I pulled the car up into the worn, dispersed camping space and started to unload my gear. I pitched the tent, gazed at the scenery, inflated the sleeping pad, and rolled out the sleeping bag. Then I went straight to collecting as much firewood as I could. The sky was cloudy with a light drizzle, an imminent storm on the way. I kept a watchful eye and ear out for signs of lightning – a huge fear of mine while being in the outdoors no thanks to having to outrun lighting on the trail before.
Then came the flash bang, with me running for cover in the car. I was alone in the wilderness, in the high country, rain pouring out of the sky, lightning flashing above my head – and while safe in the shelter of my car while solo camping – loving every minute of it. I read a few chapters of a book, steaming up the windows while waiting for the storm to pass.
I’m frequently out in the mountains alone. It’s not that I can’t find friends to join me – quite the contrary. My trusty trail pal, Jenny is always up for a backpacking trip in Pingree, a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, or a snowshoe day in Cameron Pass. I have two kids that I can drag into hikes with me. There are a handful of friends who request being on the “hiking alert” list to see if our schedules match up when I have a mountain adventure plan in the works.
It’s not that I can’t find company, it’s that I immensely enjoy the solitude in the wilderness, and sometimes I have to remember the fine line of balance of sharing that with others and hoarding it for myself. It’s difficult to not be greedy with that priceless moment of reflection. Sharing it begins to feel like a gift for the worthy. There’s a cherished peacefulness that comes with adventuring alone, an empowering feeling of independence and freedom – true freedom – that comes with it. Once you taste it and learn to be comfortable in it, it’s the salve for an anxious mind, the filler for a broken heart, and the rest for a worn down soul.
There’s something magical about being in the trees in solitude, listening to the wind through the branches, watching the birds flitter about you, and being 100% comfortable in your surroundings. No fear of impending danger, no second guessing your confidence. It’s an art to go alone.
One of my friends recently asked me about resources for adventuring alone in the wilderness. I honestly couldn’t think of one that I had read. I had always packed my gear, felt prepared, and hit the road. And that’s when it hit me. I realized that there’s not just a resource guide with a list of items needed, it’s a mindset.
Yes, you need the appropriate gear to feel confident in being alone. That’s absolutely the first step. You cannot be in the mountains ill-prepared as that’s essentially a death sentence and without it, you can only hope that SAR will be there to help you in time of an emergency. However, you can have all the gear worth thousands of dollars and still not feel brave enough to step foot into the forest by yourself. The art of going alone starts first with your pack and extends to your brain.
Women are often petrified with irrational fears about going alone in the wilderness, and believe me, I have them too. We think an animal is going to attack or another person on the trail is going to assault us. These fears have been drilled into us since childhood. We live within the confines of boundaries that shouldn’t be there. We’re often told that we’re not strong enough, that we can’t manage the challenge of self-sufficiency, or that we need protection from others. FUCK THAT. Ladies, you are more than capable of a solo hike. You are more than competent enough to set up camp by yourself. You are brave enough to make decisions in an emergency, if needed. You just have to trust yourself to do it.
No matter if you go alone or with a group, you always need to start with the basic foundations of mountain adventures.
Tell Someone Where You’re Going – EXACTLY.
This is essential no matter what. When I head out alone I always tell my husband exactly where I’ll be – the trail, the canyon, and if I’m going somewhere he’s not familiar with, I pull up a map on his laptop and leave that with him.
We also have a strict return time deadline. Now, I always take longer on trails, sometimes hiking slower, sometimes just enjoying the scenery, sometimes not managing my time efficiently. I’m taking a break when I’m out there. I’ll often say, “I think I’ll realistically be back by dinner time,” and we laugh that I’m always 2 hours late. HOWEVER, my hard return-time deadlines are based around nightfall. If I’m not out of the canyon an in cell reception by 10pm in the summer and 6pm in the winter, then something has happened and Bill will call 911 to send a search and rescue team out for me.
