Home / Interviews / Best Mates Backpacking with Mick and Gayle Blackburn

Best Mates Backpacking with Mick and Gayle Blackburn

Mick and Gayle at Forrester Pass, PCT 2012
Mick and Gayle at Forrester Pass, PCT 2012

How long have you been a couple?

We met at work in 1999, became a couple in 2000 and got married in 2003.

Were you both backpackers before you met?

Neither of us was a backpacker before we met. In fact, Mick wasn’t even a walker, whereas I’d grown up with walking parents who’d taken me and my sister out into the hills or countryside for at least a couple of holidays per year. Once Mick and I had started walking together, it was Mick who suggested that we try backpacking, to which I gave the response that he’s never let me forget: “For the avoidance of doubt, I will never go backpacking!”. I was, it turns out, very wrong in that statement; moreover, as it was me who made the suggestion for our very first long backpacking trip.

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

Mick is 61 and I am 41 and we live in the Midlands of England, in quite a flat location, but being centrally located we’re within a three hour drive of most places in England and Wales, and within a four hour drive of Scotland. Trails names aren’t used in the UK or Europe, although we did temporarily become ‘Fish & Biscuits’ on the PCT in 2012.

How long have you been backpacking?

I think that our first trip was in 2004.

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

2008: Land’s End to John o’Groats (LEJOG)* (the most extreme SW point on the UK mainland to the most extreme NE point, also taking in the most S point (The Lizard) and the most N point (Dunnet Head) on our way) – on paper our route came out at 1240 miles and we took 84 days over it.

2009, ’11, ’12, ’13, ’14 (and ’15 for Mick only): Six different routes across Scotland as part of the TGO Challenge* event, usually around 190 miles taking between 9 and 12 days.

2010: Kent to Cape Wrath* (the most extreme SE point on the UK mainland to the most extreme NW point) – on paper the route came out at 1000 miles and we took 57 days.

2011: To finish the points of the compass 2011 saw us walk from Lowestoft to Ardnamurchan* (the extreme E point of the UK mainland to the extreme W point), which was around 750 miles over 42 days.

2012: a 500-mile section hike of the PCT from Agua Dulce to Tuolumne, taking 33 days.

2014: Home to Edinburgh* – what was supposed to be a 500-mile walk from home to the start point of our TGO Challenge in 2014 got curtailed after 3 weeks in Edinburgh due to injury.

2015: a section hike completing the first half of the GR10 across the French Pyrenees (251 miles). The whole route (which we will finish in 2016) runs from the Atlantic Coast to the Mediterranean Coast.

*None of the routes marked with an asterisk followed defined trails, they were all routes of our own devising using Public Rights of Way as far as possible, except in Scotland, where the access rights are more liberal, giving a general ‘right to roam’.

High Camp on the GR10, 2015
High Camp on the GR10, 2015

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

In 2013 I found myself (unfortunately) in employment for most of the year, which coincided with one of the hottest and sunniest periods of summer weather for a long time, so as Mick dropped me off for my car share to work one morning I suggested that he went home, packed his bag and took himself off somewhere, with the promise that I would drive to wherever he was and pick him up at the end of the week. The weather held for longer than expected and over the course of three mid-weeks Mick re-walked the Pennine Way, which is a 270-mile trail running from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.

I’ve also taken a few short trips whilst Mick has been working, but only a few days at a time.

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? 

I left Mick to continue on alone for three days on the Lowestoft to Ardnamurchan trip, whilst I returned home to allow some blisters to heal (I did go back at the end of the trip to walk the omitted section), and we both aborted to Home to Torridon walk at Edinburgh due to an ankle injury Mick had picked up. I had intended to carry on alone on the latter occasion, but the logistics (and transport costs of Mick travelling alone to rejoin me for the TGO Challenge) were prohibitive, so I ended up walking the Anglesey Coast path instead whilst he healed (not as a backpacking trip; Mick drove our motorhome and met me each evening).

I did ask Mick, before we set out on our first big trip, what he would do if I had to pull out of the walk for any reason. His thoughts were that he would stop too, whereas my view was that I would continue alone. Happily we didn’t have to put the theory to the test, as the only time when either of us gave a thought to stopping was a brief (dehydrated) five minute period about two and a half months in, when I had a rant about the ridiculousness of what we were doing and wanting to be at home. Once Mick had given me a pep-talk and we’d finally found some water to drink the thought of stopping seemed as ridiculous as continuing had been during that brief wobble. 

Wet Feet on E to W, 2011
Wet Feet on E to W, 2011

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

We’ve come to the conclusion over the years that we tend to be more insular when walking together. Our experience is that people don’t go out of their way to talk to a couple as much as they do to a singleton and likewise, we also don’t tend to initiate conversations with others in the same way that we would if alone, probably because we already have someone to talk to.  Whilst we do occasionally get offered cups of tea and other unsolicited hospitality by people we meet, friends who walk solo seem to attract far more such offers, so either we look scary or it’s because we’re a pair and thus seen as more self-sufficient.

