I first started hiking solo in the late 1980s. (I know, I know, most of you weren’t born then. Spare me the details.) I had to hike and sometimes stay out overnight solo because that was my job. I worked for a national park, mapping and writing a guidebook for their “trails”. The trails were just meandering routes through a desert and canyon landscape, sometimes marked by cairns, sometimes not. I still remember the cottonmouth of dehydration when I couldn’t find a spring, and the sharp taste of terror when I realized I had somehow lost the path. But that experience awakened me to the realization that I didn’t have to trail behind a man, or even rely on a group of friends. I learned how to be comfortable alone with my thoughts. I learned how to use a compass and a map, how to camp without leaving a trace, and how to enjoy my own company.
In between subsequent wilderness ranger stints, I often hiked solo of my own choosing. This was for a a variety of reasons. It wasn’t, as others suggested, that I was too fast for anyone to keep up. Or that I didn’t have friends. I had one boyfriend along the way who was deeply mistrustful of this activity. He also thought our relationship was in trouble because we didn’t talk much when we did hike together. (It was in trouble, but that wasn’t the reason.) But I’ve always been suspicious of people who need to take others along all the time, who can’t let themselves really be alone. How can you really know what you are capable of, how can you really even know yourself if you don’t let thoughts randomly tumble through your head?
To each their own. The point, and there is one, is that I thought over the last three decades that the stigma of women hiking solo would eventually fade. We don’t point a finger at men hiking alone and ponder why they do it, or ask if they are afraid. What’s almost worse is being greeted with delight, as if I am accomplishing something noteworthy. It’s hiking, people.
On my recent five day solo in the Grand Canyon, I had both receptions. One group of men about my age pelted me with questions about being alone (not in a creepy way, but in a dumbfounded manner). “Stay safe,” one of their sixteen-year-olds said as they went to camp (illegally) down by the rapids. Okay, maybe he was being nice. But would you say that to an “older” man?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a woman day hiking from the rim accosted me on the Hermit Trail. She bounced in her shoes, she was so excited to see another woman hiking solo. She did it all the time, she said, and for the same reasons I did. Yes, it was nice to find a fellow loner. But really? Should this still be uncommon?
I’m glad to see anyone still out recreating. There are too many people plastered to the couch. But I wish I didn’t sometimes feel like a freak. If you are too afraid, too lonely, too uncertain to venture out alone, don’t do it, by all means. I’m not advocating an army of women descending upon the woods solo unless they really want to do it. I guess what I wish is that the reaction to it could be more enlightened. The handful of us who do camp and hike solo can take care of ourselves. We’re out there alone because we like it. Of course we’re sometimes afraid, of course we know there are bears, of course our pack is heavy. Also: We’re not epic mountain women because we choose to haul a tent to a high place. You don’t need to admire us or tell us we’re brave. Just talk to us about the trail, and what the water situation is ahead, and where you camped; you know, all the stuff regular hikers exchange notes about in the woods. Maybe in another couple of decades, we can get it right.