Joan is a very experienced backpacker both with popular routes such as on the Pacific Crest Trail and the Arizona Trail or planning her routes and going off-trail here on The Colorado Plateau. Joan agreed to write her thoughts about solo wilderness adventures. -PM
This spring marks my tenth year of solo backpacking. While I now have a partner who loves backpacking as much as I do, I still make time to take backpacking trips by myself — not just weekend trips. But my long-distance hikes such as last summer on the PCT.
Many people are surprised at this. But I honestly like to go solo. I do it because I love getting to do my own thing at my own pace. I chase butterflies, explore, take endless side trips, go swimming, and goof off. And I find peace in being with my thoughts for long periods.
Ten years ago, going solo for the first time was a massive deal for me. I struggled with many fears. I was especially afraid of being attacked by a stranger. And of critters.
For me, the most challenging thing about solo hiking was the anxiety I felt during the time between crawling into my hammock, and when I fell asleep. It’s when I felt most vulnerable. Like something or someone could easily attack me, and I wouldn’t be able to get away. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to you. But that’s what scared me the most until I figured out a way to deal with it.
Now, the fear doesn’t stop me. I do things differently when I am alone. I camp out of sight of the trail far away from anyone. And unless I’m cowboy camping, I sleep under a camouflage-patterned tarp. Not because it makes it harder to spot. But because if you came across a camo tarp, wouldn’t you just assume the occupant was a guy or someone with a gun? I like thinking about this. It is a story I can tell myself to make myself sleep soundly through the night.
I’ve discovered a side benefit to sleeping out of sight of the trail. I’m almost always in a spot no one has ever camped before, which is easy to do with minimal impact in my hammock. I’ve discovered that it gives me the feeling of a wilderness experience.
Compared to ten years ago, it seems like now that there are more solo women out there. I noticed a huge change this past summer on the PCT. Not just more solo women, but also fewer people being shocked when I said I was solo. I’m glad for this change, and I hope it makes it easier for others to find the courage to go at it alone.
If you are hesitating about your first solo trip, I sure hope that you don’t let fear stop you.
Here are my tips for staring out:
–When first going solo, start small. I’d go to places where I was very comfortable- state parks where I could sign in at the park office or familiar trails where I knew I would see fellow hikers.
–Take care of yourself. Listen to your body, stop when you need to adjust your pace and watch the weather. Give yourself permission to bail and go home if things don’t feel right.
–Create a safety net. I tell my emergency contact where I’m going, where I’m parking, and when I’ll be back and who to call if I fail to check-in at a particular time. I carry an InReach. I check back in after I return, so my friends always expect mine follow up text.
–Don’t get lost. Until I was very comfortable going solo, I’d stick to routes I knew. I still always carry a map and compass, and I know how to use them. I pay attention to my location and where I am going, and I backtrack if I have any doubts.
–Bring music or podcasts to listen to before you go to sleep. Or bring earplugs. It helps keep away the sounds of night-time monsters. These night-time monsters don’t creep me out anymore (much), but it used to.
–Enjoy yourself. Do exactly what you want, when you want. Linger at waterfalls. Take a nap. Or hike an extra few miles. Savor every moment.