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The Ultimate Roommate Compatibility Test: Backpacking the Oregon Coast Trail

If you can get along in a two-person tent, you can get along anywhere.

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Night was falling, and the meanest campground host I’d ever met was trying to throw us back out into the woods. 

It was day one of a planned four-day trip along a northern section of the Oregon Coast Trail, and my hiking partner Alatna and I had already hit more snafus than on any trip I had been on before. The Oregon Coast Trail maps were wrong, leaving us with unexpected miles of highway walking; the hiker/biker campground we’d planned to stay at in Yachats was a myth; and the trail that was supposed to drop us at the next campsite (more than twice our planned day-one distance from the trailhead) took us up and over an enormous hill as dusk closed in on us beneath the trees. When at last we emerged from the quickly-darkening woods to a campground, we discovered that they had none of the $5 hiker/biker sites for Oregon Coast Trail travelers that we had planned to use, and we didn’t have nearly enough money to stay the night. 

“The nearest ATM is seven miles north,” the camp host snapped at us, pointing back at the highway while her husband shot us sympathetic looks.

“It’s getting dark, and there isn’t a shoulder,” I protested. “We’ve hiked 20 miles today. Can’t we just set up a tent here and go into town tomorrow?”

The host refused, eyeing us as though we were vagrants planning to rob her campground of whatever we could carry. With a 14-mile round-trip walk now standing between me and sleep, I felt my temper drawing near to breaking point. 

Luckily Alatna’s response was less anger and more despair: she burst into tears. That finally jolted the husband into action, and saved our trip. He gave her a ride into town to pick up more cash at the ATM, his wife retreated to the RV, and I stayed to set up camp and start dinner (and, given how the conversation had gone so far, probably as collateral). 

It was, all things considered, a hell of a way to get to know a new roommate.

Alatna looking out to sea Photo: Kristin Smith

Alatna and I had met in our freshman earth systems science class at Montana State University, where we were both studying geology. Like me, she loved hiking, hanging out at the beach, and (of course) checking out all the rocks along the way; we worked on homework together, prepped for finals, and explored the many trails around Bozeman. When the end of freshman year rolled around and everyone started looking for a way out of the dorms, we decided to apartment hunt together. After signing a lease for a flat a couple miles from campus we were officially scheduled to be roommates in the fall. But would our friendship last through the daily stresses of dirty dishes and different schedules?

We decided to combine summer break adventure with a cohabitation litmus test. Looking for a way to meet in the middle (she lived in Northern California; I lived at the northwest corner of Washington), we settled on the Oregon Coast Trail. Four days of long sandy beaches, rolling waves, and cool northwest forest. What could go wrong?

That morning our trip had started right on schedule. We distributed the group gear–tent, stove and cookset–without argument. The weather was clear, sunny, and just cool enough for comfortable hiking, and the tides were lined up for an easy 7 miles of beachwalking. Giddy with the high that comes from being on the cusp of adventure, we shouldered our packs and set out.

The first morning of hiking was everything we could have hoped for. We basked in the rhythmic roar and whoosh of waves, skirting the water on the firm, wet sand, and poked around sea urchins and starfish in the tidepools of each rocky headland. I found a coconut washed up on shore and delightedly suggested that swallows must have carried it there; Alatna both understood the reference and thought it was funny, boding well for our future as roommates. Just a few hours in, we were already approaching our planned campsite and looking forward to a leisurely afternoon of lounging on the beach.  

That’s when the trouble started. Walking into the seaside town of Yachats–where our map claimed the next campground was–we suddenly found ourselves in a maze of bold, bright red signage declaring every beach and trailhead “DAY USE ONLY”. Where was the campground?

After 20 minutes of searching, we concluded that the promised campground didn’t exist. We still felt fresh, though, and easily rallied. This would just make tomorrow a little easier, right? The map showed another campsite just a few miles away, that wouldn’t be any trouble. 

Beach hiking on the OCT Photo: Kristin Smith

It turned out that the trail our map claimed would take us to that next camp didn’t exist, either, except in the minds of the trail planners. Still holding onto our high spirits, we started up the bike lane beside Highway 101. 

