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I have been out camping a few times, once with a group, the other times with my girlfriend. Although I enjoyed those times very much, I often wondered what would it feel like to enjoy the complete solitude of nature on my own. But every time i think of it, the combination of solitude and nightfall together seem to freak me out. I just cannot handle it. Last night around 11 i went for a bike ride and as soon as i left the last houses and malls, and saw the big open sky and the lake, i got spooked and turned back. What a shame!

My questions are:

  1. How do you deal with loneliness and solitude on a a solo camping trip?
  2. Does loneliness make the trip more or less enjoyable?
  3. Does dealing with solitude in wilderness make you feel like a stronger person when you return?
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Wouldn't this be more appropriate as a wiki? There isn't a specific right answer to this question, and there could be many different opinions and tips. –  Greg.Ley May 11 '12 at 19:48
    
Where are you from? This is important because Europe and Americas are completely different for outdoors... –  Tomas May 14 '12 at 8:43
    
I live in Toronto. Wanting to explore the Ontario back country –  Kaushik May 14 '12 at 20:12
    
I think the idea scares me a lot less than you, but I've never been backpacking alone. Maybe that's what I'll do this weekend. Good luck, friend. –  theJollySin Jan 5 '13 at 0:19
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9 Answers 9

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I like being out alone. Generally you have more time for introspection, for getting calm and enjoying what’s around you and inside of you.

Of course there’s times when you have to deal with yourself and your fears when you’re out alone. Even after many nights that I have spent outside alone, I’m still a bit nervous when the sun sets. (I guess it’s an old habit inherited from the times people were not safe outside.) Usually I’m so tired that I simply don’t have the energy to be too nervous :) And the early dawn when the birds start to sing is always worth it:

Morning in the Schladminger Tauern

Yes, I think I’m a stronger person because of it, as I’m a bit more accustomed to my own fear. As for dealing with awkward feelings when being out alone, it’s hard to give a good advice. In such situations I usually simply push myself a little bit; mostly the rational push proves to be beneficial in hindsight. I consider it to be an interesting skill to know when and how far you can override your instincts.

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zoul, are you talking your experience in US or Europe? I'm from Europe and no reason to be nervous after sunset :) –  Tomas Jan 12 '13 at 11:57
    
Europe, and yes, there are no rational reasons to be nervous after sunset, but that doesn’t seem to help :) –  zoul Jan 13 '13 at 7:48
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You don't have to go on a solo trip to experience a little solitude. For example, you can go with a group, and when you're planning the trip, plan for a day during which you will go off on a solo hike, while the others stay at camp and fish or read or the like. Or perhaps it's a day where they all go off on a hike and you loiter around the camp alone. This lets you experience being truly alone without being alone in the dark right away. If you enjoy it, you might arrange that on your next trip, you will camp at a different spot, going on ahead when the others stop, and meeting up with them the next morning at some logical place (like a portage, if you're canoeing.) That way you can spend a night alone, in a camp you set up all by yourself, eating the food you prepared all by yourself, and then the next day you are back with the group.

Why do it? Well, why not I suppose. And if there is something that scares or spooks you, and you apply reasoning and logic to make it safe, then overcome your fears and do it, you will probably feel stronger for it afterwards. But I feel like a very strong person, and I've never camped alone. (I've camped with my babies which is WAY harder though and with a total of 2, 4 or even more adults always.) I went on a super scary rollercoaster in my 40s, and I have to say I didn't feel stronger afterwards. So don't count on the solo camping too much as a lifechanger.

For maximum benefit, prepare. Do everything you can to make yourself safe. You will probably have to sacrifice comfort - a couple can carry more stuff than a single person can. Bring a journal so you can write down some of what you're thinking. Either bring a book or the like to occupy yourself, or deliberately don't so you have to think and meditate a little. Ease into it a little at a time, and if you want to do it, do it. But if you don't, it's not a failure of character. I have plenty of character without having done this.

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Solitude isn't for everyone - some people love it, others not so much - personally I prefer enjoying it with others, and there's other advantages to this too (such as from a safety aspect.) If you are going on your own you need to make sure you've got measures in place so people know where you are, and you need to make sure all your necessary skills (navigation, safety, survival) are top notch; there's no relying or bouncing ideas off anyone else. In short, if it's something that spooks you or you're not fully comfortable with it, there's nothing to be ashamed of!

