly, and will continue this when hiking, and this helps a lot with self awareness in these situations. If we are moody or act defensively, our first question should be ‘why do I feel like this?’ or ‘why did I react that way?’, and not project the fault onto the other person. Our moods are our own responsibility.
3. Pace matching
Given our differing ages, we are not badly matched when we want to be. But that is the clincher…when we WANT to be. I have a faster ‘natural pace’ than Barry and find his style of hiking where he stops frequently to be frustrating. Going up hills I like to keep going slowly, getting my breathing and heart-rate up and maintaining them at this level for efficiency. Barry’s method of stopping often may suit him, but I find the weight of a 15kg rucksack bearing down as I stand still is tiring. This difference is more one of method than fitness, when we both pull out the stops, for example on mornings when we need to clear a pass early, we are great, and Barry’s longer stride leaves me trailing. Some couples walk apart all day and catch-up at the end, but we have only one guidebook/GPS and besides, we like to stay in touch by sight or sound to make sure the other is OK.
Sometimes I see couples hiking effortlessly together and it seems the simplest thing in the world, and yet for us it can seem so difficult at times. I don’t always want to walk way- ahead and alone most of the time, but I don’t want to keep stopping and waiting, breaking my rhythm either. Barry on the other hand does not want to be pressurised or pushed by me, he is entitled to hike as he wishes, it is as much his hike as mine. This issue is not one of physical fitness, it is about mental attitude, and is our biggest difficulty as a hiking couple. We still have a way to go to resolving this one, but compromise is of course the answer. We both have our individual ideas about what a hike should be, and we need to work out what we want it to be as a couple- we need to meet in the middle. This topic is a hot potato, but it’s not always a problem, in fact sometimes when we forget about it altogether and just enjoy the hike for what it is, there does not seem to be an issue at all….
4. We need our personal space
It’s not easy living in a 2 man tent and having only each other for company for days on end…but we are pretty good at it! After living on a small Scottish island for 4 years and latterly in a campervan, we are adept at creating space for each other. When physical space is limited, the room we make for each other is mental, retreating to our personal worlds, while at the same time being relaxed in each others company. Often on the GR11 we would spend long evenings in the tent, inches apart, and yet absorbed in our own interests for a few hours at a time, be it reading, listening to podcasts or just relaxing. Being relaxed with each other means there is no pressure to do or be anything else, no demands, we are content to leave each other alone for a while. Of course, there are also chances to be apart physically too! We often hike apart, usually within sight or shouting distance, and during evenings at camp we can go off for a wander alone. Of all the challenges as a hiking couple, respecting and carving out personal space for each other is something we manage very well.
5. No need to ‘make’ conversation
Sometimes people imagine that spending so much time together when hiking we run out of things to say….and yes, this is true sometimes. The difference is that we don’t view this ‘running out’ as a problem or a lack, it is the simple product of detaching ourselves from all the usual stimuli and inputs. For days on end it is just us, the mountains and the wildlife, no people, TV or radio. As we sink more deeply into our walk and become absorbed by what is around us, the trivial stuff fades away and the mind comes to rest in a quieter place where sometimes there are no thoughts at all, just awareness. This is indeed a blessed state (!), and why in many ways hiking resembles meditation. As a culture we put a great emphasis on ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’, which is an active process of our mind as it formulates, judges, compares, ruminates. This mode is fine when we need it, but when out in nature it impairs our full awareness of the moment and what surrounds us.
Nowhere does the phrase ‘making conversation’ feel more false than when we are out hiking. The idea of ‘making’ conversation seems to belong to a world of appearances, of pressure to ‘say something’ when there may be nothing worth saying. Why add anything when there is nothing missing? What we find instead is that more silence in our lives makes space for better conversation. Cut-off from everyday concerns, our minds broaden, and when we do talk it is often about more interesting things like the books we are reading or ideas/insights we have had. Of course, we don’t talk about deep stuff all the time, we do often just chat away about what we are seeing etc, but in general the quality of what we talk about is better and more positive than at home. The simple life and focusing our energies into hiking creates a more positive outlook.
6. Who’s responsible for what?
Walking the GR11 in 2015 was my idea, I pushed for it and I planned it, taking responsibility for all aspects of logistics, route planning, weather awareness etc. This suited me initially and I enjoyed it, until after nearly 4 weeks on the trail and I had not barely slept. Despite the long, tough days, I would lay awake for hours before falling asleep, my brain on overdrive thinking about the day or week to come. I could not shut down. By week 4 I was mentally frazzled and wished that I could hand it all over to someone more experienced and take a backseat for a while. Some of the stress came from walking up into high environments, I worried about storms or getting disorientated in cloud, I was inexperienced in high mountain terrain and out of my comfort zone. I have to make a conscious effort to relax and let things unfold and to help, Barry will be sharing more of the responsibility with me this year.
Day-to-day roles and responsibilities are also essential to maximise our hiking and rest time. We aren’t really rigid about who does what, but there is a ‘fairness tally’ which we keep in mind which demands that we both pull our weight with different tasks such as making/breaking camp, cooking, washing up, filtering water, washing clothes etc. For example, I generally cook most meals, which means that Barry does the washing up…which I hate to do! When we are in a campsite, if I have done most of the setting up, Barry will wash my clothes along with his. If the balance gets out out of kilter we soon let each other know…no excuses, we are both after-all, knackered from the same hike!
So that’s a distillation of what we need to remember as we hike this year. Hiking as a couple has pros and cons, and sometimes when we are tired or self-focused it can be hard to spare enough thought or energy for the other. But I would never want to walk without Barry, any challenges we face are more than overcome by the support we give each other and the joy of sharing our adventures. I find it moving to look back on the GR11 and know that every step I walked, he also walked, every view and sunset he also saw, it is a unique, shared experience that connects us. Many times when reaching a pass with a great view, or watching a Lammergier sailing past, we would both stop in wonder, there was an unspoken communication between us that we both understood, and this somehow made the moment complete. I do at times envy the independence of solo hikers, and there were many on the GR11, but after a few weeks the ones we met were telling of loneliness from spending all day in their own company. For us, hiking as a couple works, we each bring different things to the mix which keep us both going, and when its all over we have the gift of each other to keep reliving the times and miles we spent on the trail