Home / Interviews / Backpacking Together as a Couple with Susan and Ralph Alcorn

Backpacking Together as a Couple with Susan and Ralph Alcorn

Ralph and Susan Alcorn
Ralph and Susan Alcorn

How long have you been a couple?

Ralph and I met in 1987 on a Sierra Club car camping trip to Baja California (to see the migration of grey whales) and have been together ever since. Though we didn’t see any whales (wrong time of year!), it was a very successful trip.

Were you both backpackers before you met?

Ralph grew up in Yellowstone, the son of a ranger/naturalist so he had lots of wilderness and backpacking experience. I was a hiker, but had never been backpacking. I figured he would know what to do in the backcountry (and he did!)

Ralph is Timecheck because on one of our backpacking trips his watch was constantly stopping and he had to ask what time it was. I am backpack45 because when I was contemplating a book about women backpackers, I wanted to interview women 45 and older. I knew I wasn’t the only woman out there who was of seasoned age. Ralph is 79, I am 74. We live in the S.F. Bay Area.

How long have you been backpacking?

Ralph has been backpacking since 1960. I started in 1989—goal the summit of Mt. Whitney!

We completed the Pacific Crest Trail over many years. Initially, we had no plan to do it, but after completing the John Muir Trail (also in sections), we realized we could continue on doing the rest of the trail over time. We took our first steps of the JMT in 1989, and completed the longest portion, 400 miles of the PCT, in 2010.

We have also hiked on thousands of miles of ancient pilgrimage trails in Spain, France, and Portugal. We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2007 (8 or 9 days), and backpacked the circuit of Torres del Paine, Chile (Patagonia) in 2010.

Most trips are three weeks, some four, a couple five weeks long.

Ralph in the Cascades
Ralph in the Cascades

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

Ralph did the about 2/3 John Muir Trail by himself, couple of weeks, because I had to drop out because of a back issue. I came home to “regular” life.

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? Please elaborate.

We have left the trail a couple of times. Once in France due to a leg infection that I developed, another time in Southern Calif. on the PCT because of my back problem. The third instance was as explained above (on the JMT): we always left together except for that one time. We have discussed what we would do on various trips, and we have always known ahead of time that we were in this together.

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

I think any time you hike or otherwise travel with a partner, you interact less with other people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have quality interactions with others. Sort of depends on each person’s personalities whether or not you make the time to meet others.

Ralph definitely hikes faster than I do, but he usually adjusts his speed to hike with me. When we do hike separately, we are not any great distance apart. Ralph is much less emotional than I am, so he is a calming and encouraging partner. Our goals are similar as far as where we want to reach on a trip, but they might vary day to day because if, left to his own devices, he could go farther, but I get tired more easily.

Susan is faster on long uphill stretches due to steady pace. On very long trips, I gradually learn to keep up.

Susan on Goats Rocks on the PCT
Susan on Goats Rocks on the PCT

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

Ralph is stronger, faster, and has more endurance (usually) than I do. This often drives me nuts because I am more competitive, but that’s just the way it is!

Do you hike together or separately during the day?

Except when I want to walk along for a while—such as when I am irritated about something–and I go ahead a quarter mile or less, we hike together.

Ralph: We have a ground rule: never pass a trail junction without the other. On long stretches alone, we have a special symbol that we mark on the trail so partner knows you are still ahead. If you leave the trail to pee, leave pack on side of the trail. This is all to avoid accidentally unknowingly passing each other.

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

It depends on the trip, but in general we each carry our own clothing and bedding; Ralph carries breakfast and lunch items; I carry dinners. We both carry water in bladders, but he carries extra containers if needed. He has the stove and tent, I have the cook kit. I would estimate that I carry 2/3 the weight that he does.

Susan and Ralph Alcorn

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

Ralph does most of the camp chores; I wash dishes, do most of the photography, and keep a trail journal that often leads to our published articles and books. I feel quite spoiled, but it works for us!

This is somewhat different than what we do at home—though at home he usually shops for groceries and cooks most meals (except when we prepare more elaborate meals for company). At home I do the laundry, household cleaning, dishes, and more. We work from home on our writing/publishing business.

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

The shelter depends on the trip. We use Warmlite 2R for 4-season trips (cold and wet). We used Tarptent Cloudburst for most of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). We used the Golite Tarp for the John Muir Trail (JMT). Our tents, sleeping pads, and sleeping bags have changed over time in order to save weight/add comfort.