In terms of the specific questions:

  1. Usually if I want to be on my own on a trip, it's because I want to enjoy nature and its surroundings. So spend your time enjoying it! Wander round the area, at night have a look at the stars, grab some binoculars and see what wildlife you can spot... all great things to do. You're there to enjoy nature, so enjoy nature! If you end up with the situation where its tipping it down or other circumstances mean that you really can't, take a good book or two to read. Always a good fall-back :-)

  2. Really depends on the person! There's times when just being on your own and having time to yourself can make it more enjoyable and relaxing, whereas at other times I'd prefer to enjoy it with people. There's no real set answer to this, you just have to see what works for you.

  3. Stronger in what sense? Overall it probably makes me more confident with the outdoors, but there's no huge and sudden personality change if that's what you're after!

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Part 1 - how do I deal with loneliness/solitude?

For me, the key to not freaking out when I go out alone into the wilderness is feeling prepared. Usually on the first night of a solo trip, especially in bear country, I'm going to be nervous. I fight that by making sure I do everything correctly (as far as I know anyways!): food well secured away from camp, pile of rocks to throw at aggressive bears, headlamp in reach nearby. Ideally, I also try to hit camp the first night too exhausted to stay awake long.

Whenever my mind starts wandering to the noises in the night, I try not to focus on what it could be. That being said, I have definitely spent long nights listening to mice (BEARS!), deer (DEFINITELY BEARS!!!), and owls (FLYING BEAR?). I've just learned to accept this will happen and remind myself that although I am not sleeping, my body is still getting rest by lying down.

Part 2 - does the loneliness make it more or less enjoyable?

I would say definitely rephrase this as solitude over loneliness. I've found that not having people to share the views and experiences makes them somewhat less vivid in my memory. I've taken to journalling in the evening to help me remember in the future how I felt and what I saw.

The huge advantage of being alone in the wilderness is feeling focused on the experience of the wild, rather than the people you are there with. That sounds somewhat silly, but I've taken a small trip solo that I had previously done with a group, and it felt like much more of an adventure. Another fun part of solo hiking is that you will meet more wildlife, especially if you walk softly in the early morning/evening.

Does dealing with solitude in wilderness make me feel like a stronger person when I return?

When I finish a difficult solo trip, I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. I wish I could say that the feeling lasts forever, but it fades pretty quick.

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Ad 1, 2: I'm surprised by what you say about being scared lone in wilderness. I have exactly the opposite feelings - like returing home. I can enjoy the trip very well being alone, I can be in contact with nature much more. I recharge energy this way. With my girlfriend it is very nice too, since she has similar perception of these things, but there are certain things and moments where you have to be alone - man has its own path and determination and to clear this up in nature, as well as recharging the man's energy, requires to be alone. No one can help you with this. So face your fear, jump directly through it! Don't afraid to be alone, take it as a blessing.

Practical point: maybe the difference between you feeling fear and me being ok could be that you are from more dangerous part of world? In Americas with cougars and bears one can feel much more differently than here in Europe, where most dangerous animal is wild boar. So I'm quite calm here. But note that for example in Spain, where you are walking on pastures with almost wild cows and bulls, I'm sometimes scared a lot too. So it depends on the environment very much. I'm also not feeling good to sleep in dark forest overnight. This is maybe fixed from the humans past, because the beasts are active at night. I'm always looking for more light places like forest edge or meadows with scattered trees to find sleeping place. Just find a place where you are feeling good.

As for your question 3: definitely, I return like stronger person! But not because of dealing with loneliness; loneliness for me is not a challenge or some kind of training, something that must be dealt; it's an oportunity to clear up my mind and clear up the next steps in my life path...

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Being alone in the wilderness and being there with a group or with friends are two different experiences, each with their own merits and drawbacks. You have experiences with groups already, so I'll talk about going out alone. I do this much more often than going into the wilderness with others. When I have only a little time to go into the wilderness, I'd rather be by myself.