It was Mick who first observed that walking as a pair on a long trip must be much easier from a mental point of view than walking solo, and I have to agree with him. Whilst we both have low moments and days when it just seems like too much effort, we don’t usually have such dips at the same time, and thus one of us can help perk the other up (which in Mick’s case has involved telling me to ‘Man up and pull yourself together, you’ve got a face like a wet weekend’ – harsh, but it did make me laugh!)

Also on the positive side, we probably see more when we’re together, as one of us will often point out something that the other hadn’t noticed.

Moody Bothy Scotland, 2012
Moody Bothy Scotland, 2012

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

We’re pretty well matched, and I don’t think our walking partnership would have been such a happy and lasting one if we weren’t. Although Mick is generally faster than me when going uphill, I’m faster on the downs (although my knees are now starting to feel their age!) and on the flat we’re evenly matched, and the same daily routine works well for both of us. Mick is undoubtedly able to carry a heavier pack than me, but in the interests of fairness we share everything such that our packs are similar weights.

Do you hike together or separately during the day?

Together. We’re rarely more than a few steps apart, usually with Mick ahead (not because we like to adhere to the stereotype of the man always walking ahead with the woman deferentially bringing up the rear, but because I have no ability to maintain a steady pace and it drives Mick mad walking behind me with me speeding up and slowing down constantly, depending on what I’m looking at or thinking about at the time). 

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

We each carry our own food and water. Gear is usually shared reasonably evenly, to make our pack weights similar, although Mick gets to carry the tent flysheet, which means that his pack weight varies depending on how wet the fly is when we pack away in the morning. If we take our Henry Shires Tarptent Rainbow 2 on a trip then, as there isn’t an inner tent for me to carry, I get away with just carrying the pole and pegs.

We’ve many a time had solo hikers (usually lightweight obsessives who aren’t very lightweight…), who have initiated a discussion on pack weights, make the statement that our packs are lighter because we share kit. In reality, our most commonly used tent is 2.2kg (so over twice the weight of a light solo tent) and we each carry our own cook pot, cutlery and mugs (we don’t eat the same food, so we don’t share a cook pot), so the amount of kit which is shared is minimal (stove, toiletries, toilet kit, and first aid kit).

We even had one hiker last year who said that our packs were lighter because we share the carrying of water – we didn’t like to point out to him that two people drink twice the amount as one person, so sharing the weight is pretty immaterial!

Scottish Deer Fence
Scottish Deer Fence

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

We each have our own jobs. Mick is usually in charge of finding water when we pitch camp (unless we’ve had to carry water in), and he’s in charge of washing up. I usually do the cooking and the making of hot drinks. In town, Mick’s in charge of sitting outside of the shops looking after our packs, whilst I do the resupply shopping. Doing laundry is also my job, whether by hand or by machine.

At home we share chores, with the exception of washing up (Mick’s job) and laundry (my job).

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

Our shelter is always a fully enclosed tent. In the UK we use a semi-geodesic model, the Terra Nova Voyager (2005 model) with an end vestibule, so neither of us has to climb over the other to get out. We actually have two of that tent, one in the lightweight version and one in the standard weight, and we’re yet to find another tent which suits us better.

In climates where we don’t expect too much rain/snow/cold, we use a Henry Shires Tarptent Rainbow 2, which has access on both sides, again saving us from clambering over one another for entry and exit. We’ve found that tent doesn’t work for us in UK conditions – we’d rather carry more weight and have more comfort.

As for sleep system, until 2014 we used separate sleeping bags, but always had the nagging thought that when I was stealing Mick’s heat in the night by snuggling right up to him, the down in between us was doing nothing except for getting damp. In 2014 I made a Ray Jardine double quilt, choosing that synthetic model because it was a relatively cheap way of trying out the quilt concept. Despite misgivings as to whether we would get on with it, it was a huge hit right from the first night, and we now have 1.5 versions (it zips into two across the middle and I carry the bigger (top) half, but as it’s synthetic it’s quite bulky, so last year I made a version of the section I carry, in lighter weight materials, to free up room for extra food carrying capacity).

Mam Sodhail, Scotland 2012
Mam Sodhail, Scotland 2012

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

No. Whilst we are very much creatures of routine when hiking, we don’t have a specific spot on the agenda to talk about how we’re feeling and the like. We do talk to each other whenever we feel like it throughout the day, though.

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

You’re not asking about sex, are you? We’re British; we don’t talk about sex!

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?

Gayle: Until a few months before we set off on our first big trip, from Land’s End to John o’Groats, we’d both had busy careers and hadn’t spent extended periods exclusively in each other’s company. However, I don’t recall it ever crossing our minds that to do so would be an issue, or require any shift in attitude. After that trip, we both took contracting work, so often spent months at a time together when not working. Now we are both pretty much retired (Mick still succumbs to occasional contracts, but they’re usually quite short-term), and as well as backpacking we spend another chunk of each year away together in our motorhome (which compared to a backpacking tent is huge at 20 feet long and six feet wide!), so spending our lives almost exclusively in each other’s company for months at the time is the norm for us.

