The first summer of the Pandemic, I, like so many others, was experiencing intense Pandemic fatigue—I was feeling restless, uncharacteristically irritable, and intensely lonely from the isolation. I was a new mother in a new city, and I needed to make a change for my mental health.
I had limited solo hiking experience in the past, but quickly realized, given the Pandemic and also having just moved to a new city, it was going to be my only option if I was going to hike and stay healthy (both physically and emotionally). As I looked for routes for my first hike in the Boise foothills, I was a bit nervous—I knew very little about the area, but with a little research, I knew I could prepare myself to stay safe.
It was late June, and it was HOT, so I packed more water than I normally would. I made sure my daypack had all of my 10 essentials, then I put my daughter to bed, let my husband know exactly where I was going and when to expect me back, and set off.
That first mile was the most exciting and nerve racking mile I’ve ever walked in my life. I quickly realized a few things:
- The stress of the Pandemic had affected me more than I realized. I think I had spent so much time trying to survive it, that I had put blinders on, and continued to sweep my emotions under the rug. I hadn’t taken the time to process and grieve the loss of safety to do basic daily things, like going to the grocery store, or the separation from loved ones. All of those ignored emotions surfaced in that first mile, and it was unexpectedly intense.
- I spend far too much time immersed in the future. In daily life, I am constantly planning for and thinking about the future, and when I hike with others, I’m distracted with conversation. But when I was alone, I realized I needed to be more aware of my surroundings and in the present moment. It was surprisingly relieving; I felt like a burden was lifted off my shoulders.
- I was overly anxious about wildlife. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t be cautious, but I was hyperaware. Every time the tall grasses rustled in the breeze, I thought it was a snake or large predator. I realized that only more time alone would help me overcome those fears.
- Most importantly: I felt alive and at peace at the same time and needed to do this more often.
After that first hike, I decided I was going to solo hike every week, no matter how tired I was or whatever else was going on in my life. Each time I finished another mile, I found myself feeling less anxious and more comfortable. I quickly recognized how healing it was to spend that uninterrupted time with my own thoughts. It wasn’t always pleasant, because healing isn’t always comfortable, but I was driven to improve my mental health, while simultaneously doing something that I have always loved to do.
For those who feel like they would like to venture out on their own, I have some suggestions for how to stay safe while solo hiking:
- Research your trail of choice, familiarize yourself with maps, and check the current trail conditions. Some people will suggest your first solo hike should be something you’re familiar with. That’s a great suggestion, but not always an option if you are new to an area or can’t due to closures, etc. A quick internet search can go a long way, or a local guide book. Read the details of the trail and really study the map of your route and the surrounding area before setting out and make sure it’s something you feel comfortable with doing. Sometimes you may feel up to steep climbs, while other days you may not. Many descriptions also give details that you can then use as a landmark to help you navigate. It’s even better if you can learn how to use a compass and navigate independently of electronic devices. And of course, always bring your map with you. Also check the current trail conditions. Sometimes you find the perfect trail, but learn that portions are closed due to trail maintenance. There may also be required permits or rules, recent animal sightings, snow (even in the summer), etc., so it’s helpful to check ahead of time.
- Always tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back. Share the coordinates of your hiking trail with someone and where you plan to park your car if possible, which is particularly easy in this day and age with local websites that have links to specific trailheads, or apps like AllTrails. Research how long the hike should take, and let someone know when to expect your return. If something were to happen, someone would know you need help and can alert search and rescue.
- Educate yourself about typical weather patterns and plan for inclement weather. Even when you check the weather ahead of time, always plan for unpredictable and inclement weather. Sometimes a “bright and sunny day” suddenly changes, and you’ll be so happy that you have your rain gear and extra layers!
- Learn about the wildlife in your area and what to do if you encounter any. This is one of the most common fears, and it prevents so many people from hiking solo. When it comes to wildlife, knowledge is empowering. Research wildlife in the area you plan to hike, and best practices to de-escalate situations and make the animals feel less threatened by your presence.
- Be aware of your surroundings, including other people. Most other hikers you’ll encounter are out to enjoy nature just like you. It’s still a good idea to exercise caution and be aware of your surroundings.
- Bring the right gear. Always bring your 10 essentials: navigation, water, food, sun protection, insulation, headlamp, shelter, knife, something to start a fire. While this should be a regular practice, it’s particularly important when you’re solo hiking.
Hiking with others is a safer option, but you can still hike solo safely. Not everyone has people in their lives who enjoy or are able to hike, sometimes your best hiking buddies are unavailable, or sometimes you may just want a different experience. Whatever the case may be, with the proper planning, knowledge, gear, and precautions, I have found that hiking solo is not only doable, but extremely enjoyable. It’s a completely different experience than hiking with others, and something to at least consider trying sometime.
Not ready to solo hike, but don’t know have someone to go with? There are lots of local groups that hike together, and online communities like Outdoorsy Gals, which has connected women from all over the country and even the world with each other. Alpine Sisters has also started a Facebook group for women to share their hiking adventures and ask for advice on gear, trails, and any general outdoor adventure questions.
It’s a good idea to meet in a public place before hiking with strangers to get to know them first and always trust your instincts, but online communities can be an excellent way to meet like minded women.
Be safe and enjoy exploring!
Shannon, Owner of Alpine Sisters