Advantages:

  • You feel much more aware of your surroundings. Other people talk, distract, make noise, etc. All that makes it harder to really perceive the wilderness, and it will also alter the wilderness itself. You're far more likely to get to see a bear in the wild, for example, when alone than in a group.

    I have only encountered a bear (talking North American black bears here) while hiking three times, and I was alone each time. I'm sure I've gotten close to bears many more times than that, but these three times I noticed the bear before it noticed me. Each time the bear bolted as soon at it saw me. Getting close to a bear before it notices you with a group is basically impossible.

    Groups as a whole, and often unfortunately individuals in groups, just aren't careful and quiet, and don't care.

  • You can do what you want. With a group, each person is sortof obligated to not cause the group to stray too much from its stated objective. That means if you come accross a scene you'd like to take the right photograph of, you can at best take a snapshot or two. Carefully moving around to get the best vantage point, trying different approaches, etc, that take time are out of the question. Good nature photography takes patience, which is something you can't have with a group. Generally I don't even bother take a camera with me on a group outing. For me anyway, nature photography is a personal experience between the wilderness, myself, and my camera. Having other people around seriously interferes with that.

  • You can go the pace you want, whether fast or slow. Groups tend to go slower than individuals. That can be frustrating if you just want to hike. On the other hand, it keeps you from stopping and exploring something in more detail if you want. You can have some interesting experiences just sitting quietly somewhere for a while.

    Try it some time. Go somewhere people aren't regularly coming by and find a comfortable spot, like on a nice rock or against a tree, with a good view. I like overlooking a wetland. After just a few minutes you'll be surprised at all the comings and goings of the wildlife. You can't do this in a group because there is always someone that can't sit still and shut up for 30 minutes, and each person is one more chance people will be spotted and the wildlife will be more inhibited.

    You don't need the deep wilderness for this. Some of the best experiences I have had like this have been right in the town I live (Groton Massachusetts). We have about 10 square miles of wild land open to the public, but it's a patchwork of many small parcels. Almost all of it is within 1/2 mile of a paved road. However, there are still some very pretty places where people go infrequently enough that you can sit and watch nature (actually more like experience nature) by yourself for a hour at a time. You should definitely try something like that. When you've had enough, you can be back in the car in 10-20 minutes.

  • You don't have to have a plan. I occasionally lead hikes for the AMC and for the town Trails Committee. These are all advertised as going someplace specific, at least roughly. People aren't going to show up to a "We're just going to bump around, don't know where we're going or when we'll get back" hike. When going out by myself, particularly locally, I start someplace and then just go whatever way I feel like going when a choice comes up. That may be related to the weather, where I haven't been recently, something looks interesting in that direction, I see something I want to check out more closely, or just I feel like it for no specific reason.

You mention loneliness, but that is completely foreign to my solo wilderness experience. I'm way too busy and engaged to be lonely. Besides, lonely is a long term thing, not something you experience over a one day or even a few day outing.

It seems your real issue is being scared of being out there alone. There is a small element of rational fear there, since there are dangers and the consequences can be much worse without other around to help. However, these are likely blown way out of proportion in your mind. If you have a true phobia of being alone in the wilderness, then doing that is probably not for you. However, if you are capable of addressing it rationally then there should be no problem.

Actually think about it. What is that sound you hear outside your tent at night? What does it really mean? What is the worst case scenario? When you think about that, you'll realize that anything not astronomically improbable is no big deal. At night you will hear things outside the tent. You can eliminate anything up in the trees as a problem right away. Most of the rest is merely rodents poking around. Try the reverse. See if you can spot whatever it is. Betcha you can't. By the time you get up, open the tent, and shine a flashlight, whatever made the noise will be hiding.

If you hear something heavier, then it gets more interesting. Big things are less likely to be able to hide, and if they run away you can hear that. Sometimes you can get a glimpse of a bigger animal at night. One time I could hear something definitely bigger than a mouse making its way closer and closer to my tent. It sounded like it was checking out nooks and crannies as it was rustling a lot and moving slowly. I was guessing raccoon, but when it got close enough that I thought there might be a chance to see it before it ran off, I opened the tent, shined the flashlight, and found a porcupine. Porcupines have evolved such a great defense that they aren't much bothered by other animals being nearby. It basically continued bumping around like it had been, sticking its nose in the leaf litter here and there. It actually seemed to be using the light from my flashlight to its advantage!

