It may surprise you to know that in the three weeks since going camping solo for the first time that I have not become an expert.
I have, however, spent a significant portion of my life outdoors in various conditions. Some far more reckless and ill-advised than others. This has given me a rather odd perspective; despite struggling with anxiety and self-confidence I have spent a lot of time in the woods and feel familiar and comfortable with them in a way that I do not in other situations and circumstances. The risks seem much more tolerable and manageable than they do in many social situations.
Below I’ve outlined the things I think are most important when considering embarking on your first solo camping trip:
1. Pick a Place You Know
If you’re going on a solo adventure for the first time it helps to know the area you’re going to be in. Knowing the area makes it just a little less scary. If you’re familiar with the access points, toilets (if applicable), water sources, animal caches, and trails you won’t be so worried about getting lost or disoriented. The familiarity will be a sort of comfort when and if you start to question your decision.
Had I not been familiar with the Mystic Beach access point and trail, I would never have opted for a hike-in camping trip after dark. Knowing the terrain and the type of trail I was following allowed me to be aware in the section I had to be most alert in. That awareness kept me from going off trail and getting lost on three separate instances. Arriving on the beach in the dark (and damn but it was dark) was a relief, because I had wandered back and forth on that beach after dark so many times on my other trips up there. Knowing where the bear box and the pit toilets were meant not searching for them in the dark when I was already tired.
I set everything up like I had before and I did not have to worry that I had done something wrong. Routine is comforting, even when you’re by yourself.
2. Know the Risks
Surprise! The outdoors can be dangerous!
As women we are taught that being alone is extra dangerous; we’re statistically smaller, weaker, and ‘delicate’ or ‘vulnerable.’ Ironically while this may still be true in the woods, we are also as capable as our male counterparts and just as likely–or not–to run into trouble. I mean statistically our primary ‘predator’ is men and we keep trying to date them. So if you take men out of the equation then we’re really no less at risk in the woods than anyone else!
This does not make being alone in the woods safe. There are risks posed by the outdoors that can be quite hazardous to us squishy little human beings. Unpredictable weather, animals, our own clumsiness. Being in a group can make any of these much more forgiving, and can make us forget that they are concerns. Know your forecast. I hiked out in a light storm–unpleasant and wet but not in in itself dangerous. The “Wet” Coast might not be what we’re actually called but it’s not a misnomer. I was prepared for that.
Know what animals populate the area and how to deal with them. I admit that I only learned last week that we have a rare and unique species of wolf on Vancouver Island. I excuse my lack of knowledge beforehand by adding that they are so rare (South Island, anyway) that I think everyone will tell you we don’t have wolves at all. Cougars here are smaller than their mainland cousins and more aggressive but still don’t want to mess with us if they don’t have to (most of the time). Black Bears are territorial and can be aggressive but typically just want to be left alone. There really isn’t much else here that can hurt you.
Know your terrain. You don’t have to know the trails themselves, but know what type of terrain you will be hiking. The largest area of temperate zone rain forests on the planet is the Pacific Temperate Rain Forests Eco-region which occur on the west facing coastal mountains from Kodiak Island in Alaska to Northern California. That means we get a LOT of rain (except last year when we had a really bad drought and a lot of fire). Add in the fog off the ocean and the fact that the forest floor doesn’t see much-if any-sunlight and that can make the trails pretty muddy and treacherous.
Know your terrain.
3. Imagine The Absolute Worst
If you can think of the worst thing that could even theoretically happen, then you can choose to pull back and acknowledge that it’s probably far-fetched and that the real risks are much more mundane. Most of the things you’re imagining are probably not likely. Sure, you could slip and fall down a gully breaking all the bones in your leg and impale yourself on a stick and die. It COULD happen, the universe has done weirder things. Is it likely to happen? No. You’re more likely to sprain an ankle or break a bone stepping wrong. Even the most prepared hiker can do either of these things. The worst sprain I’ve ever had I got walking on a flat surface in flat shoes. So go ahead, let your imagination run wild with all the worst things that could happen.
