Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it. This one’s free; sign up for Outside+ to read them all.
I’ve heard a lot of hikers talk about their trail families, or “tramilies.” What are they, and what do I need to know about them?
-All in the Tramily
On the most popular long distance trails like the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, you’re likely to meet hundreds of other long distance hikers. Although many of us decide to thru-hike for solitude, thru-hikers looking back on their trips often say that the friendships they formed were one of their journeys’ memorable parts.
Even if you start your thru-hike alone, you may soon find yourself in a trail family or “tramily.” Your trail family is a chosen family of hikers. Stick with them for a while, and you may even feel like you have more in common with your tramily than the folks back home. After all, anyone who decides to take off five months to spend time in the wilderness likely has similar values to you.
Whether you choose to hike with a tramily for almost the whole trail, a week or two, or not at all, here’s what you should know about thru-hiking tramilies.
Having a tramily can help you through the tough parts of the trail. Thru-hiking requires grit and persistence. Tramily members can encourage you through storms, pain, fatigue, hunger, and fear that otherwise may take you off trail. Tramily members help each other navigate through dangerous snow and river fords. They’ll give a morale boost. They’ll share backcountry skills and knowledge. Traveling with a tramily can build confidence, especially if you are newer to backpacking.
When you hike with your tramily members, the miles often fly by. You’ll share jokes and laughs, entertaining stories, and even some of your darkest secrets that you’d never think of uttering aloud to the folks back home. If the depth of a friendship can be measured in time, just a few days on trail together can equal years’ worth of hour-long coffee dates with folks in the “real world.” That’s why years later, I still find myself texting and visiting my tramily members–sometimes even hikers from other countries.
HIking with a tramily also means that you can share resources and get an extra level of security and safety in the case of gear failure or injury. Forgot to pack toilet paper? Your tramily can spot you. Lose a tent stake? Your tramily has got an extra. Knee is hurting? Tramily members may offer to carry some of your gear.
One of the things I love about thru-hiking is that it’s an opportunity to build friendships with people from different parts of the country and world. You’ll encounter people with different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs than you in a way that isn’t common in modern society.
Most tramilies are 3 to 5 people, though some groups can be as large as 10. Tramilies typically don’t hike every mile together: You may hike with one or two tramily members during the day, but usually the whole group only meets up at pre-decided lunch and dinner spots. The exception may be in more dangerous areas, like snowfields in the Sierra, or on bad weather days, where the morale boost and navigational skills of the group can be helpful.
Just like with your real family, though, be prepared for the occasional disagreement. How far the tramily will hike each day is often a point of contention. Thru-hiking attracts people of different ages and physical abilities. To stick with a tramily, you will often find yourself making some compromises.
Another challenge of the tramily is sticking together through zero days, “rest” days in town. For example, if a friend or family member made plans to meet you for a few days of sightseeing or casual-speed backpacking, you’ll often have to leave your tramily. If someone from your tramily has to take days off for an injury or to wait for new gear, you’ll have to decide whether to wait for them or go on ahead.
Camping and getting into town can also be tricky. On the PCT, there are few campsites that can accommodate large groups of hikers. On the AT, there may not be room in shelters for everyone in the tramily. Traveling in larger groups can be harsh on the land. Leave No Trace rules recommend group sizes of fewer than 12 and in some wilderness areas, as low as 4 people. When hiking with a tramily, be sure not to expand the size of existing camp areas or do any “landscaping” or “pruning” to make your camping area bigger.
If your tramily is hitchhiking into town to resupply or get a night in a hotel, you’ll often have to split into two cars. During holiday weekends, it can be difficult to find hotel rooms in towns outside national parks and popular recreation areas. That can become even more complicated with a large tramily.
In some small trail towns, locals may not feel comfortable with large groups of wandering smelly hikers. When we’re thru-hiking, we don’t often realize that we use our “outside” voices. When we’re back in town, what may feel like normal speaking can come across to townspeople as loud, boisterous, or obnoxious. It’s more difficult to be inconspicuous and respectful in town when you’re traveling with a large group.
When it comes to chores, traveling with a tramily can slow or speed up how long it takes to complete non-hiking activities. When you’re in town resupplying, you’ll have to wait for everyone to get through the line at the Post Office, grocery store, and gear shop. On the other hand, when you’re in camp, chores can be split. For example, you may send one person to the water source to bring back water for everyone.
Traveling with a tramily may also limit your privacy. Whether you’re pooping near camp or a couple who wants some time alone, you’ll have to keep that in mind as you travel.
There’s great joy to be had by hiking with a tramily. Just remember, there’s no rule that you have to stick with one tramily forever. No matter how long you hike with a tramily, be sure to get each other’s contact info and stay in touch on and after the trail.
Even if you intend to hike solo for the entire trip, I’d encourage keeping an open mind about tramilies. When I first started thru-hiking, I thought that I wouldn’t want to deal with the personalities and compromises involved in rolling with a tramily. But it turns out that the company of others who share my love of nature is what I really needed.