I have heard what I was pretty sure was a bear outside my tent a few times, but as much as I would have liked to have caught a glimpse, I thought it better to lay still for a few minutes until its foraging made it go past. With the right mindset, these things are fun and interesting, not scary.

I do admit to being irrationally spooked once. I was in the Kofa National Wildlife refuge in Arizona and driving on a obscure dirt road when I spotted a cougar (Puma concolor), also known as puma, mountain lion, and about a dozen other names. That wasn't what spooked me. In fact I thought it was way cool. I tried to see where it went after it bolted upon seeing the car. I felt lucky to have seen a cougar in the wild. However, the next few nights when getting into my tent I was spooked. Now I know the chance of a cougar being around are exceedingly slim, and the chance of it not running away if one was around even slimmer. But, it still took a few nights to get over not being spooked whenever getting into or out of my tent in the dark.

Basically I think the lesson is that the more you feel comfortable that you know what you are doing, the less you will feel afraid of what might be out there. The only solution to that is probably going out and doing it, and then things will feel more comfortable because they are no longer unknown.

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Lots of good answers and ideas here.

I backpack ultralight now. This is nice for a couple reasons, one of which is that sleeping under a tarp is a lot more comfortable than a tent, rain or shine. I didn't believe it until I tried it, but Ray J. is right on this one. The other nice thing about sleeping under a tarp is you can see all around you, especially when the moon is up. If one of those noises at night is a bear, you'll know, but I haven't had that happen yet. When I hear a noise I have a tendency to assume it's the most dangerous critter in the woods, then have to convince myself it's just a coon or a possum. In Missouri we have some black bears and some lions. The black bears will generally leave you alone unless you're between momma and the cubs. The lions can be trouble, but I haven't heard too many stories. Makes me think about carrying a weapon, though.

Most dangerous thing I've seen solo hiking is feral pigs - momma and several small ones, probably under 100 pounds.

I've done some solo hiking and some hiking with a second person, but nothing in a group since Philmont in '78. I want to be one of those people that goes out solo for days on end, but I'm not. I really prefer to have company. Maybe that will change over time.

If you want to hike solo and aren't sure about it, you could do something that's nearly solo. Get a couple hand-held radios, and keep a couple miles apart on the trail. If you really get tired of being alone, you can talk over the radio and hook up.

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  1. I enjoy being alone, but I'll bring a book and some music for when I'm in my tent.

  2. You'll definitely get the "gee I wish someone was here to see this with me" moments, but you also get to avoid waiting or being waited upon by others. Setting your own pace is a great way to get to know yourself. If you get hurt badly I'm guessing being alone makes things a great deal less enjoyable.

  3. Stronger in that you know you've done it, I suppose. I'll tell you this much, last time I was 3 days in the backcountry without seeing a soul and when it was time to eat I was scared of bears and there was nothing I could put my back too, so I just sat there, ate, and tried not to be too paranoid about things, well that was special.

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When you're alone, there is noone to pass away time with. So you have to have something to busy yourself with. Just doing nothing is fine for a while, but I get bored and depressed if I do nothing for too long. Apart from trekking, I carry a book, some music and my camera. If I camp in a place for several days I make sure I leave camp and explore for at least half a day every day.

It's hard to tell what's more enjoyable. It really depends on you. I find being out alone quite liberating, as I can do whatever I like whenever I want. And capturing the trip by taking images or writing is a bit like the sharing of the experience, which one sometimes misses when alone.

I have no problem dealing with loneliness, but having done a solo trek gives me a sense of achievement which is probably greater than what I get from doing it with other people.

Being afraid at times is natural. After a while you learn which fears are groundless and which aren't. Doing stuff alone which you have previously done with others can help you judge your fears. Groundless fear tends to get less after you've experienced it a few times, but there is no substitute for experience. Be sure you're convinced what you are doing is really safe so you can calm yourself with this conviction. Discuss your plans with someone you think can judge this. Start out simple. Then from there you can push the envelope.

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