“Aren’t you scared, going out there by yourself as a single woman?”
As a professional speaker, I usually end my talks with time for questions. And one of the most common ones I get asked is “aren’t you scared, going out there by yourself as a single woman?” The answer I always give is that I feel a lot safer on the trail than off it, particularly if I’m in a big city. I do practice common sense habits when I hike alone, like telling my friends and family where I’m headed, carrying pepper spray (at the behest of my husband), and steering clear of the occasional hiker or townsperson who seems less than stable (including at trail shelters, where said unstable person might stop for the night).
But the question behind that question- about how you handle yourself differently when you’re by yourself in the woods, regardless of gender- is a good one and worth thinking through to set yourself up for a successful solo backpacking experience.
Here are some things to consider when backpacking solo. First of all, there’s a freedom to backpacking solo that isn’t found when you have a hiking partner or family. You can choose which trail you want to hike. And you can pick when you want to go. Do you want to do something on the west coast this year? Do you have vacation time in the summer so it makes sense to head north to the Midwest or New England?
There’s a freedom to backpacking solo….You’re unattached and that’s a great thing.
After you pick a time and trail, you’re also not at someone else’s mercy when it comes to mileage you put in on a given day, when and where to resupply, and how you’re going to spend money in a trail town. Are you staying at a hostel, hotel or nearby shelter? Will you enjoy fine dining, fast food, or grocery store run? If you want to hike fast, you can hike fast. If you want to have a “zero” and cover no miles at all, you can do that. If you want to get off the trail for a week and go to Vegas, have at it. You’re unattached and that’s a great thing.
Unattached can also have its drawbacks. Namely, you’re going to have to carry everything you use. Unlike if you have a hiking partner, you’re not going to be able to share a tent, a stove, a battery block to recharge your phone, or a first aid kit. You can’t divide your weight so what do you do? Well, first of all, you decide what you really need and what you don’t. Can you go without it? If you can, great. Leave it at home. If you can’t, see if there’s a lighter weight option. When I hike with my husband, we usually carry a stove. Because he’s a diva and wants hot dinners and coffee in the morning. When I hike solo, I “cold camp,” meaning the food I eat doesn’t have to be heated up. So I’m saving ounces by not carrying my stove, fuel, and cookware. Maybe you’re in the market for a new tent. See if you can find a lightweight one. Same with a battery block. Look at your gear critically and with everything, ask “do I really need this?” and “Is there a way I can have more or less the same thing without carrying so much weight?”
Unattached can also have its drawbacks. Namely, you’re going to have to carry everything you use.
Another plus/minus, depending on your perspective, is that you won’t have anyone to talk to. That can be a welcome change if, like me, you have talkative kids (and a husband. Did I mention him?). But it can also be jarring if you’re not used to it. So what do you do? You can sing out loud. Bring your phone and ear buds and listen to music or a podcast occasionally- though I recommend only keeping one bud in so you’re not caught off guard by an approaching hiker or wildlife. Hike with someone for a short stretch, but don’t be afraid to tell them you want to go on alone if you’ve gotten what you want out of the conversation.
When you see hikers going the other way, maybe you want to say hello to them and have a brief conversation. “How far are you going? What’s your trail name? Where are you from?” You can get your social fix by speaking to them for 5 or 10 minutes then heading on your way. Or stopping for lunch at a shelter and chatting someone up there. Or, talking to someone if you spend the night at a shelter in the evening. I’ve found that I like a balance and those are some ways to get it.
In the end, I go to the woods to discover myself, to find out more about who I am and who I want to be.
I also like little rewards and things to look forward to. That’s just as true when you’re hiking with a friend but it feels more important when you’re hiking solo. I love gummy bears. If I’m having a low, or maybe just as a way to mark the time, I give myself a treat. It sounds funny, but the treat is almost like having a friend.
In the end, I go to the woods to discover myself, to find out more about who I am and who I want to be. What better way to do that than to spend some time alone? Remember, being alone doesn’t mean you’re lonely. Do some self-reflecting before you hit the trail. Consider how you’ll feel out there with all that silence. Anticipate it. What are you going to do? What are you going to think about? Wow. Silence. Remember that? It’s a breath of fresh air. Like oxygen for someone deprived of air, it’s life giving. It may feel cold, jarring, and unnatural at first, but it’s good for you. And it’ll give you strength you didn’t know you need.