Women in Backpacking, Part V: But, I Might Feel Lonely!

In the last post, I discussed the fear of getting lost or injured while backpacking alone in the wilderness.  Today, I tackle my own personal fear – the fear of loneliness.

Yes, you will probably feel lonely from time-to-time while backpacking solo.  If you’re like me, it’s the biggest challenge of them all and I rarely end up solo, even though I may have started that way.  My purpose with this post isn’t to try and convince you loneliness won’t happen, but rather that it probably WILL happen, and that you shouldn’t let it stop you from getting out there.

There are levels to loneliness, ranging from extreme, depressing feelings that no one in the world understands you, to just a minor feeling of wishing your friend was available to have a movie night when she already has plans.

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A tired selfie on a solo stretch of the John Muir Trail.

The type of loneliness one feels when backpacking solo is not the deep, scary kind (Note: feeling alone is somewhat different from feeling afraid of bear attacks or being assaulted, which tend to elicit strong fears).  For most people, myself included, it’s more of a longing to share stories at the end of an amazing, but tiring day.  It’s a manageable feeling.  For most people, it’s entirely beneficial to spend some quiet, quality time alone with your id, your ego and your superego.

When I backpack, my magic formula is hiking alone most of the day, but meeting up with people for lunch and also to make camp at the end of the day.  I’m extremely extroverted and enjoy storytelling over lunch and dinner.  I like hearing what others saw during their hikes and marveling at their stories.  I also like being with others to watch the sun set and the moon rise.  A refreshing dip in an icy alpine lake is more fun, to me at least, if there are others there enjoying it, too.

But other times, I head out into more of a no-man’s land; places where I know I will likely be entirely alone.  It’s not creepy, per se, but time seems to drag a little slower after I set up my camp and sit down to eat and wait for night to fall.  The first night is the toughest, although “tough” isn’t really the right word.  It’s more that I’m a bit bored.  And yes, the strange sounds of the forest do somehow seem louder when it’s just me out there.

Camping in Ventana Wilderness
Just me, myself and I camping before a solo trip in search of lost hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of people who find that they absolutely love being solo – entirely solo – for days on end.  That might be you! But you won’t know until you try it.

No matter how you think you’ll feel about backpacking solo, you shouldn’t let any concerns stop you.  I’ve rarely heard of a woman who backpacked solo and regretted it.  I’ve written in other posts how to do your first solo trip: start out short; stay close to home; pick a place with cell coverage; try listening to music, etc.  Those tips apply here.

But other tips also apply:

  • You can choose trails that are known for being popular.  Sometimes you can tell a trail is going to be popular based on the permit application process, if there is one.  Permit processes usually indicate a trail is popular enough that the park has limited the number of people who can go in each day to minimize damage to the areas on and around the trail.
  • You can do research online or in books to see how popular a trail is.  Most resources will list that information.
  • Call a park ranger and ask!

Once you’ve chosen a more popular trail, you can at least camp in the vicinity of others if you want.  But more than that, you will likely meet people and make fast friends along the way.  This is a phenomena of backpacking that is widely known: making friends is easy and happens fast.  One day spent with your fellow backpackers on the trail can feel like an eternity and bonds can become very strong in a short amount of time.

Lower Cathedral Lake
Amongst new friends met on the John Muir Trail. Photo cred: David and Steve Szmyd

Case in point: I met two brothers on my second day of the John Muir Trail in 2015.  I was solo and had just had a very scary bear encounter as I was packing up camp that morning.  Needless to say, I was feeling a tad stressed and very alone (and very small).  I met these two brothers just after I set out from camp for the day and they invited me to hike with them.  By lunch, we were fast friends.  By dinner, we had made a lasting bond.  By the next morning, when we parted ways, we were practically lifelong friends!  Fast forward two years – we’ve kept in touch and I’ll be joining them for their annual brothers’ trip to Wyoming this August.

Even though I was supposed to be solo for parts of the John Muir Trail, I never once spent a night completely alone.

Another tip is to bring books or podcasts.  These give your mind something to do if it’s feeling restless and lonely, and they help pass the time.  You could also do guided meditation or bring along a deck of cards for a game of solitaire.  Try bringing a journal and writing down your thoughts as they happen.  If you have cell coverage and feel extra lonely, call a friend or loved one for a quick check-in!  Consider exploring the area you are camping in (if you aren’t too tired).  Walk the perimeter of the lake or climb up that close peak.  Lastly, go to bed! Backpackers need lots of sleep, so don’t be afraid to hit the sack way earlier than normal.

