The Art Of Alone: Being Good Company Whilst Hiking Solo
*This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Travel Play Live
When I sat down to plan this article, one thing resounded more than others about my approach: what is my point of differentiation? What can I tell you lovely ladies about solo hiking that you haven’t heard before? According to me, the Hike Priestess, one who is obviously an unabashed and totally modest wealth of knowledge about all things hiking and outdoors (!), what do you need to know more than anything about preparing to go solo for the first time?
And so as you do when you plan a piece of writing, I jotted notes about hike preparation: route selection, food, water sources, equipment, logistics, hygiene, and communications. You know, normal hike stuff. But then I really thought about my first solo adventure. What was the difference between that hike and all of my other trips? Why is solo hiking so significant that we need an entire article devoted to its preparation? Surely if our ladies are thinking of taking the plunge into solitary wandering, they are reasonably experienced hikers who know how to pack a pack with the correct equipment for all conditions, they can navigate, and they know how to feed and hydrate themselves. Do I need to explain how to prepare those aspects for a solo adventure?
For me, I find the biggest difference in preparing for a solo hike versus a group hike is not in the quantity of food to take, nor the location of water sources, nor the length of the trip nor even the issue of communications. For me, the biggest difference in preparing for a solo adventure is the very nature of the trip: the concept of actually going totally solo, and mastering the art of being happy with solitude.
Whilst this might sound somewhat obvious, it’s the gravity of this concept that is particularly important. The significance is not only that you need to prepare everything yourself, do everything yourself, and carry everything yourself, but that you need to be prepared to be by yourself for the duration of your trip. This can mean different things for different people, especially depending on whether you are fundamentally introverted or extroverted. And there is a difference between grabbing some “me-time” away from our partners, kids, parents, friends, siblings, colleagues, or just other humans in general, wherein we retreat to a quiet room or a yoga class or the gym or just put headphones on and tune out, and going out hiking solo where we find ourselves completely, utterly, and entirely alone. The psychological adventure that you go through once you have the realisation that you’re out there with no one is just as much fun as the physical one!
The idea of “me-time” that I outlined above is critical, but is often short-term or temporary. The difference between this kind of “me-time” and solo hiking is that the latter sees us become entirely isolated. Properly alone. No one else around. Possibly for days at a time. And it is only once we are in this position that we really come to appreciate what that means.
As an introverted child, I spent an awful lot of time in my own company, and I use that phrase deliberately. I would argue that one of the most important skills that one has to develop if one is to go out on solo hiking adventures is the ability to be content in one’s own company. I’ve had many years to practice this, and I feel very comfortable being alone for long stints. And yet the first time I went out solo hiking, out into terrain with which I am intimately familiar, I experienced the exhilarating realisation that I was totally without the company or presence of others. I had no phone signal. I had no one camping at neighbouring sites. I had no other human contact whatsoever. All I had was myself, the myriad little midges buzzing around my head torch, the koala screaming in the tree next to my tent, and the stars. Oh, the stars. That moment was thrilling, and yet I can appreciate that for many people, it can be completely overwhelming, even terrifying.
So if I were to offer advice on how to prepare for a solo trip, what would I recommend first up? Become familiar with yourself as you are when you are on your own. Acclimatise to being by yourself. Go for long car trips with no radio and no music. Listen to your thoughts. Meet your internal monologue. I took for granted that everyone had fifty thousand very vocal thoughts buzzing around their head in any given moment, and then I realised that this is something symptomatic of my over-excited, hyper-processing brain. Some people can actually experience internal silence! Incredible! I can almost guarantee, though, that after only a few hours of total solitude, you will begin to hear yourself. You might even, like me, begin to externalise your internal monologue. Many might call that insane; I call it getting to know yourself and becoming comfortable in your own company.
Is it wise to go out on a multi-day trek as a first solo venture? I wouldn’t advise it, but not for the reasons you might think. If you are competent enough a hiker to be considering going solo, I daresay you know enough about food preparation, water sourcing, hygiene, equipment, navigation and so on to be able to manage out there physically. But if you’re used to being in the company of others, going out alone for a multi-day trip could test the boundaries of what you are okay with psycho- emotionally when it comes to being in your own company, to use that magical phrase again. So again, I recommend easing into it. Go out to an area that you’re familiar with and take a day walk. Enjoy the sounds of nature around you, and again, listen to that internal monologue. This isn’t just the words that your brain might be saying, but the simple observations it might make. When I walked a very familiar track solo for the first time, I was astonished at the different things I noticed – not so much with regard to new physical aspects I saw or new sounds I heard or anything like that. Instead, I noticed proper freedom. I noticed that I could stop and look around me and soak in my surrounds without the pressure of having other people wanting to keep moving. I could walk at my own pace, be it slower or faster than normal, because I didn’t have others setting the speed for me. I could decide on when and where I stopped for a snack break. I noticed that my perceptions of the view, of the gradient of the hill, of the surface of the track, of the temperature, were entirely my own and not jaded by others’ input. When we are with others, this happens whether we want it to or not. The subconscious is a remarkably strong muscle. The empowerment of that moment is what is the most significant thing about my first solo hike, and is one of the reasons why I love to get out there alone as often as I can.
What's the take-away from all this? Before you head off on your solo adventure, start by becoming really, properly and intimately familiar with yourself as an independent, solitary entity. Be alone and in nature for a couple of hours at a time. Become accustomed to natural silence, to being without music or background noise. Embrace your internal monologue. And when you have that moment of realisation that you are alone with only the environment and your own thoughts for company, stop and cherish it. Remember how it feels: the terrified tingling that comes with realising you’re alone. That, my dear ladies, is the exhilarating experience of empowerment. It’s the very reason why we hike; why we go out hunting in nature. Because we end up properly finding ourselves.
What have you found out about yourself whilst hiking solo? If you haven't tried it, what do you feel is holding you back? Let us know in the comments below!