That said, we did once have a falling out. It was on Day 81 (out of 84) of our LEJOG walk, when a minor disagreement about communication of navigation (I’m the navigator; I hadn’t been clear about where we were headed) culminated in Mick throwing his pack down and me stomping off up the hill. It was soon resolved when five minutes later Mick found me up to my knees in a peat bog, lying on my back and trying not to sink any further. Being unable to get out and, being the nice chap he is, he rescued me and happiness was restored.

Mick: Added to that, because the level of external distractions on the trail is not very high compared with ‘normal’ life, minor things can grow out of proportion, so I do find myself having to take pause and bite my tongue when I realise that the thing that Gayle’s doing/saying that’s really annoying me may actually be very trivial.

Highest pass GR10 France 2015
Highest pass GR10, France 2015

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

Me: on Day 81 of our LEJOG trip, when I got stuck in a peat bog (see above answer)! Seriously though, and at risk of sounding soppy, I’m always glad to have my wonderful husband along with me.

Mick: We walk as a couple, so I’m always glad to have Gayle there (and I’m not just saying that because she’s looking over my shoulder!), but one time which stands out was on the PCT in California when I stupidly became quite dehydrated and it was Gayle who recognised what was wrong and nagged me constantly to drink at regular intervals for the rest of the trip.

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

I think the minimal nature of backpacking has crept into the rest of our lives, as living for three months in a single set of clothes and with your whole world fitting into a bag on your back does bring into focus how little we really need. We therefore came to realise that our house was unnecessarily large for us and wasn’t a practical choice for our lifestyle, so a few years back we significantly downsized.

The frugality of long-distance walking has also affected how we live our daily life from a financial point of view. Since 2008 I have accounted for every penny that we spend, working to a strict budget, so that we can afford to live without working, without compromising our ability to go off on a trip any time we choose.  Our attitude to material possessions definitely took a turn when we gave up full-time employment. These days we accumulate a lot less ‘stuff’ and our wardrobes are significantly reduced from what they were ten years ago (I just had to replace my jeans when they fell apart after seven years’ wear; there was a time when I bought new jeans just because I wanted them; last year I didn’t spend a single penny on haircuts, whereas fifteen years ago I would spend £60 on having a trim every couple of months).

The backpacking experience also led us to conclude that spending extended periods together in a modestly-sized motorhome wasn’t going to be a problem, which has opened up to us a whole different way of exploring the UK and Europe (as I type this we’re sitting in a car park in some hills in Spain).

I can’t imagine that we would have been so in agreement on simplifying our lives if only one of us was a long-distance walker.

Perhaps not a good trait to have developed, and somewhat condescending, but we do now find ourselves looking at certain other people and thinking “they could do with a really good walk; that’d sort them out!”, like for example the British trio who were on the next table to us in a restaurant a couple of weeks back, in Spain, turning their noses up at everything they were served. I’m sure if they’d just walked for a week to get to that restaurant, they would have eaten every morsel put in front of them!

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

If you both enjoy the outdoors and are well matched, then go for it. You might get to the end of your first trip (or even only a short way through) and decide that walking long distances together isn’t for you … or it might be the best thing you’ve ever done, and there’s only really one way to find out which it’ll be for you.

Stonehaven Beach TGO Challenge 2012
Stonehaven Beach TGO Challenge 2012

About Mick and Gayle Blackburn

Mick’s childhood was spent in various locations around the world, as the child of an army family. He didn’t quite follow in his father’s footsteps, but at the age of 19 joined the Royal Air Force and spent 19 of his 23 years of service flying on the Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft.  He followed his Air Force career with over a decade of Engineering Project Management, mainly involved in military projects.

Gayle’s childhood was spent being dragged up hills by her parents, often involving camping at times of year when a balaclava was a necessary item of nightwear. Her parents reassured her that this was ‘character building’. Her corporate career was spent in the defence and aerospace sectors, which was a happy overlap with Mick’s career, as that’s how they came to meet.

In 2003 they relocated from London to the English Midlands, not too far away from where Gayle grew up, and in 2007 a spate of death and illness in the family led to the rapid conclusion that life is just too short to be spent sitting behind a desk. Letters of resignation immediately followed to both employers and in the spring of 2008 they set out on their first big backpacking trip.

All of their trips are blogged on a daily basis at gayleybird.blogspot.com.

13 comments

  1. ‘Fish and Biscuits’ eh? So who’s who? :-)
    A lovely couple and an excellent read, thanks for publishing.

  2. Well done you two. A very readable summary, and no doubt a good way for you to spend a rainy day in Spain!

    • Funnily enough, it was raining the evening we wrote it, but the timing of the writing was more to do with the availability of electricity!

  3. Isn’t it about time you got back out there. You must have had a day or two off by now and the washing must be dry.
    Good read.

    • We will be heaving our backpacks on again soon, but first we need to go home and spend some quality time with our sofa!

  4. Fascinating, brilliant, may you both have many more years on the trail

  5. Loved reading this. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  6. Thanks, Mick and Gayle. I enjoyed reading about your adventures together. Here’s to many more!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *