I choked on the lie, but it still slipped out.
“You aren’t going alone, right?”
“Of course not,” I stammered.
I was diligently checking maps, trail conditions and planning various routes for my first solo backpacking trip — and I was definitely going alone. I wanted to proudly say yes, I was going solo, but I felt guilty, like I was breaking the rules. And I didn’t want a lecture.
Sometimes, doing things alone outside feels like a form of rebellion, like I am a teenager, plotting to sneak out of the house to go to a forbidden party. I’m actually in my mid-30s and I’ve hiked alone for years.
It started when I moved to places where I didn’t know anyone and realized I could either go alone or not go at all. I learned I liked hiking on my own and going as far and as fast I wanted, but I dreaded running into people on the trail who often asked some version of “Are you by yourself?”
The question makes me defensive. At best I prepare for a disapproving look and a comment about how I need to be careful. At worst I wonder if they are asking because they want to murder me and make sure I don’t have a companion coming that might interrupt them. Neither scenario is great.
I understand there are safety reasons to hike with other people and there are certain places because of the terrain or wildlife I wouldn’t go alone. I realize, no matter how experienced I am outside and even if I’m on a trail, that if I slip and break my leg 10 miles from civilization without cell phone service or a partner to run for help, I’m in trouble. But what if you don’t have someone to go with? What if you want solitude?
The outdoors can be a dangerous place — whether you are with someone or alone. Traveling the wild is a calculated risk for everyone. But the perception of that risk is not applied equally. In my small and unscientific poll, my male friends said they’ve never been asked about being alone or lectured on safety when hiking by themselves.
Women solo backpacking is not a new or novel thing. Cheryl Strayed wrote a best-selling book about her 94-day solo trip on the Pacific Crest Trail and I knew other women who’d gone out alone, for single nights, or week-long expeditions. But I’d never done it myself, even though I thought about it for years.
At first I worried I’d get bored. But the longer my day hikes became the more I realized I was fine with my own company. Later I worried about carrying my own gear — most of my equipment is old, heavy and clunky. But a few small upgrades made it easy to fit everything for a night or two in my pack.
Some of my women friends confessed they’d always wanted to backpack solo but they were scared of animals, or more commonly, they said, other people they might encounter when alone. I related. I picked the Bighorns for my first solo overnight adventure where I wouldn’t have to worry about grizzly bears, or, if I was lucky, other people.
Time constraints forced me to scale my trip to a quick overnight. Even so, you’d have thought I was planning a massive expedition. I called the Forest Service about potential routes and conditions. I consulted friends familiar with the mountains and I studied maps.
If something happened to me, it wasn’t going to be because I was an unprepared girl.
I headed out on a July afternoon. Despite my late start I didn’t see any other cars when I parked and began my walk up the rocky road to the Cloud Peak Wilderness boundary.
Several miles in to the hike to Lake Angeline, drenched in sweat from the sun’s unfettered access to me in an old forest burn, I turned around to better feel a breeze. I realized I was totally alone. It was not the highest I’d ever hiked, or on the most remote trail. But the combination of solo hiking and a trail no one else was using that day gave me a sense of solitude I rarely feel.
It was hotter than I expected and I was in worse physical shape than I’d realized, but I didn’t have to worry about how slowly I moved. There was no one to hold back, or compare myself to. I rested when I wanted, snacked when I was hungry (constantly) and made all the decisions.
I am terribly indecisive. Ask anyone who has had to watch me choose what to eat for dinner. It’s usually easiest for me to defer to someone else. But on this trip I determined which way to go when it appeared the trail split and I decided where to set up the tent. A wrong decision would only inconvenience myself. It was a low-stakes decision, but it felt freeing.
Basic chores like filtering water and cooking dinner kept me busy at camp, but left me plenty of time to read, write and just sit in the quietness. It was a clear night and I had the lake to myself. I slept without the rain fly, there was no need for privacy and I watched the stars take over the sky as it darkened.
A bright sweeping light woke me. I shot up to a sitting position, slightly disoriented with my heart pounding. My brain foggy from the sudden pull from sleep took a moment to register it was the headlamps of backpackers looking for a flat spot to pitch a tent. My watch showed it was almost 1 a.m.
I immediately started mentally racing through questions. How many were there? Why were they coming into camp so late? And most importantly did I care? That one was easy. I was tired enough I decided I didn’t and I went back to sleep.
I woke up with the mountains. I hadn’t slept well thanks to wind that hammered my tent for what seemed like hours and my unexpected late-night neighbors arrival. But the bright splashes of color that filled the sky and made the rocky faces around the lake glow orange reminded why the effort to haul my gear miles into the mountains only to sleep on the ground was so worth it.
On my way out I ran into fishermen headed to the lake. We talked about the fish I’d seen rising and I thought for a moment one might ask the almost rhetorical question if I was by myself, but they didn’t. I realized I’ve been getting that question less frequently in recent years.
When I was back in cell service range I alerted friends I was out and safe and the trip was beautiful and uneventful.
And I think I just might go again.