It can be overwhelming to get out into nature on your own. It’s good.
I started my first solo backpacking trip in 2014. It is no small admission to say that the effort has changed the course of my life.
This trip was – maybe – overdone for my first attempt at backpacking alone. I covered 150 miles combined over multiple rides on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana and Wyoming. But I chose my system and wilderness skills, pushed bubbles and faced my fears over the course of these kilometers.
In a world full of noise, constant camaraderie, phones that never turn off, and internet advice that keeps on coming, I would like to give you one more piece of advice: turn everything off. Take a walk in the dirt.
Backpack alone this summer.
Why backpack alone?
A very short pack tour in the wilds of Anaconda-Pintler. I walked to this place in less than a mile (2019)
Why backpack alone? It’s a question to think about. It can seem scary and risky and there are certainly risks. It can seem lonely, and it can be. And it can sound like too much of a challenge. Well it is and it is not.
I would argue this to you – if for some reason the idea of backpacking alone causes the slightest fuss, then it is for you. If anxiety or fear accompanies the excitement, then it’s still for you.
There is a world of benefits in finding out what you can do alone and in the open air. And when you face physical and mental challenges, you will create another person.
It’s not about self-esteem or even self-confidence; It’s about resilience. Weather, physical exertion, wild animals, self-feeding, sleeping outside of civilization – these experiences encourage us to reflect on what it means to be vulnerable and human.
Backpack alone: first steps
Pack Alone in the Wind River Mountains (2014)
Previous backpacking experience will certainly help, but I would like to underline that it is not required. Backpacking can also be as difficult or as easy as you’d like it to be.
At first I made it very difficult. Time and kilometers forced me into a routine of simplicity that made things a lot more enjoyable. I am not easily thwarted by my own stupidity. There is a live-and-learn aspect of my outdoor life that I am constantly discovering after 7 years of adventure.
Whatever. The basics that I bring with me are pretty simple. Here is a recap of my current packing list and my favorite items. (Editor’s Note: This is what I have on hand that I would be packing with today.)
My pack setup on the CDT (2014)
This is simply the gear I came to after years of being outdoors and working on the gear side of the industry. My first backpack tent was a $ 20 second hand Walmart special. my first Walking stick came from Costco. Each lasted a couple of years.
Please don’t spend a few grand on your first setup. Find out your budget and then work on it.
Ask friends if you can borrow equipment. Buy second hand things. Find out where to invest.
In my opinion, a good pair of shoes, a decent backpack with hip and chest straps, a great sleeping mat, and a warm sleeping bag are probably the most important things. All of this can be bought second-hand at reasonable prices without boots or borrowed from friends.
When should you go Where? And for how long?
Backpacking my Border Collie in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness (2016)
Personally, I like hiking in Montana in late summer. The mosquitos and biting flies have subsided and there is usually a lovely stretch where the mountains are most inviting. The nights are not too cold. Storms roll through, but they usually don’t stay around. It sure is a sweet spot.
Wherever you are, there is likely a prime time to be outside. Find out. Then make a plan.
The length of your trip should be more than one night in my opinion. The first night outside is often the most difficult. The animals move at night. And they are curious about you and your tent in their room.
It is not indefinite to believe that your imagination is working overtime and that the “bear” outside your tent is likely not a bear but a rustling branch or a porcupine (or other small creature) checking things out. After the first night, you will likely be tired for the second night.
I’ve heard and seen moose, black and grizzly bears, moose, deer, coyotes, foxes, marmots, pikas, birds and many unfamiliar footsteps and snoops through my camp. I’m ok You will (most likely) be fine too. No risk, no reward. I will add that my bear spray and Garmin inReach Mini offer exceptional safety. Highly recommended.
A note on safety. Of course, you should bring safety items such as a first aid kit and bear spray. But if the idea of being really alone in the wild makes you nervous, bring whatever makes you feel safe. A satellite device or GPS to keep in touch. A lantern, a cozy blanket. A pocket knife. Whatever this “I Feel Ready” article is for you.
Who backpacks alone?
Backpacking solo in the recreation area Glen Canyon (2018)
Really if you can boil water and pitch a tent you can carry a backpack on your own.
So, the “who” are you, whoever you are. You don’t have to be an ultra runner to carry a backpack. You don’t even have to be out like that.
Your body can be what it is. Your gender and your personal identity are irrelevant in the forest. Your fitness level doesn’t have to be at its best either.
When you are alone and leaving, you are the one making the call. Get some rest when you need to rest. Move when you need to move. Set realistic goals.
A 10 mile hike is fine and good for some of you, but even a 2 mile hike to a lake can be just as good for many of us. Sometimes the shortest trips are the cutest.
And I promise – the world will receive you step by step as you are.
Solo Backpacking: Final Thoughts
A look into the saw teeth (2016)
Backpacking alone helped me to receive myself.
As strange as that sounds, I have been plagued by fear for much of my life. Backpacking helped focus that fear in a new way.
What I realized was that the fear and dread I felt in the forest was my well-oiled instinctive survival response. It was my body’s lucid way of telling me I was in danger, and it was also its way of telling me that we – both my mind and body – wanted to survive.
It was also no different from the fear and dread I felt in my daily endeavors. The fear of stacked emails was clouded compared to the very real fear of a grizzly that got in my way. That perspective, while sounding crazy, has softened my sanity for the better.
I think the final point to make in this effort is this: With just the backpack I could see my own feeling of being from a bird’s eye view.
For me, the rewards far outweighed the risks. Backpacking solo became a foundation on which I built my outdoor life and now my career.
What I learned gave me the courage to approach life in a new way, to enjoy what it means to be a person, to stand up for what I know I am able to be. I now fish, hunt and pack in such a way that nature goes far beyond a simple overnight guest.
I’m counting down the days until my next trip. My HOKAs and my old backpack are waiting for me.
Llamas, mugwort, mule deer: check out a summer Nevada hunt
Follow Argali Outdoors’s Brad Brooks as he packs llamas into upstate Nevada in August on the hunt for mule deer. Continue reading…