When I first moved out to Colorado seven years ago and posted photos of adventures along the Front Range, my grandmother would ask, “You’re never alone, right?”
In the beginning, I wasn’t. Moving from South Carolina with an insatiable desire for the outdoors paired with minimal knowledge, I flocked to well-trained peers to scurry behind. It was an act of trust, knowing they had the knowledge needed to venture out, and I was safe in their hands. (Looking at you, guy who helped me cross a tyrolean in a makeshift harness hastily built of webbing and carabiners.)
“It was all about me getting out of some toxic situations, letting go of and coming to terms with some past experiences, and being comfortable doing big adventures—even if no one wanted to join me.”
The transition to solo hiking was also one of trust—trusting that I was capable of exploring on my own safely and confidently. It started small with short trail runs through Chautauqua Park in Boulder and Matthew Winters State Park. These transitioned into longer loops through Golden Gate Canyon State Park and Lair O’ the Bear Out and Back. Short hikes along Green Mountain in Boulder turned into longer treks into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. As I ran and hiked longer distances, I felt confident in my conditioning, ability to read the weather and signs of wildlife, and comfort in solitude.
As graduate school beat down on me, I found the solitary joys of camping and being alone on the trail. Driving up the dark switchbacks in the night, I’d climb into my sleeping bag in the back of my car and wake up to the first rays of sunlight jutting out over the peaks. Shuffling into my boots and slinging a pack across my back, I ventured out in the crisp, quiet stillness.
But, my grandma wasn’t alone in her worries. A taboo persists around women venturing by themselves. Solo adventurers who identify as women are often asked with skepticism if they’re really adventuring alone. When someone comes upon you on the trail or a group asks if you’re on your own, it can be unnerving. I’ve jumped every now and again at the crack of a branch, and it’s not uncommon to imagine someone lurking around every bend.
So why make the effort to hike solo?
In the poem In Praise of Walking, 19th-century mountaineer and author Leslie Stephen writes about the joys of his solo strolls through the English countryside and the ways that walking connected his body to his brain. These solo explorations served to unlock a map of his memories, a method of processing, and a space to work through ideas.
Karen Ranieri, an ambassador with Coalition Snow, finds the seclusion centering. “I started seriously camping and hiking alone about seven years ago,” she says. “It helps me work out things in my head by just getting distance and space from people and civilization. I love hitting hiking goals by myself; it gives me a sense of accomplishment that I don’t feel as strongly when I am with people. I think I just like the quiet and calm of solitude in an environment where I am pushing myself.”
Or take Alyss Filer, a physical therapist assistant in Boulder, Colorado, who made the leap to do a solo Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. “It was all about me getting out of some toxic situations, letting go of and coming to terms with some past experiences, and being comfortable doing big adventures—even if no one wanted to join me,” she says. “I had so much time to think and appreciate what was in front of me.”
As we push past fear, we allow space for skills to develop and be honed.
Rachel Brown, a Massachusetts-turned-Coloradan who works for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, is a long-distance hiker. “Outdoor activities have a meditative aspect that I find essential to my mental and emotional well-being,” she says. “Hiking solo, for me, is the best way to tap into that. No worrying about whether I’m hiking too fast or too slow for my partner. No stopping when I don’t want to stop or continuing to hike when I need a break. No forced conversations. It’s just me and my body and the mountains.”
To get more women out on the trail and reap the benefits of being alone, we first have to confront our fears and the thoughts and comments from others who tell us it isn’t wise. My grandmother is well-intentioned, acting on the norms of her upbringing. In her time, a woman traipsing through a forest alone was considered unimaginable. But if women in her time had been taught outdoor skills—how to read a map and compass, build a fire, or create an emergency shelter—she’d likely take a very different view.
As we push past fear, we allow space for skills to develop and be honed. The first time I summited a 14er by myself, I felt I was capable of whatever career or relational goals I wanted to achieve. Things in my personal life felt small in comparison to the large mountain I had just climbed. If I could drag myself out of my bed at 4am and hike alone in the dark for hours, I was strong enough to have that hard conversation I was avoiding and send that work email with confidence.
It’s this resulting empowerment that has women urging each other to try venturing solo. Gale Straub of She-Explores podcast talks about the empowerment of solo hiking in the episode “Alone on the Trail.”
The simple truth is that if you think you can’t do something but then you do, you become a more confident person. And that confidence is a little like a leak in a dam: The more you do those things that make you uncomfortable, the less strong those doubts become until the dam is busted wide open. … I believe the barriers spring from self-doubt, lack of knowledge, and a tendency for people to lean on others in the outdoors. The latter is a great survival tool. There is strength in numbers. Yet it also creates the feeling that we need other people to remind us to bring enough water, to carry an extra layer, to help us navigate the trail.
The goal, then, is to take the advice and experience of being in groups and translate it into your needs. Own your knowledge and experience. You are capable of building the fire, tying the knots and circumventing the valley. Taking that step from learning to owning skills in the backcountry may be a frightening experience, but it’s a gratifying one.
If you’re just starting with solo expeditions, go small and work your way up. Allow yourself time to grow comfortable with being alone, and go to trails you are familiar with and confident you can navigate. Take a chance and go without music; listen to where your mind goes or toss an idea around in your head while you walk.
Solo hiking is the reset button many of us need.
As always in the backcountry, be prepared and adhere to common safety rules. Carry first aid and understand how to use it. Gain knowledge about the wildlife and geography of the area you’re in. Leave a note in the car or tell a friend which trail you’re taking, what time you left, and when you expect to return.
Community in the outdoors is a good thing, but being out on the trail alone can make us better friends, partners, colleagues, and people. Solo hiking is the reset button many of us need; it’s a chance to process and explore, as well as an opportunity to internalize knowledge and skills we know but never forced ourselves to depend on. It is a vehicle that allows us to come to terms with our skills, our fears, our life circumstances, and more fully, ourselves.
This post is part of a series about women in the outdoors by the Outdoor Women’s Alliance.