A few miles of roadwalking later, we still hadn’t seen a sign of trail or campground. I could feel every grain of sand that had snuck into my shoes, and I’d been buffeted by so much dust from passing trucks I was tempted to leap off the road into the woods next time I saw an approaching semi. It was starting to get late, and we were starving.

“It has to go back to trail soon, right?” Alatna asked hopefully. I looked at the road, winding off ahead into thick pine trees, and hoped her optimism was more than wishful thinking.

Just a few minutes later, we finally spotted the trailhead on the other side of the road. We conferred over the map again, looking at the marked route, which clung to the shoreline. The post marked “Oregon Coast Trail” that appeared to head straight inland. It was better than the road, anyway. We headed into the woods and started to climb.

And climb. And climb. Though every signpost assured us this was the Oregon Coast Trail, we seemed to be switchbacking up a mountain. Late afternoon was sliding into evening, and beneath the thick trees the light was beginning to fade.

At long last we reached the top, just as dusk was really starting to set in. Alatna, drooping with exhaustion, stared at the trail ahead, where it dropped into more trees, not a beachline in sight.

“Come on,” I cajoled, “It has to be all downhill from here.” 

In a haze we stumbled through the increasingly dark forest. Finally we emerged from the trees–and, to our wonder, at a campground. We’d hike over twice our planned day one distance, but finally it was over! We could pitch camp, make dinner, crawl into our beckoning sleeping bags.

And then we met the camp host from hell, negotiated our way into staying through more-or-less emotional blackmail, and fell into bed entirely exhausted.

end-of-trip group shot Photo: Kristin Smith

We'd survived unplanned 20-mile hiking days, bad maps, and even hitchhiking, plus coordinating cooking and camp chores and cramming ourselves into a two-person tent every night. After all that, cohabitating in a full-size apartment would be a piece of cake.

The next morning dawned as clear and sunny as the one before. We divided up morning camp chores without issue (another high score on the roommate test) and scurried out. After a few miles of roadwalking on the nearly-empty highway, we found ourselves on a scenic stretch with views out over the endless Pacific. Finally, things were looking up. 

That optimism lasted until the next headland, where the shoulder vanished entirely. Ahead of us, the road was hewn straight from the cliffs for as far as we could see, with a sheer drop to the right and an equally sheer face to the left. Cars whizzed past us at 60 mph to whip into a hairpin turn with absolutely no visibility, let alone room for pedestrians. 

“Well.” I scratched my head. “We definitely can’t hike that.”

Alatna pursed her lips. “We could hitchhike?”

All of nineteen and having heard far too many murder stories already, and certainly never hitchhiked, I shook my head. “There’s got to be another way. Maybe we can go back to the last beach and when the tide goes out we can make it around?”

We both glanced down where spray was shooting a dozen feet in the air with each wave. If it was less scary than hiking on a blind highway, it wasn’t by much.

Before the debate could really gain steam, an ancient Subaru with a stack of surfboards lashed to the roof pulled up beside us. The couple inside rolled down the windows, smiling in that loose and windblown way you only get from spending days on the water.

“Do you need a ride to the next beach?” the man asked.

Alatna immediately turned to me. “We should take it,” she said.

I eyed the surfboards, the car, the couple, and then the road ahead again. Leaning in closer, I whispered, “do you have the bear spray handy?”

She rolled her eyes but tucked the pepper spray into an easily accessible pocket as we climbed in the backseat. Glancing out the window at heedless speedsters whipping through corners with maybe 4 inches of shoulder before the cliff, I imagined trying to hike it and grimaced.

The couple dropped us off at the next beach access point without incident and wished us luck. Finally back on route,we reveled  in the sand beneath our feet and the absence of highway noise. For once our map was correct: we didn’t leave the beach until we arrived at Alatna’s car the next day, a whole day ahead of schedule thanks to our day one epic. We’d survived unplanned 20-mile hiking days, bad maps, and even hitchhiking, plus coordinating cooking and camp chores and cramming ourselves into a two-person tent every night. After all that, cohabitating in a full-size apartment would be a piece of cake.


From 2022