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A Couple’s Journey on Long Backpacking Trails with Stopwatch and Optimist

Stopwatch and Optimist, Matt and Julie Urbanski
Stopwatch and Optimist, Matt and Julie Urbanski

How long have you been a couple?

We met in March 2003 when we both worked at The Running Spot in Cincinnati, Ohio, a specialty running store. We were both in our senior year in college, attending different schools, and had a common love of running. We’ve been married since 2010, so we were dating on our first thru-hike in 2007 and still decided to get married after that, and stayed married during 3 more thru-hikes!

Were you both backpackers before you met?

Matt was. He hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000, after leaving the Naval Academy, where he attended his freshman year of college. After hiking that trail he always had a dream of hiking the PCT and CDT. Julie, not so much. She was the backyard camping type of backpacker, which means she really wasn’t into backpacking at all.

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

Matt is known as Optimist, age 35, and Julie is known as Stopwatch, age 34. We live in the Pacific Northwest.

How long have you been backpacking?

Matt started in 2000 with the AT, though his family took small trips as he grew up, going to places like the Grand Canyon and Colorado. Julie started backpacking in 2007 on the Pacific Crest Trail. She had done one other week long backpacking trip in 2005, but the real start of backpacking that led to other backpacking trips was really the PCT.

What long distance backpacking trails have you hiked together?

We hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2007 (2663 miles, 109 days), the Appalachian Trail in 2011 (2181 miles, 104 days), the Colorado Trail in 2012 (486 miles, 22 days) and the Continental Divide Trail in 2013 (3000 miles, 112 days).

Optimist and Stopwatch descend from 3FJ
Optimist and Stopwatch descend from 3FJ

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

Matt hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000 with a friend from the Naval Academy, Animal, and with another friend they met along the way, Rocketcop, before we knew each other. Julie was completely unaware of such trails and pretty much oblivious to the backpacking community. Since becoming a couple, we have never gone on any solo hiking trips; we’ve always gone together.

Has either of you left a trip mid-trail by choice or circumstance?

Oh yeah. Julie left the CDT in Colorado, at Copper Mountain. She just couldn’t handle the difficulty of Colorado, considering how hard the CDT had already been in New Mexico, and little did she know the worst (or best?) of Colorado was still to come.

Matt continued on and after a week of being separated, Julie rejoined Matt in Steamboat Springs, CO and we finished the trail together. Then, Matt being the saintly hiking partner that he is, we went back to the section that Julie missed so she could officially finish the trail as well.

Before starting the trail, we knew it would be a difficult trail and that Julie would have the most difficulty in staying mentally positive, but we didn’t discuss the possibility of splitting up. It just never seemed like it would really happen. Julie had talked about quitting trails mid-hike all the time, so it was a bit of a shock to both of us that she got off.

Both of us were a mess the entire week that we split up, Julie feeling guilty for leaving Matt alone to hike, and Matt missing Julie, especially since it was such a difficult section.

After Julie returned to the trail, it was like a completely different trail because her attitude had changed so much in that week apart. She appreciated her time with Matt so much more and while the trail was still challenging, it somehow seemed more manageable once she realized the grass was certainly not greener on the other side of being off the trail.

Julie Urbanski on the AT
Julie Urbanski on the AT

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

Julie has always said that she’d never hike a trail alone, and she stands by that statement. While Matt’s done it, he too prefers to hike with a partner, preferably Julie. We both love having a hiking partner, someone to share in the joys and the misery of thru-hikes, someone to snuggle up with at night, someone to share in the camp time duties like setting up the tent, getting water, cooking…we can divide and conquer, especially on challenging things like route finding.

On the CDT, after getting lost several times in New Mexico, we designated a “Captain” for sections so that one person could focus on route-finding, using the other person as backup. It was so nice to switch off that lead and take a mental break from the route-finding.

Julie is much more introverted than Matt, so he’s really the social butterfly among other hikers and people both on and off the trail. Because of him, we make friends with others. We also push ourselves out there on the trail, especially being long distance runners in our real lives.

Matt’s a games person, meaning he likes to make a game out of EVERYTHING, so if the trail ever gets stale for us, he makes a game in order to make hiking more fun. Having a hiking partner is also a little dangerous because there’s always a person to unload our feelings and frustrations on, which can be hard for the other person. Couple that with being tired and hungry and there can be some hurtful words thrown out there without really thinking about it.

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

Matt’s a stronger, faster hiker, no doubt about it. He’s also a stronger, faster runner. But we both have endurance and since we’re both long distance runners, our strength as hikers is that we feel like we can outlast most others. We’re both fairly slow hikers though, hiking 3 miles an hour at best.

After all our miles together, our speed has barely increased, mainly because our pack weight has lightened. While Matt could go faster by himself, we normally stay together, going slow and steady all day and therefore we’re able to cover 25+ mile days.

Matt Urbanski
Matt Urbanski

Do you hike together or separately during the day?