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

No, except at trail junctions for safety reasons.

Susan Alcorn - Civilized backpacking
Susan Alcorn – Civilized backpacking

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

Affection comes in many forms—I greatly appreciate the fact that Ralph gets up first, makes coffee and tea, and brings tea and breakfast to me while I am still in the tent getting ready.

If you mean sex—love those trail towns—(Ralph adds: in later years)! In earlier years, we had the time and energy for a quick stop!

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 don’t spend every second together, but it is true we are together the vast majority of the time. However, I picked well, and Ralph is so tolerant of my quirks, my need for alone time, and is so understanding of my moods that being together is not often an issue. Actually, since we work from home, we are pretty used to being together most of the time. We have many interests in common, but we also have our own individual interests, friends, and activities that give us time apart.

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

I am quite often glad that I have Ralph with me, but especially when I am challenged to cross a stream or river, when I hear an animal near the tent, when I see rattlesnakes—and when it’s time to set up, or take down, camp during a rainstorm. Ralph: It’s pretty boring without her.

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

I’m not sure hiking a long trail is different than our everyday life in some respects; for example, I know that I can count on Ralph’s help and support (even if he doesn’t agree with me) on any important issue. Ralph: It’s made us less tolerant of the complexities of everyday life.

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

I think the questions asked in this questionnaire would be a good start for a pre-hike conversation—especially items about how to handle differences in speed, distance, and endurance as well as goals.

It has been important to both Ralph and me that we travel and hike together (generally) so we make the compromises to make that happen. As I said earlier, he has to slow down for me, and carry more weight than I do. Having to slow down for a partner might drive some people crazy, so you as a couple need to figure out how to make things like that work.

Because of some health issues that I am currently having, we are now faced with how to handle an upcoming hiking trip in Europe if I am not able to hike the miles required. Plan A is that I am somehow able to hike by then and we hike together. Plan B is that Ralph hikes and I hike when possible, but when not possible to continue, I take public transit from place to place so we can meet up at the end of each day. Ralph: I am not too happy with Plan B, but haven’t got a Plan C.

1-Ralph and Susan Alcorn 1

Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers that I haven’t asked about?

It has been fun to answer these questions and be reminded of the long-distance trips. I think that a long hike is an excellent test of a relationship as well as an excellent opportunity to see what you as an individual are made of.

There are many ways that a couple could make a long-distance hike work for them; I don’t think our way is necessary the best way, but it seems to be the best for us. Be honest, when planning and when on the trail, about your expectations and needs. Treat kindly! Show gratitude! And celebrate your successes! Ralph: It has the potential to make or break a relationship, so do enough trail backpacks to see if longer ones would be a good thing or not.

About Susan and Ralph Alcorn

Susan Alcorn (aka Backpack45) has had extensive backpacking and long-distance hiking experience. She and Ralph have section-hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, completed 2,000 miles of pilgrimage trails in Europe (Camino de Santiago routes), and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Her new book, Patagonia Chronicle: On Foot in Torres del Paine combines journal entries about their experiences in Patagonia and extensive practical information about hiking in Torres del Paine.

Alcorn is also the author of Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago and We’re in the Mountains Not Over the Hill: Tales and Tips from Seasoned Women Backpackers. To reach Susan’s website, click here. Her blog, click here.

Ralph’s blog is at http://timecheck00.blogspot.com/

9 comments

  1. Great series, Philip. Thank you for posting and thank you to the couples who shared their experiences.

    • Yes it is a great series. I really admire the older couples who’ve been together and who’ve been hiking for decades. It remind me that age is (to some extent) just a frame of mind.

      • I definitely agree with AB. It is to some extent a frame of mind. We are lucky to have good genes among other things. I think many people give up too soon, or don’t realize their potential for “keeping on, going on.”

    • Thank you, Glenn, it’s fun to share our story. And many thanks to Philip for asking us!

  2. “We have discussed what we would do on various trips, and we have always known ahead of time that we were in this together.”

    Yup, that has been the plan from 1968. Thanks!

  3. This is the sweetest story! What a great match, Susan and Ralph.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Susan and Ralph! I hope you get to enjoy many more years of hiking/backpacking together.

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