These times are based on how much time it will take SAR to get out there and the gear that I have for the conditions. If something happens in the summer and I’m not back by 10, it will take at least 3 hours for SAR to even get close to me, and I’m confident that I have the tools that I need to get shelter and fire going (provided I’m not unconscious).
The hard deadline in the winter pulls back because survival conditions are much more difficult when the sun goes down, and road conditions may be more challenging. I actually don’t go solo in the winter as much as I do in the summer because the risks are higher.
So, tell someone where you’re going. Leave a note in the car and at the ranger station at the same time if you don’t have people to check in with. Just don’t go out there without the expectation (not fear) that something can happen. No need to put yourself in a situation where you have to cut your own arm off to survive.
Supply Your Pack For Survival.
If you come across me on the trail you’d probably look at my day pack and laugh at how full it is. I see so many people on the trail with just a water bottle and nothing else. That’s all fine and dandy until you need that extra layer, a knee brace from a twist, or more than 16 ounces of water.
My pack is a part of my body, an extra limb in the wilderness, and I never put boots on the dirt without it. My day pack is essentially my backpacking pack without the tent, sleeping gear, extra clothes, and cooking utensils.
I always have the 10 Essentials in there – now known as 10 systems. I actually increase that a bit by including my backpacking filtering system (I have a Sawyer mini that takes up very little room), a bandana, an Altoids tin full of vaseline-soaked dryer lint fire starters, a knee-brace because I know my body’s limitations and that my left knee could get janky out there, bear spray (for self-defense of any kind, including moose). Oh, and layers, including an extra pair of socks, which I’ve pulled out many times before. Because Colorado mountains.
Know Basic First-Aid Skills.
You can have a first-aid kit, but it’s not going to do you any good if you don’t know how it can help you. There are a variety of first-aid classes out there. Front Range Institute of Safety has public wilderness first aid classes throughout the year. You can also sign up for the Fresh Air Fort Collins Extra Mile Newsletter and I’ll list classes from different organizations in there as they become available.
Never underestimate the mountain, but never consider it a constant death wish either. There’s a healthy balance of caution that is beneficial, it will help you survive, but learning to relax will also help you feel free in the wilderness.
Listen To Your Gut.
If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it. Bottom line. Don’t feel bad for feeling like you have to turn around. Your instincts are what keep you safe. I’ve turned around because I hiked near a mountain lion kill cache, and decided to nope right back to the car. Lion attacks are rare, but my gut told me it wasn’t worth it to see how rare first-hand.
The same goes for trail difficulty. Don’t attempt technical climbs, bouldering, or anything that could leave you sliding down the side of a cliff if you make the wrong move. You can do high elevation and long distance without taking unnecessary risks.
Be Comfortable In Your Own Company.
This might be why people feel like solo hiking or camping isn’t for them. For some people, being alone is the worst. You’d never find them at a restaurant eating by themselves. However, I think everyone needs a good dose of alone time in the outdoors. It’s a tremendous stress-reliever, it’s freeing, and gives you time to think a little deeper. I think solo adventures help you to know yourself better than any other way.
You can combat deafening silence and boredom with reading or listening to podcasts. Podcasts are my favorite while solo camping.
With hiking, start on busy trails where you’re solo but technically not by yourself. Build up your experience and confidence throughout the year by gradually moving toward less crowded trail systems. Soon you’ll be able to spend time in an entire National Forest by yourself and feel amazing about it.
You may also find that relying on other people’s schedules will hold you back from experiencing life. There are plenty of people who don’t go backpacking because they don’t have anyone to go with. Live your life. Experience the adventures out there. And stop waiting for other people to make it happen.
Let It Go.
Let go of the fears that hold you back. Let go of the reliance on others to experience life at its fullest. Let go of being uncomfortable in silence. Go find your space next to the river, listen to the wind in the trees, feel the sun on your skin – relax and enjoy the art of going alone!
“If a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden