Bikepacking and Touring as a Couple
Franzi and Jona recently returned from a 15-month bikepacking trip through North and South America. Here Franzi reflects on their journey offering valuable stories and insight that might help others planning a trip, big or small, with their spouse or significant other.
“Did you ever reach a point during your travels, where you thought you might break up with each other?” Jona’s mother’s question catches me off-guard. It is a personal question and in some ways an uncomfortable one. At the moment, we are living with Jona’s parents, sharing their small, two bedroom apartment until we figure out some place for ourselves. Two weeks ago, we returned from our 15-month long bikepacking trip across North and South America. I wonder if I should answer truthfully or if I should answer at all, but something in me wants to talk about it.”Yes,” I finally admit, “A couple of times.” I watch her face in hopes of reading her expression, but she only starts to laugh. Unexpectedly, she joked,“I would have divorced him ages ago!” I join her, all the sudden feeling relieved. Perhaps because this makes me feel less stupid about myself and it gives me the impression that maybe our struggles were not exceptional.
Traveling as a couple, for us has been equally as difficult as it has been romantic. I remember that during the planning phase of this trip, besides researching and getting all the gear together, we spent hours imagining and talking about how great it will be to finally spend more time with each other. We imagined bonding over shared experiences instead of over a sink, full of dirty dishes. We painted dreamy pictures of ourselves, snuggling up in our sleeping bags under clear night skies, never anticipating that problems might arise.
At that time, we had been a couple for 4 years and felt that we already knew each other pretty well. Still, it took us by surprise what it actually meant to embark on such a long bike ride as partners, lovers, and friends.
Our learning process to travel as a couple wasn’t always straightforward. We often would acknowledge issues, talk about them, only to then fall back into our bad, old habits. But with time we solidified a bond and an understanding of each other, which would likely not have happened in such an intense way in our day-to-day lives. So, we decided to reflect on a few things which helped us not to only bikepack from Alaska to Chile over the last 15 months, but also to enjoy it together. We hope by sharing our experiences, you might get some helpful insights. And once and for all, we would like to set aside the idea that everything always has to run smoothly when setting out on an adventure together.
Talking About Expectations
“I can’t believe we are fighting about this again. I am tired, hungry and I just want to get off my bike, sit down and relax.” Jona has the opposite opinion, “We should make it over the pass today at least. Otherwise we might run out of water!” My approach is different. If we didn’t take the time to cook pasta tonight, and instead just make peanut butter sandwiches, we could call it a day. No point in pushing it. Jona looks at me, then at the GPS. There is still time to make it up and over and he wonders why I am already tired. The argument turns irrational and stupid. While we are standing there, fighting about whether to use the last hour of sunshine to cycle across the pass or not. The sun starts to sink lower and lower until it touches the first mountain top and situation is decided for us. We pitch the tent and eat our peanut butter sandwiches in silence.
Even though this type of situation is sometimes inevitable, it can help to speak about each other’s expectations beforehand. The first step can be to choose a route and talk about points of interest along the way. It can also be good, to roughly estimate how much distance you plan to cover each day and be aware of eventual differences in your riding pace. When you are planning to go on a longer bikepacking trip, it also makes sense to agree on a loose daily budget, forms of accommodation, food and money invested into shared or additional gear. Having set a rough outline for the trip can help to avoid any unnecessary arguments and inevitable disappointments.
It doesn’t matter if you are in for the long haul or are just setting out on an overnighter as a couple, it is highly likely you will establish a certain routine when it comes to setting and packing up camp. While I tend to sleep longer and have a harder time peeling myself out of my sleeping bag in the mornings. Jona is usually already out and about, preparing coffee and checking the bikes for any mechanical issues. It helps to acknowledge each other’s personalities and split tasks accordingly. It is plausible that you will end up taking on some duties you don’t like doing all the time. It can be nice to look at your ingrained routine to switch things up every now and then.
A big advantage when traveling as a couple is, that you can divide a lot of required gear between your bikes. This way, you are able to achieve the perfect weight distribution and management of packing space. This works well with camping equipment — such as the tent, which can often be split up (poles, groundcloth, etc) — which you usually use together, or with things that you rarely use, such as the toolkit or spare parts. In general, carefully evaluate the sharing of gear for weight and space reasons vs the potential conflict it might create. For this long trip, we only had enough space for a single laptop. I can’t count the number of spats we had over this device during the last few months of our trip — probably every time we rolled into a town with a decent Wifi connection. We should have brought two, or even better, none at all.
I can hear plastic being torn, or a screw top opened only to be followed by a satisfied munching noise shortly after. Oh, no not again! I fumble for my watch, it is one o’clock AM.
“Jona?” I whisper. No answer. I try again, this time louder. “What?” he finally hisses back “Can you please not eat all the chocolate?!” During the night, Jona has the habit of waking and eat whatever is within his arm’s reach. So if I forget to save my fair share of chocolate beforehand, I will very likely find just the empty package beside his sleeping pad in the morning. After days in the woods or circling around remote mountain peaks, we sometimes reach a state of incredible food-envy — a new level of “hanger”, I suppose. Like sibling rivalry between two young children, we carefully watch the other one loading their plate with pasta and count the spoonfulls of tomato sauce being heaved on top of it. This can sound funny when you have a full fridge in walking-distance, but for us it was a real problem. As a solution, we started to buy separate snacks and treats when we knew we were setting out for a long stretch without resupply options. This way each of us could ration our own stash and it creates an overall more relaxing atmosphere between us. Also, it is good to make sure that at all times you both carry some food on the bike. Nothing is more annoying than having to chase the partner up a steep climb for a granola bar. Avoiding “hanger” definitely saves a lot of time spent on stupid and unnecessary quarrels, which brings us to my next point.
