Alone On The Trail: On Backpacking, Confidence, And Bears
I just graduated. Which is fun and all, but it also means I need to find a healthy way of dealing with the realities of my life ASAP before I end up becoming the neediest, most annoying person ever to cry in Harris Teeter while clutching a packet of nori. To help deal with all the graduation, moving-on madness, I decided to spend a month backpacking (the hiking, not the international kind). I’m starting solo, alone on the trail, because I don’t want to worry about anyone else’s mileage, hesitations, or need to talk all the time. I also don’t want to wake up to someone eyeing my granola bars every morning.
I’m really excited to be unfettered for a time, though admittedly, my dad isn’t so pleased about my lack of proper defense tools. He’s gone from heated, poorly-constructed attempts to convince me to carry a revolver to giving me in-depth instructions on how to use a knife in hand-to-hand combat. My dad isn’t the only one with concerns, though—most people ask me if I’m crazy or give me a hesitant, painful “wow” when they learn I’m going by myself. I don’t think all of these reservations have to do with my femaleness. A lot of them simply touch on a general trepidation of the great, big out(side-of-phone-service) doors.
People fear a lot of things in the woods: insane people, bears, snakes, bugs, small rodents, large rodents, ankle sprains, thunderstorms, hard ground, hard work, work, no work, homework, the salinity content of Ramen, discipline, responsibility, being alone, death, life, the existence of purgatory, etc. Only some of these should be feared, or at least considered when preparing for an outdoor excursion. But none of them, not even insane people, bears, or the salinity content of Ramen are worth sacrificing the pleasures and pains of backpacking. Especially if you’re a lady, and even if some people think it’s not safe.
Bears initially inspired a wide swath of fears for me, until I learned that, at least on the east coast, black bear run-ins are pretty darn passive. You’ll see a lot of bear butts and a lot of bears running away from you. Definitely don’t start snuggling with a wayward baby bear though, because the mama bear might try to snuggle your face in her mouth. If you want to avoid waking up to a bear paw scooping to steal your trail mix, just hang a bear bag. Hang it right, too – them bears are pretty clever. Another way to keep the bears away is to get rid of smelly things. Bears will be more attracted to your deodorant and toothpaste than whatever mountain man or woman you’re trying to impress with your fresh-out-the-shower-but-still-sweat-infused scent.
You can also buy a can of bear spray if you’re willing to lug the load in honor of safety. Bear spray runs at about $30 to $50 and weighs a little more than 8 oz. It’s definitely heavier than pepper spray, but a little more multi-purpose (can be used against the very, very rare rogue bear). I’ll be carrying bear spray because I want to have something to cuddle with at night. Tenting with no one in sight or earshot takes a lot of getting used to, and, in the sound-magnified chamber of midnight, imposing chainsaw sociopaths set to kidnap girl hikers in the backcountry seem more and more likely.
IMPOSING CHAINSAW-WIELDING SOCIOPATHS:
Which brings me to people, namely our imposing chainsaw sociopaths. Weird people like to hike and camp, and some people you’ll meet might seem a little odd, though completely harmless. If you start fearing murderers or horror-movie torturers, just remember that any smart murderer would go to a place with people aplenty. They most likely wouldn’t have the time, energy, or endurance to hike out to you. But as I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t mean you won’t be scared of them and other irrational things your first few nights tenting alone.
Another potential human threat lies in hitchhiking, a practice generally required to resupply on long distance hikes. During the past couple weeks, I’ve learned two things: By no means should I hitchhike while on the trail and by no means should I tell any safety-conscious, concerned adult that I will probably have to hitchhike while on the trail. I haven’t done it yet, so I’m far from an expert, but based on what I’ve been told and what I’ve read, a lady by herself can find another hiker to hitch with her to town pretty easily. If that’s not possible, then be a little picky about the hitchdriver. Maybe shoot for a lady driver or a man driver you could definitely beat up. Or walk to town if you don’t want to hitchhike. Whatever you decide, keep your bear spray or your knife or whatever fairly close. And, as in all things, use your head and don’t freak out.
DON’T BE STUPID WITH NATURE:
Apart from bears and humans, watch for ticks when you’re out there. Filter your water if the stream is cloudy. Don’t use a snake as a scrunchie. If you get hurt while backpacking on a fairly populated trail, stay put and wait for other hikers to catch up. At least on the longer trail in summertime, you’ll probably only have to wait a few hours for someone to reach you. Compress any bleeding wounds, stilt broken bones, summon that girl/boy scout first aid training, and get creative in solving the problems in front of you.
GET YOUR CONFIDENCE, OR CRY ALONE IN THE WOODS, WHATEVER WORKS:
My spirit animal is a house cat that thinks it’s a lion. Not because I talk a big talk with little to no substance behind it, but because I know the right time to venture out from a table and the right time hide beneath it. I’m venturing out from the table by doing this whole thing, but I also trust that I’ll know which situations from which to quietly extract myself. The biggest thing I need to remember, and that I think is valuable for everyone to remember when backpacking is confidence—not that you won’t run into any problems, but that, when you do, you’ll handle them. The backcountry is just like anywhere else: when you start doubting yourself, you mess up and make stupid decisions.
In essence, there are dangers out there, but you can handle them. Don’t let any strained “wow”s or “really”s keep you from wandering the great woods around you or even the slightly more disturbing caverns of your own company. Backpacking, especially solo, isn’t always a picnic, though it’s a really cool way to reassert trust in and dependence on yourself. Plus, solo backpacking means you can cry whenever you want and no one, not even employee-of-the-month Todd, will look at you with soul-piercing pity as they swipe and bag a slightly damp packet of nori.
Have any more suggestions? Disagree vehemently? Either leave your comments below or mutter them quietly to yourself while laughing at all the fools missing out on your great advice. Do what you want. I’m not your mom.