From bears to lightning, there are a lot of things to fear in the backcountry. But which of those are really dangerous, and which shouldn’t you worry about? In Fear Less, our experts break down how to master your fears instead of letting them master you.
Confession: I’ve never been solo backpacking. I’ve hiked and trail run by myself plenty of times, but the thought of sleeping completely alone in the woods makes my scalp prickle. Part of me tells myself that I haven’t made the leap to solo camping because I have more fun with company. The other part of me knows it’s because I fear the vulnerability that darkness brings.
But I’ve decided to challenge that fear, and you should, too: Solo trips can bring you solace, confidence in your abilities, freedom to go where you want at your own pace, and a newfound connection with the trail. If being alone in the wilderness will help you achieve your hiking and backpacking goals, don’t let the fear of it hold you back any longer. The experts I spoke to—a psychologist and a seasoned solo traveler—share practical strategies to prepare as best you can, calm your mind, and assess danger.
If you’ve never been hiking or backpacking before, consider honing your mountain sense first before going out on your own. A thorough understanding of gear, terrain, altitude, conditions, and wildlife is the first step in feeling confident and self-sufficient on the trail.
Know how to filter water, set up your tent, be bear aware, read a map and trail signs, tend to your stove, treat a blister, assess the weather, and pace yourself. You won’t be able to rely on anybody but yourself once you’re out there, which can be an incredibly empowering experience if you’re well equipped.
Remember that there’s no such thing as overplanning—only overpacking. Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse hikes and backpacks alone often. She likes to prepare by researching every detail, from getting to the trailhead to available water sources. She downloads maps and reads trip reports on AllTrails from people who have recently visited the route she’s planning to hike.
Addis also always brings a solar charger to keep her devices juiced. She keeps maps downloaded offline on her phone so she can use them even when there’s no service. For an added sense of security and peace of mind in areas without cell connection, you can buy or rent a personal locator beacon such as a SPOT or Garmin inReach. These devices allow you to communicate with family or friends and even emergency services in the event that you need help.
Mind over matter
When I’m alone and miles from my car, this is what goes through my mind: What if I get hurt? What if I see a bear or a moose or a mountain lion? What if the weather drastically shifts? What if that twig snapping outside my tent is something threatening? While a little fear is healthy, this kind of hypervigilance can suck the joy right out of your trip. Beyond planning the logistics, you should also train your mind.
“Our own imaginations can come up with a much crazier scenario than sometimes the situation allows for,” says Thea Gallagher, an assistant professor and director of the outpatient clinic at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. “Expand your attention to the things you’d rather be thinking about.”
Ahead of your trip, Gallagher suggests running through the worst case scenario, the best case scenario, and the most likely scenario. “At the core of facing all fears, we’re really trying to help people learn to tolerate uncertainty,” she says.
Addis likes to focus on statistics to put things in perspective. Here are a few: You’re much more likely to be injured in a car crash than by a bear. Fewer than 1 in 37,500 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the U.S. Three million people hike the Appalachian Trail every year, and there have only been 10 reported murders since 1974, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. By that metric, you’re far more likely to encounter a threatening human in your neighborhood than on the trail.
“Statistically, driving to the trailhead is the most dangerous part of the trip,” Addis says. “Looking at the statistics really helps me be completely analytically-minded about it.”
Assess the situation
Sometimes your fear is trying to tell you something. It could be related to weather, wildlife, other hikers on the trail, or something else. Follow your gut. If you get a funny feeling, there’s no shame in turning around and coming back another time. You’re trying something new, so give yourself grace and patience.
Gallagher specializes in exposure therapy, a behavioral treatment that helps people confront their fears in safe but real settings. She suggests starting with a smaller goal and inching yourself toward your big goal. Maybe your first solo experience is camping in your backyard. Try car camping alone next.
If fear is ruining the experience, remember why you’re attempting a solo trip in the first place. “Identify that fear and ask yourself, can I control it?” Gallagher says. “Bad things could happen, but you have to live your life. If it’s in your value system and it’s important to you, then do it.”
The solitude and confidence boost alone could be worth it. And as for me? I’m taking Gallagher’s advice and embarking on my first solo camping trip this fall in Sedona.