The Joys and Risks of Solo Camping: A Guide to Staying Safe and Enjoying the Wilderness Alone

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Despite the appeal of solo camping, it is not a public activity. Family and friends are often fearful when a loved one chooses to go camping alone. The solo camper will often face wariness and disapproval from others. Yet throughout history, and especially in the 20th century when the culture of sports and adventure flowered, many intriguing personalities made solo camping a way of life. The know-how that they’ve passed on has guided many other solo campers, even as cozy campsites are given over to glitz, tourism, and fire. Though the focus of this book will be on solo camping’s attraction and rewards, inherent and sometimes substantial risks warrant mention. The point of our book is not to amplify those risks, but to show the way to prepare for them, to learn about them, and to meet them with a measure of courage.

For some, solo camping is an advanced level of outdoor enjoyment. The idea of setting off alone in the great outdoors is thrilling enough to overcome the fear of nature. Others make solo camping the hallmark of their camping experience. Well-prepared solo campers are charmed by the lack of outer distractions and the extra time that solo camping offers for inner exploration. They savor the serenity that surrounds them in the absence of the hubbub and noise of human society. Some people use solo camping as an opportunity to challenge themselves by examining and conquering fears. This is as practical as it is satisfying, for solo camping also provides a measure of independence that many full-time family campers and most high volume hikers cannot achieve.

Benefits of Solo Camping

Another benefit is that being alone in the woods is good for your soul. In our everyday lives, we are bombarded with noise, distraction, and sensory overload. If we want, we can be in communication with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world. It is healthy for us to totally unplug and be alone with our thoughts, to be exposed to quiet, to make decisions using the skills and problem-solving abilities that we have developed through years of living and working. We are bombarded all day, every day with visual images. For a change, we can spend some time enjoying the lack of visual input: we can look at a clear night sky, examine the colors in an ice formation by a stream, or attain a different perspective by seeing the size of a familiar landmark from a totally different vantage point. We can breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of spruce trees and wildflowers. We can stretch on a rock in the sun and soak up the warmth. We can sample a stream of pure, cool water. These physical benefits are good for our bodies.

There are many benefits to solo camping. Perhaps the biggest one is that you are in charge. You can go when you want, where you want, and take as much gear as you want. You get to make the decisions. If another person is hiking with you, that person may want to hike faster or slower, rest longer, or get up earlier or sleep later. If you are camping with others, they may want to hike trails that are easier or more difficult than what you want or take more or less time. If you want, you can sleep until noon, stop at every single overlook, eat five hotdogs, or climb down from the trail to swim in a great-looking pool. You get to decide.

Connection with Nature

Due to the developmental nature of travel, one would think that solo camping/wilderness travel should enhance an individual’s connection with nature; however, the extant literature demonstrates mixed viewpoints/alludes to mixed results. This is where the first stages of this project would have begun answering existing questions, and the results would have influenced the many other areas of the research.

Through this research project, I would have liked to develop a clearer understanding of the role that solo camping and lone wilderness travel can play in the development of this connection. How individuals experience this type of travel and how they perceive it may dictate the effects on the development or enhancement of the connection. Individuals who develop/establish a connection with nature generally exhibit behaviors that are ecologically friendly and are also more likely to be prepared to spend time/money to aid environmental conservation efforts. While this behavior is positively associated with a person’s connection to nature, it promptly becomes important to understand the factors that diminish people’s connection to nature, and how connection with nature helps as a heuristic model for enhancing ecological behavior.

Connection with nature generally involves an individual becoming aware of nature, acknowledging its importance, showing concern for it, appreciating its beauty and natural rhythms, empathizing with its living qualities, as well as feeling a willingness to protect it. It is a positive, affective, emotional relationship, which enhances well-being.

Frequently, when individuals venture into the wilderness alone, they seek a deeper connection with nature. The term “connection with nature” is frequently used to describe this desire that individuals have; however, it is a very ambiguous concept. It suggests a relationship with nature rather than an environmental attitude or altruistic behavior. A conceptual framework to understand this multidisciplinary construct does not currently exist. However, during the last two decades, there has been an increasing interest from researchers to better understand this relationship and how it can be promoted.

Personal Growth and Independence

The call of the wilderness is often strong. For many people, it is the single most appealing feature of solo camping. In the wilderness, you can listen to your own thoughts, seek out your essence, and experience true inner freedom. The wilderness is a canvas of solace and tranquility. Without the distraction of others, you can monitor your frame of mind and discover your true internal direction. When you are out in the wilderness, you are able to clear away the cobwebs of a demanding work schedule and take in the fullness of nature. We don’t have to let our lives be run by technology. The revitalizing experience of being in contact with Mother Nature is available to everyone, from any walk of life.

