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Backpacking as a Couple by Beardoh and SweetPea

Beardoh and SweetPea on the John Muir Trail
Beardoh and SweetPea on the John Muir Trail

How long have you been a couple?

We first met in 1995 when we both joined the Peace Corps in Tanzania. We had just graduated college and were off on a life changing experience. We were friends for a year, then “dating” for two and a half years, and now we have been married for sixteen and a half years.

Were you both backpackers before you met?

Not really. We had both done some hiking/backpacking/camping in the past, but not much. Beardoh had done some short trips with the Boy Scouts when he was young, and SweetPea had done some hiking and camping in Costa Rica during a college term abroad. When we were living in Tanzania we both hiked a lot in our respective villages. We got to know each other well when we were chaperones on a six?day climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. The following year, we also co?led a multi?day trip up Mount Meru with our students.

What are your trail names, ages, and what region of your country do you live in?

Allison’s (Age 43) trail name is SweetPea and Brian’s (Age 42) trail name is Beardoh. Seems like telling you what region we live in should be a simple thing, but we are rather nomadic these days. We own a house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but haven’t lived there for awhile. These days, we spend our summers hiking in the US and visiting family. Our winters have been spent in Mexico where it is warm and sunny everyday! YEAH!

How long have you been backpacking?

Once we moved to New Hampshire in 1999, we started doing day hikes in the White Mountains. Probably a year or so later, we invested in some backpacking gear and started doing overnight trips. These were usually centered around knocking off another 4,000 footer from the White Mountain 48 list in NH. Then we stopped backpacking completely for about 7 years or so. Ironically, this was the same time that we had moved to the White Mountains, but we guess the load of building our house and running a business sucked up all of our time. Beardoh even gave SweetPea a backpack for Christmas one year, as a “promise” that we would get out backpacking again, but sadly the backpack went unused for years.

In 2010, as we started to think about a major life transition, the idea of backpacking came back to us. We went out for an overnight in the White Mountains to watch the 4th of July fireworks from a 4,000 footer. This trip made us want to backpack more and the idea of doing a longer trail was born. Hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2011 really set us on a path to making backpacking a priority and to a great degree, a focus of our time.

Beardoh and SweetPea on Mt Katahdin
Beardoh and SweetPea on Mt Katahdin

What long distance backpacking trails have you hiked together (please include the length in miles of each trip and duration in days)

In 2011, we hiked the Appalachian Trail together. This was the first time that we had been out for more than two consecutive nights! The trail was around 2,181 miles and took us just under 5 months to complete.

In 2014, we decided to make a summer out of hiking some shorter trails on the west coast. We hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail (170ish miles, 10 days), the John Muir Trail (211 miles, 17 days), and the Wonderland Trail (92 miles, 7 days).

In 2015, we hiked the Arizona Trail which is 800 miles and it took us six weeks to complete it.

Have you hiked any trails by yourself (how long for each). What did your partner do while you were away?

Beardoh has done several hikes with friends, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, the Wonderland Trail and the Long Trail. Beardoh started the PCT about five months after we had finished the AT. SweetPea was not able to do the hike then because of lingering hip issues which had started on the AT, although truth be told, she probably was not mentally up for it either. During Beardoh’s PCT hike, SweetPea took a job in Tanzania for two and a half months, where she was the director of a summer program for high school students from around the world who came to Tanzania to work on community service projects.

The Wonderland Trail trip was billed as a “guys trip” with friends from our Peace Corps days. During that trip, SweetPea was at home with house projects to work on during the day and puzzles to put together at night.

The Long Trail trip was planned with the idea of going fast, since the friend Beardoh was hiking with had a short window of time for the trail. SweetPea didn’t go along because she didn’t think she would be able to keep up with the fast pace.

SweetPea has gone out just once by herself. She had 130 miles to finish up on the Appalachian Trail in MA/CT/NY. Beardoh had a deadline for finishing up some work before we headed off on a trip to visit family, so he stayed at home and squirreled himself away in his workshop while SweetPea was on the trail.