On the PCT we often hiked separately because Julie was so much slower. It drove Matt crazy. We would do “shifts” of 2 hours at a time, and meet up at the end of those shifts, with Matt getting ahead.

We hiked together on every trail after that, including the AT, the CT and the CDT. Looking back, we’re kind of amazed we hiked separately on the PCT, considering what a scaredy cat Julie is when it comes to hiking alone, but she hated the feeling of holding Matt back, and he hated being held back, so neither of us thought twice about hiking separately. Going forward, we had much lighter packs, which made a difference in Julie’s speed. Matt also realized he could recover really well from big miles by going Julie’s slower speed.

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

For food, we divide the shared meals, so each of us is carrying half the amount of dinners.. We’re on our own for carrying our own snacks and other personal food though.

We’re pretty selfish when it comes to food, as it’s on us to plan out our food and ration it well. The same goes for water; we’ve never shared water weight. There were times on the CDT when one of us ran out of water and needed a sip from the other, but we take rationing our own food and water pretty seriously. If we carried it, we want to consume it.

As for gear, we split the shared gear evenly, such as the tent, cookware, water purification, and technology (we carried an iPad Mini on the CDT). We’re on our own for our own gear such as clothing. We’re about 10 pounds different in body weight, so not much, so Matt may carry up to a pound more of shared gear, but that’s the most.

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

When we cook on a trail, that’s Matt’s job while Julie sets up the tent and gets water. This is actually pretty similar at home. Matt cooks all the meals at home while Julie is the one putting together the Ikea furniture in the background or organizing all our bills and mail.

As for resupply, we choose our shared meals together, like Lipton noodles, mac n cheese…and then we’re on our own for the rest of our food. We bounce ideas off each other and check with each other’s rations, but grocery shopping is on each of us.

We were vegetarian on all the trails except the CDT, where we were vegan, so grocery shopping on the CDT was much more involved. We worked together quite a bit on that trail. We also didn’t eat out much on the CDT, so we had to make meals out of grocery store food and hotel microwaves, so that was definitely a group effort.

Matt and Julie Urbanski

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 has evolved over the course of our hikes, starting with 2 person, freestanding tents like the REI Half Dome, moving to a two person tarp tent, and ending in a one person tarp tent.

On the PCT and half the AT we used a (fairly heavy) two person freestanding tent and while I loved the roominess and the sturdiness of the tent, it weighed at least five pounds. Split between two people, that’s not that bad, but given the amount of lightweight tents out there today, it’s much easier to get a lighter 2 person tent, free standing or one that uses hiking poles.

We used a 2 person Henry Shires Tarp Tent on the CT and half the CDT, and that’s been one of our favorite tents, being very roomy, lightweight, and easy to set up. It doesn’t appear as sturdy as a freestanding tent but it’s weathered some rough storms and heavy winds, so we’re confident backpacking with it.

When Julie got off the trail on the CDT, we ordered Matt a Six Moon Designs Solo Trekker, a one person tarp tent that used two hiking poles to set up and weighed about a pound and a half. By the time we got it in the mail, Julie had decided to get back on the trail, and rather than return it, we realized we could both fit in it, along with our gear, so that is the tent we used for the second half of the CDT.

While we could both fit, there wasn’t much wiggle room, so we’d likely never repeat that scenario again. If we were to do another trail we’d likely get a two person tarp tent because we like that they make hiking poles do double duty, thus cutting down on weight, and are still roomy and stable.

With tents getting lighter and lighter every year though, we’d want to look at all types in order to factor in weight, space, and dependability. We don’t often try and find the very lightest tent out there, as we also factor in cost, so it’s a fine balance of several factors.

Whether one sleep system works better for couples depends on how much weight a couple is willing to carry, how much money they are willing to spend, how much effort they want to make in setting it up, and how much comfort they want in a shelter. We’d ideally have a tent under 3 pounds, that costs less than $300, is fairly easy to set up, though we’re not intimidated by that factor, and which seems sturdy in all three seasons and scenarios like windy, stormy conditions.

We used to only prefer free standing tents, but we’ve evolved over time in seeing tarp tents as a very viable option. We used to be intimidated in the setup of them, but now that we’ve spent so many trail miles sleeping in them and counting on them as good shelters, we’ll always include them in the mix of possible tents. While we don’t have any big hikes planned for the immediate future (we have a 2 month old baby on our hands), we’re looking forward to the next backpacking trip on our calendar so we can go tent shopping and compare all the great options out there.

Julie on the CDT
Julie on the CDT

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

We tend to be quiet in the mornings, not saying much to each other and just staying in our own heads. The morning is our favorite time to walk so we often stuff our pockets with bars and snacks so we can get in morning miles while still eating along the way. We also never cook breakfast or warm up water for coffee or tea (this might have to change on the next hike), so from the time we wake up to the time we’re walking is about 20-25 minutes, faster if it’s cold outside. We prefer to just get moving and eat an energy bar to start the day.

