Backpacking With a Complete Stranger

Is hiking with a total stranger a smart way to find a partner—or a train wreck unfolding one step at a time?

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I’m on the road a lot for work, which means I’m almost always without a reliable backpacking buddy. Sure, I could go alone, but I’m a social guy. As therapeutic as solo trips can be, adventure is more interesting when you share it with someone.

I’d never thought about going on a weekend trip with a complete stranger, but when I found myself at a networking event in Denver with an offer to head down to Great Sand Dunes National Park for two days, a light bulb went off: Maybe this was the solution to my lack-of-a-partner problem.

I’d always wanted to check out the dunes. At up to 750 feet high, they’re the tallest in North America, tucked between Medano Creek and the 14,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains—and just four hours south of Denver.

Enter my new acquaintance, a fellow work function happy hour attendee. Thanks to some flaky friends, his weekend plans had just fallen through, and like me, he was itching to get out. I hadn’t brought backpacking gear, but he had spares of everything I’d need, a four-wheel-drive Jeep, and a local’s knowledge.

There was nothing romantic about the offer, yet it still felt like being proposed to on a first date.

“You seem cool, man, but are we ready to share a tent? I don’t even remember your name,” I joked.

“Justin,” he said, not laughing like I thought he would. “Come on, what’d you come to Colorado for? To sit around all weekend?”

A little bit forward? Sure, but he was making a lot of sense. I did want to go backpacking, and here he was handing it to me on a platter. But that’s what made me skeptical.

I wondered: Did his friends really bail on him, or did he kill them all?

Calm down, Will. We’d met at a work event, not in a back alley. Still, what if he talked too much? Or too little? What if he didn’t drink whiskey?

Oh, what the hell, I thought. When opportunity is your only criterion, you take what you can get.

Justin picked me up the next day. I was feeling optimistic, but I sent a photo of his license plate to a friend, just in case he turned out to be an axe murderer.

On the road, our conversation stuttered and stalled. I started to think I’d made a mistake. This might be a long weekend.

But when the dunes rose into view below the serrated Sangre de Cristos, we fell into quiet admiration. That we could sit in easy silence together was a relief considering the fact that
our conversations so far
had sucked.

We parked and shouldered our packs. Following Justin’s tip, I took off my shoes and hiked in my socks, which let me feel the massage of the sand without burning my feet. He could still be a psychopath, but at least he had good advice.

Justin led the way over the first set of dunes, and I was happy to follow. We found a low spot about a mile in where we set up the tent, gave up on staking it in the loose sand, and decided to summit a nearby dune. The effort of the climb left us quiet, but we’d found a rhythm to our pace.

A strong breeze picked up. With sunglasses and scarves protecting our faces from the blowing sand, we slogged on. At the top, we gazed out over the valley, the dunes, and the distant peaks. Before I could get too absorbed in the beauty, though, I spotted something orange rolling across the sand below: our tent.

We stood there for a moment, saucer-eyed. Then we both raced into action, booking it down the hill in our stocking feet. We laughed, stumbling and catching up to the tent. It was the kind of blunder old friends reminisce about years later.

From then on, we were united, a team against all nature could throw at us. When the whiskey came out that night, we skipped the small talk and dove straight into personal stories—places we used to live, girls we used to date. Conversation came easy now that we’d suffered an ordeal together. Everything was perfect—until Justin fell asleep. He snored like a buzz saw.

Should I nudge him awake? Whisper in his ear? We were close now, but not that close. I gave him a quick jab with my elbow, then snapped back and pretended to be asleep. It worked. He rolled over without a word.

The next morning we sat huddled together to keep the wind from blowing out the stove. I asked him how he slept.

“Good,” he said.  

“Did I snore?”

“A little. But it didn’t bother me,” I lied.

“You know, you could have just asked me to roll over.” He was laughing.

We’re already talking about planning another trip. But next time Justin’s not available? Well, I could just ask anyone.