Has either of you left a trip mid-trail by choice or circumstance? Did the other carry on alone? Did you discuss in advance the possibility of splitting up? 

When we hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2011, we had to get off the trail in MA when Beardoh sprained his ankle. This was actually good timing for SweetPea as her right hip had become increasingly painful. After two weeks of recuperation, Beardoh was ready to get back on the trail, but SweetPea wasn’t. So, we made the decision for Beardoh to continue on with the hike and SweetPea would join him down the trail if she felt better. But we knew that there was a chance Beardoh might
be going the rest of the way on his own. Luckily, SweetPea only missed 130 miles of the trail, and then was able to rejoin Beardoh on the trail.

Before starting the trail, we hadn’t really discussed the possibility of one of us having to leave the trail early. Seems like we were just being optimistic!

Beardoh and SweetPea on the Wonderland Trail
Beardoh and SweetPea on the Wonderland Trail

How does hiking with a partner affect your experience on the trail or in town? For example: interactions with others, speed, mood, goals, etc.

Being hiking partners certainly has its benefits for us both, and probably more drawbacks for Beardoh than for SweetPea. The biggest benefits are the companionship (even though we don’t necessarily talk to each other all day long) and the shared experience. When we are planning to hike a trail together, SweetPea’s plan usually rules the day, since Beardoh is the stronger and faster hiker. This is where some drawbacks to hiking together can come into play for Beardoh. He isn’t able to hike in a manner which really challenges him and he may have to carry more food than otherwise, as we might take more days to hike a section when we hike together.

In town, there probably isn’t much of an affect…we both like the same kinds of food, we share a hotel room (but still hang out with other hikers), and we have a similar resupply plan.

At times, it feels like some hikers have a tendency not to include couples in things – grabbing a bite to eat or whatever – but we don’t feel like it has been an issue for us…we have made great friendships on the trail with others hikers.

How different or similar are your physical abilities? Strength, endurance, speed, etc.?

Beardoh is 6’5” and SweetPea is 5’4” which creates some inherent hiking differences. On the trail, we have been told that SweetPea’s legs are going really fast, while Beardoh looks like he is strolling through the woods. That is bound to be the case when we are different heights. Overall, Beardoh is a much stronger, and much faster hiker, especially once you put a full pack on SweetPea’s back (somehow she gets disproportionately slower). In terms of endurance, we’re pretty similar. We are both able to put in full days of hiking and we are both really tired at the end of the day.

Do you hike together or separately during the day?

When we first started hiking the Appalachian Trail, we actually hiked apart quite a bit. Sometimes, SweetPea would start out earlier and Beardoh would catch up to her…other times Beardoh would hike out in front to pick up a package in town and would then wait for SweetPea to catch up. After Beardoh sprained his ankle in MA on the AT, we started hiking together almost exclusively. We have kept that same style going forward…almost always within earshot of each other.

How do you divide up your food, water and gear when hiking?

We do a bit of a mix in terms of dividing up things between our packs. How we divide food has changed over time. When we hiked the Appalachian Trail, we both ate the same food. On that trail, we divided up food into four bags depending on what meal it was (breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner). Then we would usually compare the weight of the four bags and try to create a somewhat equal load of two bags each (Beardoh would take the two bags which were a bit heavier).

These days, our food is always separate. We eat quite differently from each other on the trail and we don’t share food, so it makes sense for us to each carry our own. We each carry our own “kitchen” which consists of only a spoon since we don’t cook. :)

Water is usually separated as well. The only time this changes is when we need to load up on water to carry us through a long dry stretch. At these times, Beardoh might carry a liter or two more than SweetPea.

As for gear, we don’t share a shelter (we typically hammock) and we don’t cook, so the only shared items are toiletry items and a first aide kit. This is in one combined bag which we have both carried on different trails.

When we hiked the Arizona Trail, we did sleep on the ground for the first 300 miles. For that section, we just used a tarp as our shelter. Beardoh carried the tarp and SweetPea carried the Tyvek ground cloth.

Beardoh on the PCT
Beardoh on the PCT

How do you negotiate camp chores, town chores, and resupply? Is this similar to what you do at home or different?