Now laugh nervously at yourself and reconsider. Sure those things could happen, but how likely is it really? Aren’t you more likely to step on a slippery root or loose stone and roll your ankle or sprain your knee? Once you’ve determined what could happen if all hell broke loose, and what is likely to happen, now you have to decide if the risk is worth it.
Do you think you can manage the risk safely? Can you navigate the trail in the dark safely in less-than-ideal conditions? Will you be able to bring or find a walking stick? On the off chance that you do run into something bigger than you that isn’t happy to see you are you prepared with the knowledge of how to handle that? If you’ve answered yes to these questions then you’re basically ready to go.
This is important because if something does go wrong this is what will save you. Or not save you.
How well-traveled is the place you’ve chosen? Are there going to be other people around? If yes what is the absolute longest period of time you would go without probable help? Can you keep yourself warm/safe for that period of time?
Mystic Beach is well traveled. If I had lost the trail down in the dark I was prepared to go back to the road following the same trail backwards. If I was not able to go forward or backward I was prepared to be alone in the dark on the trail and keep myself warm until morning, when I knew there would be hikers on the trail (I saw the first pair around 8:30 am on the beach as I was making breakfast). The longest I would have to go before someone found me was 12 hours. Even without my gear I was confident I could find enough stormfall and deadfall to keep myself warm in the dark, and am still certain I could have managed any injuries with what I had in my bag. Once someone found me I would be relying on them to get me help; this would mean having to wait longer but with other people around the likelihood of survival goes up.
5. Pack Your Necessities First
You are going to be alone, so make sure you have what you need to survive. You don’t need five pairs of socks or three pairs of pants for a two night camping trip. You don’t even really need more than two shirts and one pair of pants if we’re being honest. You’re camping, everything is going to smell like wood smoke and you’re going to hate it by the end of the week when it still smells like smoke.
Pack your sleeping bag, mat, stove, food and tent. Pack your fire starter. Pack your utensils and bowls. First Aid kit? Knife? Pack those too. If you forget your toiletries you’ll be a little grosser for it, but you’ll be filthy anyway.
Pack the things you need to survive. You might regret not bringing a towel when you decide to jump in the ocean in your clothes (I brought two pairs of pants so it worked out), but you’ll regret not having your tent or your sleeping mat way more. Turns out the ground is cold.
6. Tell Someone Your Itinerary
This is safety 101.
Tell someone where you are going and when you are coming back. Most people will not panic if you’re back a bit late; as a grown up sometimes we do things that are spontaneous. If you think this might be you, tell someone you plan to be back at such and such time but might be a bit later because I’m a grown up and sometimes I do things like that. For all that is sacred please just tell someone where you are going to be.
While yes, I have said that the outdoors are equally dangerous to men as to women the fact remains that being outside with our delicate skin and or breakable bones is still dangerous. Exposure is a thing, and you can die from it. You can get hypothermia in the middle of summer because our skin does not hold in heat like fur or feathers do. Tell someone where you’re going because if everything goes to hell and you really do end up alone and in serious trouble you will want them to know where to find you.
And people will feel better if they know.
7. What Are You Going to Do?
This seems like a bit of a silly one after the much more serious ones above, but it is a serious concern. Loneliness is a real thing and being alone can be too much for people.
So what do you plan to DO with your day(s) by yourself? Bring a notebook to write down your thoughts, or a book/e-reader. Plan a hike, or go for a swim. Take photos. Build rock cairns (inuksuks), or play in the ocean. Sit and stare at the fire, or wake up and see the sunrise before going back to bed. Know that you can change the plan, but have plan to distract yourself from being lonely.
I talk to myself. And write. And talk to myself about what I write. It helps me think and it helps keep me calm-I talked myself all the way down the trail to Mystic in the dark. I talked to myself much of the time I was on the beach. I had a great time. I also built inuksuks because the hundreds that had adorned the cave at the north end of the beach had been knocked down by winter storms and it made me sad. I played in the ocean in February because sometimes I do things like that.
These points aside, I can not tell you what makes a trip successful or not. Camping alone was a good experience for me and one I’m excited to repeat in the future. Will it be good for you? Only you can find out.
What do you think is the most important consideration for camping by yourself? How would you prepare for it?