You may have been in a situation where you were forced to depend upon yourself. It may have been an incident in childhood, or a situation in your adult life; in any case, you adapted to depending upon yourself. Some people come to know their own strengths and abilities. They have renewed confidence in their own dependability. They learn they can not only survive, but also enjoy their own company. Growth and self-awareness come from being fully in charge of your own existence. Solitude is necessary at times. If you have never experienced full responsibility for your comfort, warmth, and safety, you may be surprised to learn just how capable you are. When you become capable of making yourself comfortable regardless of the situation, a great measure of self-confidence and independence results.

Risks and Challenges

People also differ in their desire to be with others. Risk events are more likely to happen when risk-tolerance and risk averseness do not match the actual risk. With the exception of weather warnings, immediate success on a trip is generally a result of good information gathering during planning. The better the information, the more likely the plan is the best option for the conditions you will encounter on your trip. By relating the perceived risk of an aspect of planning to the actual objective forecast conditions, you can decide if that particular aspect of planning is over or under risked. Over-risked holiday stress comes from other people egging you on. Under-risked happens when other people do not share your view that something is risky, so that it doesn’t occur to you that maybe you shouldn’t rush on down the trail.

While solo trips can be some of the best outdoor experiences, they have added risks that require unique preparations. Evaluation of your strengths and capabilities is essential in trip planning. Risk management must be a continued consideration during the trip. There are many stages in a wilderness trip, and many things can go wrong at each stage. The more carefully you plan, the fewer surprises you will face. Some of the things that you should consider as you develop your plan: your risk tolerance, travel considerations, route selection, permits, rules, and regulations, fires, wild animals, adverse weather, injury/illness/navigation, aspect, exposure, and terrain, desert travel, time, estimating overall difficulty for the planned route, information sources, and wilderness experience. Generally, folks that avoid risk-taking behave in ways that minimize their risk, while risk-accepters maximize their risk.

Safety Concerns

The biggest danger you may face while solo camping is getting lost. Therefore, your top priority should be to acquire the knowledge and tools to prevent this. Pick up as much information as you can on orienteering and always leave your planned route behind for others to follow, so that they can send help if you don’t make it back to civilization by the agreed-upon deadline. If you’re going to a favorite camping area where there are other hikers, make friends with a group and tell them your itinerary.

Shelter from the elements is the greatest concern when you’re camping away from home, but there are plenty of other safety risks when you’re out in the woods alone. It’s important to remember that you are more likely to be a victim of your own clumsiness than a bear attack. If you’re equipped with a basic first aid kit and the knowledge to use it, you’ll have most of your safety issues covered even before you leave the house.

Mental Health Considerations

When planning a solo camping trip that you know will take place during a hard time, it is especially important to plan small tasks and little exercises that you can do to continue to feel grounded and focused. Since you will have more time alone, reflect on what will make your camping trip the happiest and most beneficial for you and add those things to your plan. Since you will have many new thoughts and ideas running through your head, bring something to write on and take long walks. Lord knows I have had many a compelling conversation with myself when I am out walking. And when all else fails, grab a fishing pole, go sit by the water, and fish for your supper. Not much is more relaxing than that.

It is also important to consider how anxiety and depression might affect your experience when you are camping alone. As a person who has lived with these conditions for a long time, I have experienced many times how very therapeutic and grounding nature can be when I start feeling anxious or sad. Although the evidence in this area is conflicting, studies have shown that spending time in nature may help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are many individual things about nature that have been proven through research to be therapeutic, such as the color green, photochemicals put out by plants, fresh air, sunlight, exercise, time away from technology, and increased Vitamin D levels from being in the sun. Even without these specific proven elements, the mere act of being outside can lead to less anxiety and depression and more feelings of happiness and joy.

Preparation and Planning

With proper planning and execution, we will experience complete solitude through self-reliance, intimacy with nature for physical relaxation and spiritual rejuvenation, personal reflection, and self-discovery. Each time we succeed, we come to understand ourselves and to trust ourselves a little better. Each trip enhances these gifts of wilderness. These are the rewards that make it all worthwhile. By acknowledging our fears, bringing them to the surface, recognizing and assuming the responsibilities associated with them, we maximize the powerful emotional and sensual rewards of venturing alone into the wilderness.

