By Andrea Willingham
I’m a pretty outdoorsy lady. My whole life, I’ve found both my deepest solace and greatest entertainment under the open sky or a canopy of leaves; in the maze of a forest, or the wide grandeur of mountains and ocean horizons. I feel safest when I’m out “in nature,” safer than I do in city surrounded by strangers. Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time outside throughout my life.
Thus, I was somewhat surprised last year to realize that of all the outdoorsy things I’ve done, camping solo had not been one of them. When I told a few friends about my plans to do it, the responses were almost universally, “Alone? Wow!” One group brought up the fact that it’s usually more of a “guy thing” to camp alone. That does seem to be the case, but I wonder why? I certainly know a few girls who camp alone, but all of this does bring up interesting questions of why camping alone isn’t more of a thing, and furthermore, why fewer women don’t camp by themselves (besides the obvious arguments for safety).
So, one weekend last September, I dove in.
I knew I was ready – or at least as ready as I could be. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time day hiking alone, so at least I knew I was comfortable with myself, my solitude, and my ability to make smart “survival” decisions on my own. One of the best ways to start mentally preparing yourself for your first solo adventure is to play the “What if?” game with yourself: “What if… I startle a bear around this next corner?” “What if… some guys start following and harassing me?” “What if… I get lost out here and have to spend the night?” “What if… my car breaks down and I don’t have cell service?” These are some of the big, scary questions that we are not only afraid to ask ourselves, but I think we are even more afraid that we might not know the answers.
So, I challenge you to ask those hard questions, and think through your answers. Even better if you play this mental game while you’re out on a solo hike! Or ask your friends and talk though what you might do. The more you play this game with yourself and start devising your contingency plans, the more you begin to feel confident in your own abilities to handle any situation, and the more you’ll feel prepared and excited to get out on your own and prove it to yourself.
So back to my own camping trip: Despite the fact it was my first time going out camping alone, I did very little preparation (perhaps feeling a bit too confident!). In fact, by the morning of, I hadn’t even started packing. But in a matter of about 2 hours, I had my little car loaded with my tent, sleeping bag, ground pad, a bag of food, a gallon jug of water, hiking boots, a change of clothes, camera, a guide book, and my journal. The essentials, a few comforts.
It was cloudy with patches of misty rain on my drive up into the mountains. Eventually I found the free National Forest campground I had picked out from some Google searching a few days prior. The campground was quite a bit smaller and closer to the road than I’d expected, but I decided to go hike to some waterfalls I had been wanting to see, and come back closer to dark to stake out my spot.
The trailhead to the waterfall was packed; families, couples, retirees. The further I went on the trail however, the more it thinned out, and soon I found myself captivated by the gorgeous autumn colors emerging and the strange landscape of volcanic rocks through which the path was cut. The trail wound into the dense forest, and soon I could hear the roar of the waterfall in the distance. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, towering mightily off to my left. Even from far away, it looked massive. Of course, I had to get closer. I followed the sound and the flow of the water back until it led me to the base of the falls. Surprisingly, no one else was there. For a short time, I had the whole place to myself.
Eventually a few people showed up, so I took my leave, and hiked around a while longer finding more waterfalls and exploring the trails. By the time I made it back to my campsite though, it was completely full. Sigh. Well, worst case scenario, I could sleep in my car, or just drive home. But with still a few hours of daylight left, I decided to continue driving further into the mountains to see what I could find.
Another 20 minutes later and a thousand feet higher in elevation, I found myself at another campground. It had plenty of spots isolated from one another, so I was sold. I found a spot with a nice view of the lake, and I set up my tent just as the first of the night’s rains began sprinkling in.
One drawback of packing everything the morning of my trip was that I forgot to bring the food I had planned on for both dinner and breakfast, meaning, I was left mainly with bread and peanut butter and potato chips. No big deal, but it did mean that my lunch, dinner, and breakfast were all going to be peanut butter sandwiches. Yum.
So, I ate my peanut butter sandwich while sitting on a log as the rain started coming in more heavily. I tried half-heartedly to make a campfire, but it was already too wet so I gave up and crawled into my tent to do some journaling and reading before it got dark. The rain poured heavier and heavier. Fortunately, my tent kept me dry and my sleeping bag kept me warm, so I was quite the happy camper. (Sorry, not sorry for the pun!)
The night was long and damp, but I managed to get some sleep and by morning the rain was a tad bit lighter. Unfortunately, though a sizable puddle had formed under my tent and leaked inside — I knew I should have brought a tarp! Rookie mistakes. Oh well. My spirits were still high.
Knowing the rain was supposed to last all day, I packed up and enjoyed a leisurely drive back home listening to the radio and letting my mind wander.
I think that’s one of the best things about traveling solo: you’re on your own time. I realized when I was hiking the day before that I had no concept of how fast or slow I was going. Normally I’m trying to keep up with my faster friends, or holding back to stick with those going at a slower pace. But here, whether I was hiking or driving or hanging out in my tent, it didn’t matter how long it took me to do anything.
In retrospect, I was far more cautious than I needed to be, but often that’s what keeps you safe on your first time out trying something new. So I figure, embrace your cautiousness. Take your time. Let mistakes happen, because they will: I failed to claim my first campsite. I failed to start a fire. I didn’t bring all my food. It poured down rain. My tent flooded. I didn’t even mention the fact that my car nearly ran out of gas on the way up the mountain the first time, and I had to drive back down 20 minutes to the nearest gas station.
It was far from a perfect first solo camping trip.
But the bottom line is, I’d camp solo again in a heartbeat (preferably next time not in the pouring rain!), and I think others should give it a try too. Listen to your gut, but don’t psych yourself out. It’s so important to be able to find contentment and comfort in your own thoughts, and confidence in your own abilities and decision-making. And taking a simple trip out into the wilderness on your own is an incredible way to discover and develop that for yourself.