What makes a good hiking partner? It's a lot more than being able to carry extra weight. Image: Stephen Matera
Let’s get on the same page here: being a great hiking partner is not the same as being able to carry the most weight. When I think about the people I’ve most enjoyed hiking and camping with, I can’t even remember who carried what.
But a lot of other things stand out: Like when they took an extra trip to fill up water bottles so I could get a bit longer rest, or made me belly laugh the whole 8-mile hike to the car even though we both knew the hike sucked and our legs were shot. I can also think of plenty of people who are incredibly strong, capable hikers, who I don’t necessarily want to spend hours on a trail with.
Because of this, I’m convinced it’s just as important to learn to be a great hiking partner as it is to learn about navigation or what to pack in your backpack (but those are important, too!).
Learning a few tricks of the trade will help make you a great hiking partner, so you can not only make sure both you and your friends have great experiences hiking - it’ll also help make sure you get invited back next time!
So, here’s my best advice for how you can be a great hiking partner.
Learn what kind of morning person your partner is
Key to any overnight expedition and most solid partnerships, know what kind of person you’re dealing with in the morning. Is your buddy someone who can’t produce full sentences until they’ve had coffee? Or who spent the last two hours before the alarm went off brainstorming a detailed itinerary for the day? Ask before the start of the trip and it’ll save you a lot of heartache that first morning. Remember, this is about you, too - if you need total silence before 10:00 a.m., then your hiking partner needs to know! It’s also nice to find out how they like their morning hot beverage, if any—little touches like this just make camp life better.
Be able to cook one good meal
Lighting the stove is an important skill, even if the only thing you can "cook" is boiled water. Image: Molly Herber
Food is fuel, and even the person in your group who loves cooking probably won’t mind sleeping in at least once while you cook breakfast.
And I get it—cooking for others can be stressful. Don’t worry. Most of the time, when you’re out hiking your group isn’t worried about eating a gourmet meal, they just want something hot and reasonably palatable.
So, just focus on learning one or two very simple, tasty meals that you feel good about cooking, so that the same people aren’t stuck doing it night after night.
If you’re strictly an instant meals person, this principle still applies: learn to operate the stove if you don’t know how so you can be the first to get hot water going.
This recipe for pasta with peanut sauce called Gado Gado is a favorite when I’m teaching NOLS courses, where we pack food in bulk meals rather than instant meals (much easier, and cheaper, for multi-day trips with large groups).
Know where you are
Don't rely on others to read the map. Image: Molly Herber
If you aren’t the person holding the map, it’s ok to check out, put down your head and follow, right? Sure, until you hear that dreaded phrase “Uh, I don’t know where we are.”
Even if you aren’t the main person navigating, it’s super helpful for everyone in your group to pay attention to the map. That way, you can ask questions, be a part of decisions, and maybe even catch something the navigator missed (like that trail marker three miles back). That way, no one person in the group is going it alone, and you have a picture in your head of where you’ve been if you need to backtrack.
Check in with your group - even the best of us forget stuff
Just asking how folks are doing shows that you’re paying attention, that you care about the folks you’re with. Who doesn’t like knowing that the person they’re hiking with has their back?
Here are a few ways to check in:
- How can I help?
- How’s everyone doing?
- My feet hurt, how about yours? (Even if they don’t, this can be a nice reminder to be proactive about blister treatment)
- Hey [specific friend’s name], want to play a game?
Yes, the principles of kindergarten apply to hiking, too.
Hiking, both on overnight and on day trips, involves a lot of shared space and moving parts. Keeping track of your stuff doesn’t just help you (which it does!), it helps the whole group. It means you won’t constantly have to ask “Where’s my ___?” and that you can find more important items, like a first aid kit, when they’re needed.
If you’re on an overnight and camping in a tent, tuck your clothes inside your sleeping bag, your book under your sleeping pad, and keep your boots outside the tent.
If you’re day hiking, keep as much stuff inside your pack as possible, and sweep the area where you’ve been taking a break before you head off down the trail.
Note that I didn’t say frequently, just regularly. This goes with the point about checking in. Lots of quiet hours can pass on a trail. Moods can change, the weather conditions can change, and it’s helpful to communicate with your partner on the reg so you both stay on the same page when it comes to decision making.
Some folks may just need to check in the morning before they start hiking. Others may appreciate checking in verbally at each break. Figure out what works for you and your hiking buddy, and follow through on that so you’re both making decisions together.
Take care of yourself
Think you’re great company when you’re dehydrated, hungry, and have blisters on your feet? Didn’t think so.
Being a great hiking partner isn’t just focusing on the people around you - it’s also about taking care of yourself, so you can keep showing up happy and healthy.
It’s tempting to think that you’re “being a hero” by sacrificing not asking them to stop when you can feel a blister forming. But no one will thank you (least of all yourself) when your skin is shredded and you have to spend the rest of the trip taking care of your popped blisters.
Plus, when you aren’t taking care of yourself, you’re not just grouchy—it’s also harder to make good decisions, and it’s important to be on your game when you’re in the outdoors.
Taking care of yourself looks like:
- Staying hydrated
- Packing—and eating!—enough snacks
- Stopping to take care of hot spots before they become blisters
- Putting on sunscreen
Use this advice as a starting point for being a great hiking partner, and also make sure to figure what you like and what your partner likes, too! Every one and every group are different.
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 a.m. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram @mgherber