Since we have separate shelters and don’t cook, we don’t really have any camp chores to divide up. The only town chore we have is laundry…usually the person who showers first puts in the load of laundry. We always coordinate our resupply, so we either get a maildrop which has food for both of us, or we go grocery shopping together. At home, SweetPea is probably the one who does more of the grocery shopping or laundry, but this is simply because she has more free time.

What kind of camping shelter do you use? Are certain shelters or sleep systems better than others for couples? Has this changed with experience?

We primarily use hammocks with tarps for our shelters. Not sure if this is better for couples or not, but we wake up refreshed and limber which puts us in a good mood, so that seems like a good thing!

Cuddling on the trail seems a little strange anyways, since we are both dirty and smelly, and our NeoAirs make a lot of noise. We do try to hang our hammocks near each other when possible. Not only can we chat, but we can listen to a podcast together when we are hanging in our hammocks at night.

When we do sleep on the ground, we share a ground cloth, so we are sleeping next to each other…but the overwhelming preference for both of us is to hammock, so we try to minimize the nights we are sleeping on the ground.

SweetPea on the John Muir Trail
SweetPea on the John Muir Trail

Do you have a daily ritual or a timeout where you check in with each other?

Can’t say that we do. We have been around each other 24 x 7 for years now. First working together on our home, then working together in a business from our home, and then hiking long distance trails together. We can read each other pretty well and know when the other might need an extra hug.

How do you deal with your needs for affection on the trail?

When we’re hiking on the trail, things are usually pretty platonic…just hugs and kisses. :) Usually we are hiking with other people, so a lot of PDA is just weird. When we go into towns, we do try to get our own room, whether in a hostel or motel. That is a good chance for us to have some time by ourselves and make up for cuddle time we’ve missed on the trail.

It seems like spending every second together for 6 or more months could be challenging. Is there some kind of mental shift that you go through to cope with it?

We’re pretty used it…it is how we live off the trail too. We have worked together full time since 2007, so we are together nearly all of the time anyways. Because of this, hiking together for long periods hasn’t really been a challenge. Our relationship first started by spending entire weekends together. We were in the Peace Corps prior to cell phone availability, so our “dating” time was going to each other’s houses for 3 day weekends a few times per month. We realized early on that we enjoy spending long periods of time together.

Was there ever a time when you were really glad you had your partner with you?

Pretty much all the time…we rarely get on each other’s nerves. It is nice to know that we are together, doing what we both love to do. That shared experience is a meaningful part of our relationship.

How has hiking a long trail together carried over into your everyday life?

Sharing an experience as grand as hiking a long trail together is really nice. We are able to reminisce about the trail and the friends that we made. It is also good to have a partner who is able to relate to such a unique experience. When we came home after Peace Corps, we found that it could be difficult for friends or family to relate to our experience, which created a feeling of disconnectedness. The fact that we are able to relate to each other’s successes and challenges from the trail can help to strengthen our relationship.

What advice would you give other couples considering a long distance hike together?

The most important piece of advice we could give is to be prepared to compromise…especially on the part of the person who is the stronger or faster one. For anyone who feels like they really want to go fast and want their partner to keep up with their pace, it would be helpful to really think about where the need for speed comes from…chances are, it comes from ego, which really can’t be a priority when hiking a trail as a couple. It is important to always keep in mind that your relationship is bigger and more important than the hike. Don’t make things a competition.

One practical piece of advice is that it would be worthwhile to help each other make sure you get the right gear…even if this means that you will end up with matching gear or clothes. :)

Beardoh and SweetPea on the Arizona Trail
Beardoh and SweetPea on the Arizona Trail

About Beardoh and SweetPea

Brian grew up in Wisconsin as an only child. He was into skateboarding, snowboarding, guitar playing and metal music. He went to college at UW Eau Claire where he got a degree in Geography/Cartography. He has been self-employed since 1999, having businesses in web development, consulting, bass guitar building, and ecommerce.

Allison grew up in California as the youngest of four children. She was a member of the school band, drama club and speech club. She went to college at UC Santa Barbara where she got a degree in Biochemistry. She later got a MEd in School Counseling and worked as a high school guidance counselor.

