Venturing out into the backcountry or the mountains can be a liberating experience or a very frightening one. For some, the thought of travelling anywhere solo is downright paralyzing; some folks wouldn't even be caught dead eating in a restaurant or going to the movies alone.
I recently read that the number one thing keeping women from adventuring outdoors, either alone or with friends, was this one simple thing...
Nope, it wasn’t money. Lack of proper gear or know-how? Think again. Afraid we’re not in good enough shape? Nada. And it’s not lacking the time for it either. Or our possible fear of bears.
Ladies, the biggest barrier to us getting out there and having our next adventure is OUR OWN MIND. Lack of self-confidence in the above-mentioned topics. Negative self-talk. Fear of the unknown. Second-guessing everything under the sun. Over-thinking...
Now, this isn’t going to be an essay in psychology or an analysis of your emotional well-being. And it’s certainly not a treatise on sexism (let’s not go there just yet). But if erroneous beliefs are hindering you from getting out there and healing your soul with a bit of love from Mother Nature, then they deserve to be examined. Or better yet, tossed out the window on the way to your next adventure! So let’s address them.
Fear # 1: I’m not capable
Sure, hiking alone is riskier than in a group. I wouldn’t have ventured out alone when I first started hiking and frankly, it isn't something that I would suggest everyone tries.
You’d be surprised how quickly you can build up your outdoor skills and confidence. While healthy fear and skepticism are good (and I would argue necessary), there are ways to whittle down irrational thoughts and hyper-vigilance.
Here are a few practical tips that have helped me out:
Spend time hiking with friends and other nature enthusiasts. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel. Experience is key.
Read up on gear - not on the latest and greatest, but on essentials like backpacks and hiking boots. Add your favourite companies and websites to your Favourites bar.
Peruse trail reports in guidebooks or on websites, and search out fun blogs. Alltrails is a popular app, but I personally enjoy more detailed trail breakdowns. Invest in a proper guidebook (like my favourite, Don’t Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies) or find a website you like.
If you’ve purchased new gear, use it beforehand to get a feel for it. With a new backcountry tent, go car camping and practice pitching it and taking it down, or set it up in your backyard overnight. Cook a few meals on the patio with your new stove or even better, take it on a picnic to a local park.
Learn how to treat blisters and administer basic First Aid. This will go a long way towards helping you feel self-sufficient and empowered in nature. Here's what I pack into my Basic Hiking First Aid Kit
Research the crap out of the trail you’d like to do. Bring paper maps and know how to read them; compare them to trail signs as you go along. For more on what to research, read Blunder # 1 of Four Dangerous (or Foolish) Hiking Blunders.
Lastly, but most importantly, follow your instincts. Keep hiking with other people if going alone sincerely scares you. There's absolutely no truth or validity to statements like Real hikers do it alone (I saw that on a bumper sticker once). Complete rubbish.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to face a doubt or a fear is to simply face it head on.
Don’t boldly take an overnight backcountry trip with a Canadian Tire tent and a can of tuna.
Prepare yourself, then suck it up and try it - and watch your confidence grow.
Fear # 2 : I wouldn’t feel safe
As much as our fears hold us back more than our reality, I strongly believe in following your gut. If something doesn't feel right and the hair on your neck stands up, pay attention! If your spidey senses tell you not to do something, then don't.
There are basically five things that could get you into trouble out there: injuries, weather, wildlife, navigation and other hikers.
Injuries Your chances of getting into trouble following an injury (like a twisted ankle or a blown knee) obviously increase when hiking alone. Mitigate this by hiking solo on popular trails that you know will be well-trodden. Always leave your hiking info with one or two people (where you’re going, expected time of return). I often prepare a note to leave on my car’s dashboard (Natalie (last name), hiking Pocaterra Ridge on Sat May 15th. If this car is still parked here on Sun May 16th, please call Search and Rescue at 555-555-5555).
Weather This is why packing smart is so important. Weather changes rapidly and unexpectedly in the mountains; getting cold or wet can be life-threatening. Bring extra outer layers (mitts, tuque, even extra socks if your feet get wet), a wind/rainproof jacket or poncho and an emergency blanket (this light and thin blanket can literally save your life). Read about what to pack in Blunder # 2 of Four Dangerous (or Foolish) Hiking Blunders.
Wildlife Bring bear spray and know how to use it (here’s a handy video); keep it in an accessible spot outside your backpack. Every once in a while, I’ll grab my canister and whip it out like Clint Eastwood, just to practice manipulating it. It sounds ridiculous, but if Angry Mama Bear pops out of nowhere, you won’t have much time to react and you’ll have to rely on muscle memory to get that canister ready. Minimize encounters by chatting with your fellow hikers, making noise, laughing, and singing.