Your tire blew up, you left your pair of sunglasses behind or slowly your rain jacket gives in to the downpour. In these kind of moments, your partner is often the only other person around to vent your frustrations. This can be exhausting for both of you. Take a deep breath, check your blood-glucose level and try not to take it out on your partner.
Making and Taking Space
Spending every day cycling together and sleeping in a tent for many nights can become challenging. Additionally, on longer distance tours, your life will slowly start to just exist of shared experiences and stories. ‘You can’t believe what happened to me today’ will probably not be a sentence you often hear from your partner’s lips. This is why we regularly try to undertake separate activities on our rest days. If you feel comfortable with it, it can also be nice to cycle a little bit apart for a day. Choosing a fixed point to meet and then cycling the distance separately at your own pace can feel surprisingly refreshing. We did manage to lose each other this way once and spent a great amount of time worrying and circling around the area, looking for one another. Though, it did lead to us appreciating one another’s company even more. Also, make sure the person bringing up the rear is the one carrying the tire repair kit!
Compromising and Doing Favours
While you are not exactly conjoined twins, it can feel like that at times. Shared gear and travel plans can make you feel awkwardly dependent on each other. Even if you have agreed and talked about each other’s expectations, there will come that dreaded moment where you can’t seem to agree. It might just be today’s dinner menu, a fork in the road or visiting a certain tourist attraction. Being willing to just go with the flow can sometimes make a huge difference on these occasions. That said, assess the situation carefully, because if you complain afterward, or continuously remind your partner of what a huge sacrifice you are making, you are not doing yourself or your partner any favours. Like the time when Jona wanted to follow some random shepherd’s trail somewhere in the midst of the Andes mountains in Peru and even though I did not think it looked promising, I decided to suck up my doubts and tag along. This whole venture, after hours of pushing through the thick paramo, ended with me violently throwing my bike into the dirt and declaring that all of this was Jona’s fault anyway. In my mind it was only logical that he had to carry my bike out of there, while I watched and finished off the last of a bag of salted peanuts.
Keeping The Romance Alive
The odour of our socks after a few days cycling usually smells to high heaven. While Jona claims that my feet give off a worse stench than his, I am pretty sure he is only embarrassed and tries to overplay the fact that his feet are worse by pointing the finger at me. Unfortunately, that is the reality of camping as a couple, you will find yourself confronted with a stinky companion sooner or later. Logically, the more days pass without a shower, the less becomes the likelihood of intimacy. If you only out for a short trip, this might not be an issue, but in our case we had to put in some effort to make room for some couple-time. Usually, we make sure to check into a nice hotel or treat ourselves to a fancy dinner from time to time, even if we are on a tight budget. However, you will see that it works like magic.
Worse Case Scenarios
Having read various outdoor survival blogs, Jona and I are two self-declared experts when it comes to safety in bear country. However, we don’t always share the same opinion about certain strategies. So we thought it was a good idea for us to each carry our own a can of bear spray while riding through North America. Unfortunately, I did lose mine half way down but we ended up spending the money on some fancy craft beers instead of replacing it. When we entered a particularly dense forest on the Great Divide, I asked Jona to stay close to me, as he carried the holster with our remaining can of bear spray. However, he kept forgetting about it and the distance between us grew further. I became furious. I wanted to know how he was going to explain to my family that I had been mauled by a grizzly bear with no means of defense while he was carelessly riding ahead. He thought I was being ridiculous. He declared that he was sure that there weren’t any bears nearby anyhow because I had been shouting so loudly. This comment made me even angrier. Annoyed about the fight, Jona turned around and cycled back to me. When all the sudden he indicated me to maneuver backwards. I did not move out of spite and because I did not fully understand what had happened. When Jona reached me, the upset tone in his voice had changed to a nervous whisper “There is actually a bear, right next to the trail. Back off!!!” For the rest of the stretch Jona took extra care to stay close, not leaving my side. This incident, for sure taught us that it is important to take each other seriously and to watch out for the health and safety of your partner. Nature is unpredictable and accidents can happen without a warning. It helps to agree on what has to be done if one of you is injured, a sudden storm rolls in, or a bear walks into camp foraging for food. Seconds can be crucial and they are better spent acting than debating.
Each Other’s Limits and Emotions
Probably, sooner or later one of you will find yourself pushing beyond your limits. However, what one of you might perceive as challenging doesn’t necessarily mean that the other is feeling the same emotions. In these kinds of moments, nothing feels worse than when your partner is downplaying the situation. “Come on, it isn’t that bad!” No one likes to have their emotions invalidated, and this is a guarantee for a grudge being held later. Give each other space to ride out the wave of emotions which are arising. Comfort and support each other if wanted or needed, but also don’t take it personally if your partner doesn’t acknowledge your emotions to the degree you believe is warranted.
We love riding together with other people and whenever we meet fellow travelers, we are more than happy to share the road with them for a while. It gives us the chance to break out of our routine, learn new outdoor-kitchen recipes, a different approach to choosing spots to camp… or they simply inspire us to ride a route we otherwise would not have considered. It is nice to embark on a jaunt as a couple but it can be delightfully refreshing to invite some friends, strangers or newbies along to your trip at times.
Ultimately, I’m glad Jona’s mother asked me that question, I am glad I answered and I am glad she laughed. I am not sure if I would claim that a longish bikepacking trip can either make or break a relationship. It depends on you and your partner, the readiness to work through things and the willingness to compromise. Jona and I did it for 15 months. We spent nearly every day together and even if it wasn’t always pretty, it was so worth it. We grew as partners, lovers, and friends.
If you have a story or experience you want to share about traveling as a couple, leave it in the comments below, we’d love to hear it!