Tough Love: Dating and Relationships in the Outdoors
Outside's love guide is here—and answering your most pressing questions about dating, break-ups, and everything in between. Today, we look at a gear-obsessed boyfriend, staying safe as a queer person while camping, and cheesy outdoor proposals.
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Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
Q: My boyfriend and I are going on a monthlong thru-hike this summer to celebrate finishing grad school. I’ve been backpacking since I was a little kid, and he’s barely gone camping, so I’ve taken on most of the planning, which is fine with me. But lately, he has become obsessed with gear. He’s agonizing over whether his backpack has the right kind of zippers (literally), whether his walking stick is long enough, what kind of whistle to buy, etc. It seems like every week he’s found some fancy new knickknack that’s going to make “a huge difference” as to whether our trip is successful. Honestly, I’m getting really bored with hearing about it, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings. How do I get him to understand that we’ll be just fine with the gear we have?
So what you’re saying is that your boyfriend is getting into Your Thing, and he’s picking up from his whole life to do it, but not quite in the way that you like to do it, and it’s annoying? First up, big kudos to him—and you also get points for taking the lead on logistics.
That said, I hear you. Outdoor gear is like sex toys: fun and exciting, but it won’t add chemistry to a relationship that doesn’t already have it, and it won’t make someone, um, good if they haven’t already taken the time to learn. (Gear can also be expensive, but you didn’t mention that as a stressor, so I’m guessing it’s not a matter of him blowing your thru-hike budget before you’ve filled your first bag at Dick’s.) Because you’ve been backpacking since childhood, I’m assuming you’d be confident crossing the country in old sneakers and thrift-store wool sweaters. And I’m guessing—or projecting—that you’re kinda proud of that.
Let’s call this what it is: garden-variety insecurity on his part (and possibly yours). Your boy’s nervous about the trip and looking for a way to engage and feel confident. That’s all. Gear is cool and interesting and gives him something to focus on or talk about when people ask him about the trip. Maybe that annoys you, but you have to shake that off, because you’ll be dealing with each other’s insecurities a lot over the next 1,000 miles, and now is the time to start cutting each other some slack. Your guy wants to contribute, and maybe you’re not making space for him to do it in his own way. Maybe he’s losing little bits of himself to fit in during your Big Wilderness Adventure. If you love this guy and you want to be together—and if you want him to fall in love with the outdoors—you’ve got to take ownership of the ways you’re pushing him out.
If you’re a woman, you also have to acknowledge that your guy, woke as he may be, could be struggling against a buttload of cultural assumptions about how he should be the leader-protector-provider—and that by joining you outdoors and stepping out of any position of relative authority, he’s already taking some big steps to clear himself of that baggage. That’s archaic, sure, but it’s also probably real for him in ways you don’t even realize. Here’s a chance for you to assess your own biases as well. Is there some part of you that’s turned off by seeing your man so visibly uncertain? No? Good. But if that question stings—even a little—take some time to process that patriarchal bullcrap and get it out of your system.
So here’s what you do: Sit down together, make a list of everything that still needs to be done for the trip, and divide up responsibilities. Does someone need to be in charge of maps and navigation? First aid? Preparing meals? What are his hobbies, and how could they be useful on the trail? Find some things that you have genuinely less experience in, and that he’s interested in, and agree that he’s in charge of some researching and planning. Remember that this isn’t him coming on your trip—it’s the two of you traveling together, which is a big ol’ metaphor for your lives off the trail. From now on, when he tells you about what he’s learning, you’re going to be open and grateful and trust him. Learn together. And if, after all this, he’s still geeking out over gear and new toys? Drop your ego and learn to play along.
Q: What advice would you give to (queer) women camping alone or in pairs? More than once, I have felt uncomfortable and/or threatened while camping with my partner in the Northwoods. Once, while car camping, an “overly friendly” male neighbor insisted on entering our campsite after dark. He was clearly inebriated and acting aggressive. We felt sexually unsafe. Another time, my girlfriend and I found an “X” slashed into our tent upon returning to our rural site from a day hike. I love the woods, but I’m hyperaware of standing out.
Full disclosure: a friend sent me this question via Facebook as part of a thread that included several of my neighbors in the Wisconsin Northwoods. I live in a libertarian-leaning town of 500 people, one gas station, and no grocery store. By the end of the day, I started hearing reports from the nearest bar: the locals were furious. They had heard about the question and were slamming their drinks on the counter. They thought it was bullshit. Anyone who’d harass someone else in the outdoors was the lowest of the low, they agreed. Everyone should be able to feel safe camping. They were unanimous: safety in the woods—from other people, at least—is a human right.
I hate that these things happened to you and your beloved. I hate that you were threatened, that the integrity of your space and body were put at risk, that your sense of security in the wilderness was compromised. I could give you tips about outdoor safety, but I suspect you already know them all: tell friends where you’re going, don’t give personal information to strangers, bring a dog, carry an air horn. The bar-goers suggested carrying a weapon, be it a knife or a gun or a two-by-four with rusty nails stuck through the end. But only you can know whether the responsibility of bringing a weapon will make you feel more or less safe.
For a while, after a man threatened me while I was backpacking, I thought a weapon would help my confidence. For two months, I carried a heavy-duty stun gun. It weighed about three pounds but felt much heavier; I was aware of it each time I lifted my pack, dug out my mess kit, or turned off my headlamp at night. The stun gun required a case and a charger and a constant stream of emotional energy, and I resented the endless reminder of what felt like my own fragility. Now I wear a knife on my belt instead. I use it for opening snacks.
The great irony of going into the wilderness in a vulnerable body—be it female, queer, brown, etc.—is that danger comes from other people, but it’s the overall lack of people that makes that threat feel so visceral. The wilderness literalizes the sense of isolation that comes with the threat of sexual or gender violence. Statistically, you’re in no greater danger while camping than you are walking down a city street. But wilderness distills your life into every present moment. And when you live in a vulnerable body, that feeling is also distilled.
The fact that the presence of you and your beloved in the Northwoods is remarkable—that strangers feel entitled to remark on it—is a constant suggestion that you might not belong, that this isn’t your place. So let me promise you this, something I know in the very deepest parts of my heart: you belong in the woods. You belong camped under the trees, wading in the chill water, watching the birds of prey. You belong with the treasures, leaves and rocks and tracks, that you find in every direction. You do. The woods are yours.
Q: Is my outdoorsy proposal plan a cliché?
Yes. And it’s perfect.
Your turn—ask away at firstname.lastname@example.org.