Hiking solo is something I enjoy doing, but at times it has played with my head.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been hiking and/or backpacking. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have or what type of gear you bring along, hiking solo has an effect on all of us. For some it has been negative and has caused them to never venture into the woods again and having nightmares from scenes of Cabin on the Left. For others it has helped to shape and mold them into the person they are now. Whatever the impact, the fact remains, hiking solo will mess with your head.
After hiking 6 miles, mostly up a steep mountain, during a humid day, and a full pack, I was ready to set up camp and call it a day. After scouting around for the perfect spot to hang my hammock I finally set up among a group a tall trees on the edge of an open field. The sun was setting on the other side of the field which made for a relaxing setting for cooking dinner.
As I sat propped against a tree enjoying my couscous and chicken my mind began to wander, and not in a good direction. I should have been thinking about the sunset, the view and everything about my trip besides what was creeping in at that moment. Maybe it was because I was tired that I allowed the negative thoughts to knock on the door of my mind and then let them in. In any case, they not only came in, but also tried to take up residence. I began to think about how humid it was, the bugs buzzing around, the pain in my left thigh from pushing too hard on the ascent. Soon I was having thoughts of calling it quits, and turning back the next morning instead of completing the whole trail as I had intended.
There I sat, in the dirt against a tree, sweating, feeling itchy from bugs buzzing around, eating couscous and chicken from a ziplock bag thinking about my comfortable bed, air conditioned home and a very tall glass of ice tea. I ended up missing the sunset completely and soon found myself frustrated by my negative thoughts.
We can easily fall victim to what we allow our minds to tell us. So how can we prepare mentally for hiking and backpacking solo to avoid the negative thoughts that can and will creep into our head?
Setting high expectations physically – Even with physical training, if you go into your trip with high expectations physically you will eventually break down mentally. Hiking will work muscles you didn’t even know existed. You can train physically in the comfort of a gym for months, but it doesn’t prepare your body for various weather and climate changes. Eventually you’ll get frustrated and your mind will begin to tell you, “you can’t make it.” I’ve been on a trail with people who are more physically fit then I, and yet, at the end of the trip had a different view of how fit they were. There is also the other side of that coin, those who think they CAN’T hike because they are not as fit as they want to be. First, tell yourself you can, get outside on a trail somewhere, pace yourself, and ignore the voice that says; “you can’t do this.”
Setting high goals – All to often I see or hear about hikers bragging about how many miles they plan on doing in one day. And to that I say; good luck, we’ll see how that works out for you. If you plan on hiking 20 miles in one day but have not done so with a 30lbs. pack on your back, you may want to tone down the mileage goal. Everyone is different, and you know what you can and can’t do. If you set high expectations for your daily hiking goals eventually you will break down mentally. Remember, your journey is not a competition. Don’t allow pride to get in the way.
Being alone – Someone told me once; “I live alone so hiking solo should be easy.” I told them they may want to rethink what they just said. Living alone and hiking solo are two different worlds. Loneliness can set in on the trail. Eventually you begin to realize you’re out there by yourself with no one around, and that will eventually lead to mental breakdown. Your head will begin to play tricks on you as every sound around rings through your ears. When discouragement sets in you have no one to encourage and motivate you to keep going. You only have your own mind to say to yourself “keep going.”
Then there is being alone in the dark. #HBFCrew Dane Cramer recently talked about this in his article; Hiking Solo But Afraid of the Dark. That will mess with your head as well. Trust me, I’ve been in my hammock hearing noises at night and suddenly hit with the crying-for-my-mommy-huddled-in-the-corner-sucking-my-thumb thoughts. Seriously, where’s that noise coming from? This is starting to freak me out!
Anxiety, fear, and discouragement; all can and will mess with your head on the trail when solo hiking. Learning to manage our thoughts will make all the difference.
You also have to enjoy being with yourself. A day or more in the wilderness with nothing but yourself and a backpack can become uncomfortable. Hiking solo can and will mess with your head, but you don’t need to go crazy. There are many benefits to hiking solo, but how you manage and overcome negative thoughts and high expectations will either make for an awesome trip or ruin it.
Remember, hike by faith, take it one step at a time and hike with confidence.