Sitting around the backcountry campground’s communal cooking area, I struck up a conversation with three middle-aged men who were hiking together. We talked about hiking and travel, and compared notes about the wildlife we had seen on the trail. One of the men was particularly interested in my shiny new Jetboil, something that, despite his extensive outdoor experience, he hadn’t seen before. I showed him how it worked and we talked gear for a bit. I supplied a lighter to get the fire started and shared medication from my first aid kit with one of the guys who wasn’t feeling well. I felt prepared and capable.
I could feel myself tense as I walked along the trail. The forest grew thick around me, with only a narrow path leading through the undergrowth. Thoughts raced through my mind of bears. What would I do if a grizzly came crashing through the bush right now? Would I have time to react? Would I do the right thing? I felt so incredibly alone.
As I was nearing the trailhead, the path was becoming busier. I was meeting other hikers more frequently, though people were still few and far between. I looked up and saw a man cresting the hill in front of me. I felt a pit grow in my stomach and the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It was a feeling that, as a woman, was familiar to me. That same feeling that tells you to get out of that cab or to have your mom on the phone as you walk to your car after work. As he approached I noticed a six-inch knife hanging from his belt. I made eye contact and said hello. His only response was a silent nod. It took a long time to shake the feeling of uneasiness. I looked back along the trail often, checking that he wasn’t coming up behind me. I never saw him again.
The trail had been climbing up and away from the lake for some time. As the drop off became steeper, I felt my anxiety bubble up. I looked ahead and saw a small washed out section of trail. A six-inch wide path was left, only enough to get one foot on. Fear and self-doubt started to flood my mind. “I can’t go across that…what if I fall…can I turn around and go back?…how do I get back to my car?…will anyone hear me yelling from down there if I do fall?…I wish Mark was here…” Normally I would lean on Mark for support and let him talk me through it. But I didn’t have that option this time. So, I talked myself through it. “You’re fine, just put one foot in front of the other,” I said out loud. I moved across as quickly and carefully as I could. Once back on the wide, stable path I took a moment to recognize that I had done something I usually rely on others for. It felt empowering.
I sat on the rock and looked out across the lake. The mountain on the other side towered over me, the peak shrouded in clouds. My tent sat behind me, my pack, boots, and poles all arranged just how I like in the vestibule. My pad, sleeping bag, and pillow neatly inside. If only for this moment, I had carved out this space of solitude. Where, under my own power, I had gotten myself here. I had set up a home, cooked a meal, and filtered water. I had provided all that I needed at this particular point in time. I had no one else to worry about. For three days, questions about when to eat, when to rest, when to drink, how fast to go, what campsite to choose, and what to do in the downtime had all been up to me. It was wonderful to have quiet moments, control over decisions, and the knowledge that I was providing for myself, by myself.
To Go Solo, Or Not To Go Solo: That is the Question Everyone Has an Opinion About
I’ve read a lot of articles on hiking alone. They most often go one of two ways – either that it’s stupid and dangerous and you should never ever do it; or that it’s wonderful and awesome and “don’t worry, nothing bad will ever happen to you.” As you can see from the scenes above, each one a moment from my first solo backpacking trip, reality is a little more complex than either of these binary approaches convey. I wanted to write about my experiences since, judging by the reaction of those who I tell I was hiking alone, there are a lot of misconceptions and a lot of fear.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion about me hiking alone. Reactions ranged from reverence to anger. Here are some of the responses I received before, during, and after my hike:
- “wow that’s amazing, I would never be brave enough to do that!”
- “are you stupid, you do know there are grizzlies out there right?!”
- “are you alone? I’m always so impressed by you girls who hike solo.”
- “well I don’t know why anyone in their right mind would want to do something like that. I can’t stand the thought of a young girl out there alone. Promise you’ll never to that again!”
- “was your husband okay with you going alone?”
But by far, the most common response was: “but aren’t you afraid of ______________” (fill in the blank with: getting lost, getting injured, being attacked by wildlife, being attacked by humans, etc., etc., etc.)
I would love to say I’m some sort of intrepid, fearless adventuress who laughs in the face of aggressive grizzly bears and scoffs at 50-foot drop-offs. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m not. In fact, my answer to the “aren’t you afraid” question is a resounding YES! Hell yes, I’m afraid of all those things! But, for context, here’s a list of a few other things I’m afraid of:
- Choking to death
- Getting into a car accident
- Having toilet paper stuck to my shoe in public
And yet, I still eat food, drive a car, and use public restrooms. If I didn’t do any of the things I was afraid of (which, by the way, is a much longer list than I’ve presented here) then I wouldn’t leave my house, interact with other humans, or do any of the things that bring me joy.
On Fear, Risk, and Toilets
Hiking alone may not be for everyone, for a multitude of reasons. But fear seems to be the overarching theme when conversations about solo backpacking arise. I feel like this fear is the sole reason keeping many people from trying it and it’s what motivates the warnings we get from our friends, family, and complete strangers. I wanted to address this here, and make it clear that hiking alone does NOT make me fearless or exceptionally brave. I also wanted to put into perspective the fear that surrounds this issue.
There is a difference between irrational fear and real danger. I’d never tell someone looking for advice on hiking alone (or myself, for that matter) “don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.” Because the reality is that something bad COULD happen. I could have fallen off that cliff. That guy with the knife could have been a serial killer. An angry mama bear could have come crashing out of the bush at any minute.
But here’s the thing: there is inherent danger in everything we do. If you sat down and thought about every little thing you do in a day and then googled “# of injuries and deaths from __________” you’d probably shit yourself (but be careful, your bathroom is trying to kill you, too). It’s impossible to keep ourselves and the ones we love completely safe at all times. Not exactly a comforting thought, but it’s a fact of life. We don’t let those fears keep us from participating in our every-day lives, so why would I let fear keep me from doing something I love?
When it comes to hiking alone, the best strategy is to approach it as we would anything else we do in life. Assess the risks and prepare for potential dangers as best we can. Learn about bear safety and what to do in the event of an attack. Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Be familiar with your route/map before heading out. Leave a trip plan with someone you trust.
For me, hiking alone brought up feelings of self-doubt, fear, and loneliness. But it also made me feel empowered, decisive, and capable. If solo hiking is something you think you might enjoy but you’ve been hesitant to try it because of fear (either your own or that of the people around you), just remember that we take risks in everything we do.
I can’t promise that hiking alone will be the best thing you’ve ever done or the worst thing you’ve ever done because, as with everything in life, it could very well be both.