As the day moves into the afternoon we start talking more, mainly about food. We usually don’t hike for more than 2 hours at a time without at least a small break of 5-15 minutes. On the PCT we had a mantra of 10 by 10 and 20 by 2, so 10 miles by 10am, 20 miles by 2pm, and the rest was just icing on the cake for miles by the end of the day.

We didn’t always hit those numbers but it kept us moving each day and since we only hiked a couple hours at a time, we broke the day down into smaller increments. It’s a bit regimented for some, and we didn’t hike like that all the time, but it worked for us. It ended up being more stressful for Julie when we didn’t set some sort of goals for the day. Just walking without a destination or a purpose for the day made Julie feel as if we’d not really get anywhere if we didn’t say what we were working towards, so that ritual worked for us.

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

We usually save couples time for town time, where we can shower and have a real bed. The one person tent on the CDT got pretty crowded with us and all our stuff, so affection has definitely taken a back seat while on the trail.

Matt Urbanski

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?

I think the greatest mental shift involves not being mean to the other person there with you. It ís easy to get angry and take it out on the other person if you are low on food or water, or if it ís a particularly hard hiking day, or if something unexpected happens, such as your resupply box not being at the post office.

It makes sense, they are the only other person there to vent your frustrations to, but that wears down relationships. Our challenge as a couple wasn’t necessarily that we spent a lot of time together. It was that we saw the best and the worst in each other over that time, so we had to make an effort to be very forgiving of each other’s worst self.

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

While there were plenty of moments on the trail (especially the CDT) where we were glad to have each other there, like route finding in New Mexico, waiting out lightning storms in Colorado, and walking past grizzly scat in Montana, the time we were really glad for each other’s company was the week that Julie got off the CDT.

On Matt’s first day alone, after leaving Copper Mountain, he almost got struck by lightning, got soaked in a downpour, and had a pack of coyotes close to his tent at night (at least it seemed that way, as things always seem scarier in the dark). We both felt wrong about the other person being alone, Julie off the trail and Matt on it. The moment Julie got back on the trail, things felt right again and we were so glad to be in each other’s company.

Julie Urbanski

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

The joint memories are the best part. We tell stories together, each of us remembering different details or maybe remembering details a little differently. We both have moments where a certain smell or sound will trigger a memory and we reminisce about the trail together.

The other morning we were walking together around the neighborhood and there was a house under construction so there was a heavy scent of freshly cut wood. It was a chilly, foggy morning, and the feeling of walking together in the early morning air, along with the smell of the wood lingering, all brought us both back to quiet mornings on the trail where we’d walk together in silence.

Hiking together has also made us closer and stronger as a couple because we know what we’ve each gone through to hike these trails. While Julie hasn’t always loved every aspect of thru-hiking, she can’t imagine not knowing that part of Matt’s life. It would feel like there’s a piece of him that she’d never truly understand if she didn’t hike as well. We both strongly believe that unique life experiences make us better people and a better couple, even if they are difficult like long distance hiking.

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

Be kind and be forgiving – you have to be honest with yourself about this too. It’s easy to pretend that you’re not being mean, but stepping back and really analyzing your own motives for saying things a certain way, or acting a certain way to the other person goes a long way. If there is a seed of negativity or attack in your words, the other person will feel it and it will make everything about the trip and the relationship more challenging. You will see the best and the worst of each other and the worst is never pretty. It’s like the Snickers commercial – you’re not yourself when you’re hungry. In long distance hiking, you’re always hungry (or thirsty, or tired), so it’s easy to act differently and to say things you don’t mean.

Julie and Matt at Mt Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail (2011)
Julie and Matt at Mt Katahdin on the Appalachian Trail (2011)

About Matt and Julie Urbanski

Matt and Julie are authors of self-published books about their thru-hikes of the AT, the PCT and the CDT, all found on Amazon.

In addition to backpacking extensively together, Matt and Julie have also traveled around the world, documenting much of their travels on their website, urbyville.com. Matt currently helps runners achieve their goals with his coaching business, Urbanski Coaching, while Julie is in the throes of motherhood with their two month old son and hopeful future adventurer, Paavo. Theyíre currently planning their next adventures as a family of three.

7 comments

  1. Ha, yup, there are always trials whenever you are a couple. A good relationship takes work. It IS worth it.

    • Absolutely James. We’ve found that our relationship is so much stronger because of these long hikes together. Challenges in day to day life sometimes seem so minor to those we’ve faced on the trail.

  2. I read your CDT book and absolutely loved it!!!!! Keep exploring and being together :)

    • Thanks Steve! Our explorations are certainly changing now that we have a 3 month old on our hands, but that just makes for new material to write about…thanks again for reading our book. So happy you enjoyed it.

    • Thanks Tim! Definitely enjoying our newest family member. We already have a pack to wear him around in while we hike and are looking forward to testing it out.

  3. What a great interview!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experiences together, and congrats on your accomplishments. Enjoy your new little one!

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