Pass/Fail: Solve an Argument on the Trail

Can a couples backpacking trip help a pair of newlyweds work out their differences?

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Five miles up the Lake Charles Trail in the Colorado Rockies, my husband Dylan was more than a few paces ahead. It wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable silence—we both needed the space.

We were trapped in one of those arguments that feels like emotional quicksand, and the more we struggled, the deeper we sank.

We’d been married just over a year, and were working to fully combine our lives—and bank accounts. As with most happy couples, it was more complicated than either of us had anticipated. And when my family decided to offer some unsolicited (albeit good-natured) advice on a recent visit, well, that didn’t exactly help.

Dylan and I had gotten sucked into a familiar dance of attack, parry, defend. After a few days, the argument morphed from hot to cold. We started avoiding each other, retreating into work and our separate lives, letting ourselves drift farther and farther apart.

And the twist? I’m a relationship therapist—I specialize in guiding couples through these conflicts. Yet, here I was, stuck.

I didn’t need my training to tell me that our evasive maneuvers weren’t getting us anywhere. I knew the solution was to do the opposite. We’d been hiking buddies since day one, so the next step was almost too obvious.

“I think we need to hike this out,” I suggested. To my relief, Dylan agreed.

Studies have shown that spending time outdoors improves problem-solving, reduces stress, and may help activate areas of the brain related to empathy. These benefits alone might not constitute a relationship cure, but they certainly can’t hurt.

It wasn’t until we spent the 30-minute drive to the trailhead in silence that I began to worry. What if my plan backfired? For all its benefits, the backcountry can be a stressful place, and we were in the middle of one of the worst arguments we’d had since we started dating. What if we fought over where to camp or how far to hike? What if my last-ditch attempt to reconnect tipped our tenuous stalemate the wrong way, fanning the argument into something that actually jeopardized our relationship? I pushed the thought aside, clinging to the hope that the wilderness would help bring us together like it had before.

We first met while solo backpacking, when Dylan, then a complete stranger, hiked up behind me on a trail in Colorado’s Gore Range. We ended up talking well into the night. Two years later he got down on one knee to propose where we first crossed paths. Since then, we’ve continually escaped into the wilderness to deepen our connection. So, when I suggested hiking through this argument,
he understood.

We let the dogs out of the car and headed for the trailhead. After a few miles, I started to relax. Maybe it was the exercise, the smellof pine, or the soothing rush of the river. I could feel my anxiety lifting, but part
of me still dreaded the coming conversations.

I crested a hill and found Dylan leaning patiently against a rock. “It feels good to be out here with you,” he said, catching me by surprise. He kissed my cheek—a peace offering. We kept hiking.

Dylan started to talk, and the defensiveness I’d heard at home was gone. As we hiked, he apologized for the past week—for the arguments and distance—and so did I. All the issues we were dealing with were hard, he said. There were no easy answers and it was getting to him. I nodded.

We paused and stood together, watching the dogs wade in the shallow water at the river’s edge. Our dog Hank suddenly slipped and fell in over his head. As he bolted from the river, shocked and soaked, Dylan and I started laughing. I could feel the tension fade.

At the lake, we focused on setting up camp, giving us a break in the conversation we’d started on the trail. I know from my work that hitting pause on a tough talk is key to letting thoughts settle. In backpacking, these pauses happen naturally.

We scrambled up an unnamed peak together around dusk to get a better view of the sunset. Standing on that mountain, I started remembering all the adventures we’d shared, all the days that had ended in quiet reflection, just like this.

Back at camp, Dylan built a fire and I started cooking, slipping into the roles that had always made us a great backcountry team. After dinner, we sat looking into the flames.

“You know, it’s not really about the bank accounts,” I said after a while. “The truth is, despite being married, I still worry when we argue like this, that we won’t end up together.”

Dylan turned to me, surprised. As we talked about our fears and shortcomings, I realized neither of us was going to let that happen. In the quiet of night, in a wilderness we loved, it was easier to listen, easier to connect.

That night we both slept soundly. And the next morning, as we began hiking back to the truck, we shared an easy silence.

The Verdict: Pass

Backpacking put all our frontcountry problems into perspective. Calmer, we were able to reconnect with both our hiking roots and each other.

How to backpack through an argument

Give it time. Get into the hiking groove first, then ease into difficult conversations.

Stay close. Hike apart if you need space, but no matter how mad you are, stay within earshot for safety.

Drop the defense. Absorb your surroundings to get present and lower your guard before talking. Exercise can also help burn up that urge to attack or defend.

Hit pause. Don’t talk an issue to death. Give yourselves a break from the tough stuff to explore together.

Follow your strengths. Mad? You still have to work as a team. Divide camp chores fairly, and do what you’re good at to stay calm and confident.