Once you’ve decided to head out alone, pretrip preparation is deeply empowering. There are infinite unknowns in our outdoor adventures. A smart decision-making process in the face of them is crucial to independent outdoor enjoyment. Throughout your trip, you should find the physical and emotional pleasure of being alone and independent as intoxicating as it is frightening. This is the definition of challenge and risk for fun. It can stand as an emotional metaphor for life, so we treat it with absolute reverence. Identify what behavior guidelines will help and develop a system to guide rational choices in the face of the unknown. Develop and practice skills that you’ll need to assume responsibility for your own trip. Sharing these adventures with like-minded women only enriches the experience.

Choosing the Right Location

If cutting ties with the world for a couple of days is what you’re after, a state or national park campground may suit you. Campgrounds are much like hotels in that there are often other people occupying them; yet for the most part, people are engaged in their own form of relaxation and may not expect to approach you.

Choosing a location will depend upon your goals as well as your own level of experience and comfort. Other considerations surely will come into play, such as proximity to other people. If you are new to solo camping, choosing a location near other people is a good idea. You probably will feel more secure knowing that other campers are within earshot. If you are not a super-experienced wilderness traveler or are new to solo camping but you want to really get out there, a local state or national forest, BLM land or wilderness is where you may want to start. Generally, you will have the option of going where you want with a bit of an ‘easy out’ if you need to leave early.

Packing Essentials

Flashlight and extra batteries: You should already know to bring a flashlight, and ideally a headlamp, when camping alone. My contribution to the standard wisdom of advice is this: pack two. Carry a headlamp for going hands free at night and a reliable flashlight to signal for help. In general, carry an extra of any staple you can’t risk going without. I also have two stoves on hand for longer trips. If camping in regulated wilderness think how you could escape or survive on foot. Backcountry areas often have several ways in, and a direct route may not be the best when you’re on your own. The map you picked up for this trip should have a story of the area and provide a lot of helpful and sometimes lifesaving advice.

Map and compass: When I’m out there alone, I get lost. Even on trails I’ve walked a dozen times with you in my ear looking up every step along the way, I get turned around if the trail is buried under snow or downed trees start to appear in the tundra. Carry a map, and don’t just carry it. Put it in a watertight bag so that it’s legible when you pull it out in a storm. Also learn how to read a map! Seriously, how are you getting to this remote, wild place alone in the world without some sort of self-reliance and then setting off without knowledge of the terrain?! At all times you should also carry a compass set for the location you are in or a GPS with batteries.

Time piece: Always know the time. Before setting forth in the morning and at points of decision throughout the day, I like to know what time it is. It tells me whether I should fear the setting sun and prompts me to act while I still have light if I’m moving too slow. Carry a light, functional and accurate time piece.

Sleeping pad and bag: A newbie mistake in solo camping is not investing enough in gear. After a few hours of laying on hard ground, it isn’t just fun, it’s painful. Get a comfortable, insulated sleeping pad and a high-quality sleeping bag. This is your bed when backpacking and you want it to give you a good night’s sleep. The other risk here is cold. If you get chilled, you don’t have someone to share body heat with. Invest in a sleeping pad with an R rating that’s reflective of the temperature you expect to encounter at night.

Emergency Protocols and Communication

In Idaho, or anywhere off the grid, there are so many places where you will not get any cell signal. And although it is quite a pain to have to carry a separate (and usually expensive) satellite communications device, the benefit can pay off tenfold. I have SOS activated my InReach when I took a wrong turn in the wilderness and didn’t know if my decision led to a deadly cliff or a road, and it took about 10 minutes to get a phone call from the rescue helicopter saving me. They then call your emergency contacts if that channel fails and dispatch search and rescue. I don’t love handing over personal information to a company to keep on file, but it has proven to be a very effective system in my experience. In a nutshell, technology data can save your life.

The best choice in a life-threatening emergency is to have a satellite communication device that can get you out of any place on the planet. This can literally be a life-saver, and the freedom that it affords is worth the often hefty price tag. Especially if you are dealing with some health issues or have medical concerns, a simple press of a button can interrupt your solo camping and get the help you need in a matter of hours. Cell phones are not reliable and are not the first choice, especially in the backcountry. The emergency number is 911, and it does help to know your GPS location (latitude and longitude) so you can communicate that to dispatch. This is much faster than waiting for their technology to pinpoint you in the woods.