As with everything, preparation is key.  You can’t rely on anyone else when you’re solo, so be prepared with the necessary gear and essential items.  And consider carrying a satellite messenger like a Garmin InReach (formerly Delorme InReach).  If you have the right mindset, are prepared to confront minor to moderate feelings of loneliness, and understand that’s not a bad thing, you’ll have a wonderful time filled with scenery and adventure that is all yours, and only yours.  Try it!  You just might like it!

Master This Philosophy Now: HYOH!

Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH) is an overall strategy or philosophy for trail success and happiness. It’s imperative you master the concept early and remind yourself of it often.

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If you go too fast on your uphills, you’ll end up like this!

Everyone hikes for slightly different reasons and everyone hikes in slightly different ways. For example, I am a stronger overall hiker than my husband, but MAN can he crank it going uphill! I realized long ago that I can’t keep up, but who cares?  Although backpacking can very much be a social activity, when it comes down to it – it’s just you and the trail. No one talks on a steep uphill grade anyway – you’re all too busy huffing and puffing!

When I try to force my husband to hike with me, I end up feeling guilty and try to hike too fast, and he ends up hiking so slowly (from his point of view, of course) that it actually makes the hill MORE difficult for him.  No one is happy (except the dog, who prefers we stick together)!

If you are backpacking with more than just yourself over the course of more than one day, there is no way you will stay exactly together the entire time. And you know what? You won’t want to. HYOH! You’ll run out of things to talk about anyhow and it will frustrate you (or even sabotage your trip) if you try to always hike the same way and pace as everyone else in your group.

If you are separated at times, each of you will experience something different along the trail, and then you can spend time telling each other your experiences at the end of the day around a campfire. Someone saw a beautiful bald eagle.  Another person tells a story about mistaking a tree stump for a bear and having a mini “freak out”. It’s fun to have slightly different experiences on the same trail! I once rolled my ankle and fell when my two hiking partners were well behind me.  Thanks to my hiking poles, I caught myself and didn’t get injured, but down I went anyhow. The 40lb pack and gravity worked against me and I landed half on my back.  If you are envisioning a turtle, you are correct! I was momentarily stuck, half on my back, rolling from side to side in an effort to create enough momentum to spring back to my feet.  No one saw it, thankfully, but it made for a great story and spirited reenactment over lunch!

If you’re slower on the downhill sections, don’t fret! If you try to go too fast, you’ll likely strain a muscle or start feeling the dreaded knee pain.  Better to go at your own pace and enjoy yourself. Nothing kills backpacking quicker than an overuse injury! I once had to sell my hiking poles to a fellow backpacker with ongoing knee pain far from civilization – he had been going too fast on the steep, long downhill sections in an attempt to keep up with his friend (and he probably hadn’t trained enough, either).

If you are on a lengthy backpacking trip, it’s OK to hike on your own for longer periods of time, perhaps even a few miles or more than an hour.  But make sure your entire group knows and agrees on the “rules” up front.  Consider things like:

  • When should the lead hiker in your group start looking for a spot for lunch?
  • On a lengthy up or down section, will the lead person stop at the very top or bottom, or somewhere in the middle?
  • Where is the pre-planned place to make camp for the night and how many miles is it from where you started?
  • How will you handle trail junctions safely to make sure no one makes a wrong turn? One way is to have the entire group meet at every trail junction and no one moves on until everyone is accounted for.  Or you can “leapfrog” it: the lead person waits for the second person at a trail junction.  Once the second person gets there, the lead person can continue on and now it’s the second person’s job to wait for the third person.  Once the third person arrives, the second person can leave, and so on.
  • What’s the plan if someone does get separated and makes a wrong turn? Always best to avoid that in the first place, but you do need an agreed-upon plan. Make sure everyone has their own map and knows the route.

If you need to snack frequently, don’t wait for the others in your group to stop for lunch.  Snack when you need to.  If you happen to be hiking alongside someone, don’t hesitate to ask them to stop with you – it’s a long day with nothing else to do but hike, they won’t mind stopping for a bit.

One last tip – don’t typecast yourself. Just because you are in the lead one day does not mean you will be in the lead the next day.  And just because you were the “slow poke” before lunch doesn’t mean the same will be true after a hearty meal (and perhaps a Snickers bar).

HYOH is a mantra to live by every day while backpacking. You will thank yourself and it will provide for a much more enjoyable experience for you and those around you.

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.Edward Abbey