Despite wildlife and risk of injury, driving to the trailhead is statistically the most dangerous part of your hike.
Navigation Getting lost can happen surprisingly fast, although it’s a rarity when you stick to official trails. So stay on designated paths. Bring a topographic paper map of the area and compare it to trail signs along the way. Although I’m a fan of paper maps, there is a wealth of great digital tools out there. One app that a friend swears by is GaiaGPS, which allows you to download maps and uses satellites to track you and help you navigate your route. You can use either the web app or the Smartphone app; here’s a video on how to use GaiaGPS. As expensive as they are, personal locator beacons such as Garmin in Reach or SPOT are great investments. They rely on satellites to call for rescue and to communicate with search groups. Personal locator beacons are the ultimate security blankets for any outdoors person. They make perfect Xmas gifts from mom and dad, but only if you’ve been REALLY good this year (as they’re quite pricey).
Other hikers This is the one I hear the most, and it's least likely of the five scenarios, by far. I hear different versions of Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked on the trail? All. The. Time. Sadly, that concern probably lurks in the back of many of our minds, whether we’re in nature, at social gatherings or just hanging out in our own neighbourhood. Assaults occur NOT because of solo travel, or solo hiking, or because of what we’re wearing. It’s 100% because of the sick person that each victim happens to encounter. Period. Every statistic I’ve found suggests that women are much more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, rather than by a strange dude hiding in the bushes. Your chances of bumping into an aggressor is much greater in your town/city than in the outdoors. Outside Magazine offers the following: Your risk of being a victim of a violent crime is thousands of times lower in a national park than in the country (US) as a whole. My take-away? Be as vigilant as ever, but certainly don’t let this fear stop you.
Fear # 3 : I’m not fit enough. (Puh-leeze!)
It can really suck when you get psyched to hike with someone, only to be left behind breathing in their dust. Whether for cardiovascular or technical differences, dragging behind is a crappy feeling, not to mention dangerous in bear country. Here are a few ways to remedy that circumstance:
Seek out people who are chill (non-competitive) hikers, who don’t mind taking breaks to allow you to catch up, or who walk at your relative pace. In the meantime, work on not caring that you might lag behind. If your hiking partners don’t care, you shouldn’t either.
Join a group that advocates the outdoors. The Alpine Club of Canada is great for getting people of all shapes and abilities outside. Many Facebook groups welcome beginner hikers; find one in your area (I’m not a huge fan of social media, but this alone makes it worth having a FB account.) These groups can be major confidence boosters, and you’ll pick up tips along the way to help prepare yourself (and your backpack) more adequately for upcoming hikes.
Check out local bulletin boards or your community newspaper for events happening near you.
Hire a local guide to take you on your next adventure. Guides can be a wealth of information and can easily kickstart your new taste for adventure. Too pricey? Ask an experienced friend to take you on their favourite hikes as your very own personal guide - that’s a great ego booster for anyone!
Stop comparing yourself to others This is a bad habit that permeates our entire lives. Stop it! Work on it, get help if necessary. Take back your power and learn about your boundaries. If you must use social media, follow only those who inspire pragmatic and healthy lifestyles. Motivation is one thing, but if you know that you aspire to unrealistic ideals, inspiration quickly turns to comparison and inevitably, to self-doubt. Be inspired by women in your community, in your circle of friends or even co-workers. Soooo much more attainable.
Fear # 4 : I don’t have good gear
Yep, gear can be expensive. One can build quite an arsenal of adventure booty over time. The trick is to buy quality products that will last a long time, then to take good care of it. For instance, a good 3-person, 3-season backcountry tent cost me almost one month’s rent, but I’ve had it for over 10 years. I saw it as an investment and it’s survived many adventures, from Iceland to the Canadian Rockies.
Quality doesn’t necessarily mean top-of-the-line, and you certainly don’t need a ton of stuff. You don’t have to break the piggy bank to properly equip yourself.
Shop used items on social media Again, buy-and-sell Facebook groups are fantastic for getting your hands on some superb, gently-used gear.
Local thrift stores and used stores There’s a great shop in my town called Switching Gears, where tons of high-quality, used items get sold.
Regularly check websites Make it a habit of regularly checking your fave brand's webpage; add them to your Favourites for easy access. Sales happen frequently at the end of each season.
Solo trips can bring you solace, increased confidence in your skills, freedom to hike at your pace and connection with nature without distraction. It’s not for everyone, but for those that enjoy it, it's an incredible experience. Just like anything else, it isn’t a question of, Should we be doing this alone? but rather, What measures can we take to ensure the best experience? It’s about using common sense, gaining confidence in your abilities and regulating irrational fears. As with so many things, it’s all in your head.
So strap on your boots and get going! See you out there.