We have been chronicling our hiking adventures, as well as interviewing some accomplished hikers at our website: www.longdistancehiker.com. Feel free to check out our site or follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

16 comments

  1. Good read. All people are different and really apparent from this piece. We always hike within visual distance of each other, unless it is a known trail. If we get lost, it is HER fault…hey, Ha.

  2. Great story and a wonderful couple.

  3. I thought the difference between my 6’3″ and my gf’s 5’3″ was pretty dramatic. Beardoh and Sweetpea have a lot more time to hike, apparently. I’m envious.

    • I think a lot of backpacking couples, at least the ones in this series, have figured out how to earn a living without traditional jobs OR they had traditional jobs but saved and left them before got too old to hike. It’s rather inspiring.

    • Earl/Philip,

      Philip is pretty much spot on. We have structured life around what we want to do, which is hike and travel. Having owned businesses before making the change to a more adventurous lifestyle definitely helps (especially online biz) , but our Peace Corps experience early in life taught us many lessons on living a more frugal and experience-driven life.

  4. Love your story. So much fun reading about another couple and your experiences on the trail.

  5. Why does Beardoh have a z-rest around his waist in the AZT photo?

  6. I’m envious on two counts: (1) having a partner who matches your hiking personality so well, and (2) having self-employment income (I assume?) to enable so much time in the backcountry. I’m always curious how thru-hikers support themselves.

    • Yeah, we are very grateful for the fact that we both like to backpack so much. It would definitely make things hard if only one of us wanted to be our walking in the woods for months at a stretch. Living a very simple life helps us to be able to stretch our dollars pretty far. We are also lucky to have found someone who is able to help with the work of our businesses while we are on the trail. The type of businesses we like are largely passive in nature, which helps to give us more flexibility.

  7. Kurt in Colorado

    Curious about two things: You said Sweetpea was “probably was not mentally up for” doing PCT just five months after the AT. The notion of spending weeks or months on the trail sounds fun or romantic to many people, but do you ever find it tiresome or boring or say to yourself “What the heck are we doing this for”? Second, you said you don’t cook on the trail. Never? Three straight months of cold meals? How do you prepare your meals?

    • Neither of us find hiking for long periods boring, or ask ourselves the ‘why are we doing this?’ question much, if at all. There are some hard moments here and there, but, honestly, they are quite rare (usually related to bodily aches and pains). We love being outside and walking. Neither of us put pressure on ourselves to ‘get ahead’ monetarily anymore. We don’t see the time out on the trails as time lost – and I believe that helps quite a bit mentally.

      I do agree with you that some folks romanticize the trail experience. Folks yearning to unplug or escape have an epiphany or whatever they dream up before a hike. However, there are things about it that were unexpected perks as well. I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy the social aspect, or hiking early in the AM and experiencing first light…or simply the dead tiredness at the end of a day.

      Cooking: not anymore. We cooked each night on the AT (SweetPea prepared all of our food ahead of time). On the PCT, after mile 1700, I cooked 30% of my evening meals (usually Ramen or potatoes). Since then, neither of us have cooked.

      We both do meals that don’t need much prep. Here is my daily food stuff from the Arizona Trail: http://longdistancehiker.com/arizona-trail-food-list-beardoh/

      For myself, getting my mind out of the “breakfast food should be XX, lunch food should be XX…” really helped me to focus more on the things that I can eat over and over again (without getting the blahs too bad) and the needed calories. I have been all over the place with different types of food. I liked the food from the AZT quite a bit and expect that this summer’s hiking food will largely be the same for me…with maybe some more calories.

      On a winter hike, I think we’d consider cooking.

  8. Fun reading this piece by a younger couple (in their forties compared to our seventies). I wish Ralph and I had been able to start our backpacking even earlier than we did. I totally agree with you about the necessity to compromise when necessary because the relationship is “bigger and more important than the hike.”

  9. Great stuff! Beardoh, you look like a younger version of one of my neighbors. Pretty cool. Thanks for sharing your adventures and experiences.

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