Let's be honest, hiking solo is scary. The first couple times I went solo hiking my mind really went off, what if a wild animal sees me all alone and thinks I'm a tasty treat, what if I fall and sprain my ankle, what if I get lost?? By the end of the hike I was convinced something bad was going to happen. As soon as I saw my car I realized how ridiculous I was being. Immediately I wished that I had worried less and enjoyed the hike more. The point is, when you are out there alone your mind wanders. I mean, that is kind of the point, to have time to actually let your mind be free. But, you want to be able to focus on you, and not worry about totally insane scenarios.
So, you may be thinking right about now - Ashley if hiking solo is so scary, then why do you do it? Well because for me the reward outweighs the risk:
The opportunity to be alone in the wilderness with only your thoughts can be an unparalleled experience,
Challenging yourself to do something that may scare you a little and bring you out of your comfort zone can lead to amazing growth and realization; and,
Pushing yourself physically and being able to go at your own pace can open you eyes to what you are really capable of.
I started hiking on my own about 3 years ago (actually above is a selfie of me coming down from my first solo trip to Cone Peak in Big Sur). I quickly became addicted. I started small with just day trips, then an overnight, and slowly built my way up, allowing me to progressively feel more comfortable out there alone and learn how to overcome some of my fears. Below I have outlined some of my main fears while hiking solo, and some strategies I use to overcome them.
Fear of Injury
There have been plenty of times when I have been out on the trail and come across a big animal track or a bad fall, I have been lucky that none of these times have turned into true emergency situations but I have also educated myself that if an emergency where to happen I would feel confident enough to navigate it. One thing I like to do when I am out on the trail and have a close call is play a game with myself of "what if." I play out in my mind the scenario of "what if" that thing that is freaking me out right now actually happen. Then I go over what I would do and make a note to myself to research the recommended way to handle the situation it when I get home.
By deciding early what I am going to do in the moment to handle the situation I feel more prepared.
By knowing I am going to go home and learn how to actually handle the situation makes me feel responsible and less hard on myself for putting myself in the situation in the first place. Additionally, I am slowly training myself for future potential emergencies.
But there are also some strategies you can take to be prepared for emergency situations, further easing your mind.:
Get a Notification Buddy - The easiest thing you can do to ease your mind before a big trek is notify somebody where you are going. Better yet have a notification buddy, me and my friend Lauren would always just shoot each other a text message before we left, we always had each others backs and I trusted her decisions. Knowing in the back of your mind somebody in the real world is watching out for you, even if it's just as simple as they know where you are and when you are scheduled to get back can make you feel a little less alone.
Know your emergency exits - It's a good idea before you go on a big solo trip to map out a couple emergency exits, as I like to call them. You never know what is going to happen out there and where, so it is a good idea to know ways to get out quickly, especially at points where the risk of injury may be high, such as river crossings, rock scrambles, etc.
Have First-Aid Training - I would highly recommend anybody who plans on hiking long distances solo take some type of first aid, preferably wilderness first aid. I absolutely loved my wilderness first responder class and learned so much. It really gave me the confidence to make educated decisions during an emergency in order to help myself or others if something were to happen.
Sleeping at night
There are two main things to be scared of in the wilderness while sleeping at night, wild animals and other humans. This is a big one for me because my mind really wanders at night. This really came into play on my Skyline to Sea solo trip (which by the way is a great beginners solo adventure). I barely slept, I was so scared that some ax murderer living in the mountains was going to come across my hammock and do what he does best. So I slept all night with a knife in my pocket and bear spray next to me, jumping up every time I heard a rustle of leaves in the distance. I was armed and ready. The next night when I finally realized the ax murder thing was not too realistic, I started thinking that a mountain lion was going to come across my hammock and think I was a tasty treat. This lead to yet another restless night with said knife and bear spray in tow.
Now I'm not going to lie to you, I still get a little scared at night, but there are some strategies I have employed to help me get a better night sleep:
Get a evening camping routine - By having an evening routine you are signaling you body that it is time to start winding down and getting ready for bed. After cleaning up dinner, I first like to make sure I have everything I need, I like to have a full water bottle by my hammock, my headlamp, my bear spray, my headphones or earplugs, and a book/journal. Then I start to change into my layered system for sleeping and make myself some hot chocolate or tea. I put the hot drink in a thermos, that way it can also act as a source of warmth in my bag at night if I do not drink it all. With my hot drink in hand, I like to curl into my sleeping bag and I usually write in my journal for a little while, once I am done with the journal I move to reading. At this point I usually fall asleep on my own, but if I have read for long enough that is when I will grab the headphones and listen until I fall asleep (more on this below).
Distract yourself -If you are in your sleeping bag and ready to fall asleep, but your mind is still going, another good thing too do is to find ways to distract yourself, by calming your mind. Whether this be reading a book, going over a breathing exercise or meditation, this can take you out of the negative space of worrying and into the moment to relax. Avoid distracting yourself with you phone, the light on your phone will actually wake you up.
Bring earplugs or headphones - One thing that really freaks me out while camping are all the little noises. So I actually like to listen to music, it both distracts and soothes me. Eventually I fall asleep to the music and I set my phone so it turns off automatically, that way if something really does happen in the middle of the night I can hear it.
CBD - I have recently started experimenting with CBD oils. If you are not familiar with CBD, it is a cannabinoid found in hemp but does not have the psychedelic effects of THC. Many people use it for issues with anxiety, stress, or pain. Just make sure you get a CBD product that is 100% CBD, some products have a mix of THC and CBD, and sometimes the THC can have the opposite effect of calming you down. A secondary effect of CBD is it supposedly is a good anti-inflammatory and helps with pain, so at night when my muscles are sore and aching it can be really helpful.
Find camping spots where other people will be - Often when you are in the backcountry you are not totally alone, and many times everybody is stopping at the same spot. When I am solo hiking, I purposely try to pick spots where I know a couple people will be so I am not totally alone. I just make sure to get to the campsite early so I can find a spot I am going to be comfortable with.
I have been lost so many times, it is just a part of hiking - solo or with friends - eventually you will get lost, it is just a matter of how lost you get. The most important thing to remember when you get lost is to stay calm. I like to remind myself that I am prepared. I have notified somebody where I am at, I have my map, the appropriate gear, and I like to keep at least one extra meal with me (freeze dried food is so light it really makes no difference in pack weight). This way if you end up spending an extra night out there you will not be out of food. I've never had to use the extra food, and often I bring a little too much food with me anyway, but it is more of a piece of mind thing.
Being Caught in Bad Weather
Getting stuck in bad weather, while you are out in the backcountry alone, can definitely be scary. Hopefully, in the preparation step you checked the weather forecast, but that is also not always predictable. It's always a good idea when backpacking to keep your eyes on the sky, usually you can tell a big storm is brewing. If so you may want to consider stopping for the night or turning around even. Also, the more you keep your eye on the sky the better you get at reading it and understanding the weather patterns in your area. Try to stay away from hazardous areas if a big storm is coming, if it is potentially a thunderstorm find a spot that is less likely for a strike, if it is a rain storm stay away from rivers and flash flood areas. Also, I always like to bring a tarp with me, just in case I get caught in something really nasty, the tarp seems to give me some reassurance.
So that's it! I guess it all comes down to being prepared and educating yourself on the risks. Hopefully these tips help you out next time you are considering a trip but don't have anybody to go with. I actually plan at least one trip a year that I go solo now because it can be such a rewarding experience.