Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.
I’ve been a professional outdoors writer for seven years, and I have backpacked thousands of miles across the US, including a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. But until this past summer, I had never been camping alone. Not one single night.
I have a busy and varied outdoor life, so I never felt like I was sacrificing my integrity by not backpacking alone. I’d hike, climb, or mountain bike with friends, and when I did want to go backpacking, there was usually someone to go with.
This past summer, my boyfriend was poking through my assortment of two-person tents, and asked if I’d ever been camping alone. I felt somewhat ashamed when I told him I hadn’t been, that I’d always had someone to go with.
When he asked if I was scared, I didn’t have an answer. I hadn’t actively avoided solo overnights, but I was terrified of the dark as a kid, and the idea of backpacking alone felt intimidating when I truly thought about it.
I’d spent hundreds of nights in the backcountry, but I was always sharing a tent or campsite with other people. When I imagined hiking into the mountains, setting up camp, and watching the light fade to darkness all by myself, I couldn’t say for sure how I’d feel, but I guessed it would involve plenty of anxiety and not a lot of sleep.
I put those thoughts aside for another month, until one weekend my entire outdoor crew was out of town. The weather was perfect, and I decided to hike to a lake I’d never visited. Suddenly, the idea of solo camping popped into my head. What was stopping me from turning the dayhike into an overnight? Before I could talk myself out of it, I threw my camping gear into my pack. On my way out the door, I grabbed noise-canceling earbuds. If something was going to make a weird noise when I was alone in the woods, I simply wouldn’t be able to hear it.
I hiked seven miles to the lake without fanfare, then took 20 extra minutes to walk the perimeter until I found a lovely tent site. I paused, prepared to ask my non-existent partner how they felt about the spot. As minor as it was, it was rather nice that no one was around to care if the ground was slightly angled.
I pitched my tent, ate enough snacks to count as dinner, then inflated my sleeping pad as the sky dimmed over the basin. I sat on a rock and watched the reflection of the pine trees growing fainter on the darkening water. As the light faded, I felt mounting anxiety. Soon it would be dark, and while I was fine sitting there alone in the daylight, I definitely wasn’t looking forward to nightfall.
When the weather allows, I leave the fly off my tent, or at least roll the doors up for ventilation. This time though, as the sky became completely dark, I zipped the fly all the way shut and left myself cocooned in the nylon dome. I was somewhat tense, but overall felt surprisingly at ease… just not at ease enough to stare into the dark abyss beyond the tent.
I read a few chapters of a book on my phone, then started dozing off. The noise-canceling earbuds never left my pack, but I did tuck my bear spray next to my head—this was Montana after all.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about losing sleep: I woke as the morning light filtered through the tent walls, then peered outside to see mist rising off the lake.
The first solo overnight was a turning point—I felt like a new palette of opportunities had opened up, and I was both proud and surprised that I had felt so at ease alone. For the rest of that season, I camped alone as much as I could. I found far-flung lakes, bagged peaks, and explored new trails. Sometimes there were other people camped nearby, sometimes I had the area to myself. I kept waiting for it to hit me: I’m alone in the woods, time to be scared. I wondered if I’d experience at least one agonizing night jolting awake at every snap of a twig. So far, it hasn’t happened.
It was my revelation of the year: I was not afraid to camp alone. Overcoming the boundaries I had inadvertently set for myself was empowering, but the biggest surprise was that there was nothing actually to overcome. I just wasn’t afraid.
Why did I avoid solo camping for so long? The fearmongering our society subjects female hikers to was part certainly part of it. Each season, new articles pop up on my feed with splashy headlines about how “solo women can stay safe in the backcountry.” While that advice might be well-intentioned, separating solo women from men perpetuates the idea that women have something more to be afraid of.
In reality, women and men alike are more likely to be victims of violence at home than they are in the backcountry. Realistically, women and men should take the same precautions during solo outings: know their route, bring navigation tools, and communicate their plans to someone in town.
It’s worth saying that women and others who balk at solo trips have good reasons to. While I have never experienced violence in the backcountry or at home, as a solo woman, I’ve had countless annoying, uncomfortable, and unwanted interactions. These all fuel into a twinge at the back of my mind when considering doing things alone. It might be as small as mansplaining or being questioned about why I’m alone, but even those “harmless” experiences that don’t find their way into the statistics can contribute to making women feel uncomfortable in the backcountry.
Maybe because of that, I’d built up subconscious barriers that had kept me from going it alone for years. This past summer showed me that as long as I’m smart about it, I can camp solo as much as I want. It is a new independence I can’t wait to keep exploring.