|Still Water, Solo Backpacker.|
We set off on the Chattooga Cliffs Trail in North Carolina from the Bull Pen Bridge Trailhead (10.2 miles total out and back). This trail was really beautiful back in July, though I’d recalled it was also technically challenging- several rock scrambles and butt-scoots. As part of my preparations for the PCT, I was carrying a bear canister for the first time with enough food for several days. And if that wasn’t enough, the trail was icy so those were ice-encrusted rock scrambles, with the extra 10 lbs in my pack. This was NOT something I’d do solo, but it was a good challenge with Still Waters. One of the important things about choosing to go solo is deciding when to take risks and when to play it safe. When I go solo, I know where my limits are and where I can push things.
|Icy and challenging Chattooga Cliffs Trail.|
|It was great practice carrying the bear canister, seeing how well it fit in my pack, and opening it in the cold with this method.|
We talked a lot the first night about differences between backpacking with a friend and going solo. For me the biggest difference is in choosing a campsite. When we camp with a group, campsite selection is often dictated by space or aesthetics, and is restricted (usually) to established sites. Going solo, I camp far from trailheads, and I make make myself either highly visible or highly invisible. If I use an established campsite, if anyone is camped nearby, I’ll be assertive and talk to the other campers and see if I get a good feeling, all before I set up. Otherwise, I stealth camp. On our first night, we camped at a stealth site that is typical for me when I go solo- we “went high", halfway up the hillside where it is warmer, and hidden from view of the trail.
|The Chattooga is gorgeous, but we didn't camp near it cause it would have been even more cold down along it's banks.|
Everyone has their own motivation for going solo. Still Waters was interested in having a quiet, peaceful experience. I went solo backpacking at first because I wanted the confidence boost and because I though it would prepare me for a thru hike, but then because I found it made me a more competent backpacker. It allowed me to do more miles than I would with friends or groups. As I experimented with pace, nutrition, and techniques, my backpacking skills improved by leaps and bounds as I learned to listen to my body and develop my own style that was in tune with what worked for me. Things I hadn’t learned when surrounded by other people when decisions are made for the benefit of the group. Guess the important thing is to keep in mind why you want to go solo.
Second night: going solo
The next morning, Still Waters dropped me off at the Bad Creek Trail, which led to the start of my Chattooga River Trail thru hike, while she set off on her solo from the Nicholson Ford Trailhead. I’ve section hiked the entire Chattooga River Trail multiple times, but this was my first time going in one continuous trip- 40.5 miles in 2 days. With the bear canister. With another 20-degree night. I’m not gonna lie- this trip reminded me about the best and worst of hiking solo. I hit a low point on the last day when I could tell I was pushing too fast. My feet were not used to carrying that much weight. I knew I needed take a break and not get so *freaking obsessed* with my miles per hour, and also not to worry so much about how many extra minutes it took me to get packed up in the morning fumbling around with my gloves on. When I’m solo, I see more clearly how I can be my own worst enemy.
|At low points, it always helps to take dorky self-portraits, get email messages from friends, and write to-do lists.|
After the trip, I met up with Still Waters to hear about her successful solo night on the trail. She’d found an awesome stealth site and stayed warm. Way to go Still Waters! Hope you have many safe and enjoyable nights out on the trail!
Here are some other tIps for going solo that we discussed:
-When first going solo, start small. I’d go to places where I was very comfortable- state parks where I could sign in at the park office, or the Appalachian Trail where there is a trail culture that I trust. Start with solo day hikes.
-Take care of yourself- this is your number one priority- don’t mess around. Listen to your body, adjust your pace, and be mindful.
-Be aware. Pay attention to everyone you see on the trail. Listen to your gut. Know your strengths and be prepared. I also took wilderness first aid and self-defense courses.
-Enjoy yourself. Do exactly what you want, when you want. Linger at waterfalls. Go swimming. Take a nap. Eat dinner at 3 PM. Savor every moment. Remember the distinction between being alone and being lonely.
|Giving my feet a break and having an early dinner (dehydrated roasted veggies & sweet potato soup).|
-Know where you can get cell signal. I don’t normally advocate relying on cell phones in the backcountry, but I have found it very helpful to know the locations of cell service on various ridges or gaps on some of my favorite trails. Where reception is faint, text messages are more reliable than calling or email.
-Don’t get lost. Until I was very comfortable going solo, I’d stick to routes I knew. I always pay constant attention to my location and where I am going. I take extra time at all trail junctions, I backtrack if I have any doubt, I take photos of signs and trail junctions (with time stamps so I keep track of my pace so I can calculate expected travel times to various places). I bring multiple maps and trail guides. I research my trips throughougly, calling the local ranger station a few days before, reading blogs, forums, and websites. I have backup plans and I know alternate routes.
-Bring music or podcasts to listen to before you go to sleep. Or bring earplugs. Helps keep away the sounds of night-time monsters. This doesn't creep me out anymore (much) but it used to.
-Take advantage of the extra time and freedom to cultivate your backpacking skills. For example, spending extra time exploring when looking for campsites has provided me with a better understanding of how the wind moves over gaps and ridges and which plant communities are found on warmer vs. wetter slopes. I also spend more time taking photos and looking at plants when I’m by myself- all things I enjoy.
|Gentians still blooming on Thanksgiving weekend.|
From Roam the Woods- more great tips for solo backpacking
The Girl Who Goes Alone, by Elizabeth Austen- this piece is awesome and inspiring and tells it like it is!!! (another link to the full poem here)
Article about solo paddling that touches on many issues about safety.