Even if you've been backpacking for years, chances are you have been going with a friend or a group. When I first began backpacking back in 2008 I was either going with my boyfriend or our local hiking group on trips. When I first decided I was ready to attempt an AT thru hike I also made the decision to take my first solo backpacking trip. While you are rarely ever alone on the 2189.1-mile Appalachian Trail, taking that first solo trip was really important for my self-esteem and it also taught me a few lessons. Here are a few things I learned on my first solo trip.
Be prepared for your plans to change during a trip. My first solo trip was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Back in those days a permit wasn't required for all campsites - you just filled it out at the trailhead and placed it in the permit box. Since my campsite, Campsite #15, wasn't a reservation campsite, I filled out my permit and put my copy in the top of my pack and headed out on my way. When I reached my destination on that warm September day I discovered the spring feeding the campsite was dry. I made the decision to head back to Campsite 16 instead. When I reached this site it was also dry, so I headed down the trail a little way until I found some running water. I then backtracked up to Campsite 16 for the night. I didn't get to follow my plan, but I stopped and thought for a few minutes before making a decision. Learning to be flexible is incredibly important when you're backpacking!
Things That Go Bump in the Night
Despite being on a trip in the most visited national park in the country, I didn't see a single person the entire time I was out on my trip, which is incredibly rare. After setting up camp for the evening, I kept hearing things moving around the campsite. I kept hearing knocking sounds. I stood stone still for several minutes, heart thumping out of my chest, before realizing it was a squirrel running around and dropping nuts. It was crazy to me to hear something so loud come from such a tiny creature! Thankfully I was able to learn this lesson before the sun set. I was definitely extra careful that night when I hung all my food and hygiene items in my bear hang though!
Expect the Unexpected
Remember I said above how I didn't see a single person the entire trip? Well, I did actually have company the entire trek out to my first destination: a dog. The Smokies are a national park and therefore no dogs are allowed on trails. This little guy followed me from the parking lot all the way out to my campsite, followed me back to the second campsite, accompanied me to get water, and then headed home when I started unpacking. I named him Buddy and he definitely made me feel more at ease - a way to say "hey, you're not alone - I'm here." Fun fact about this dog - I saw him again in the park a few months later. He had on a name tag - his name was actually Buddy!
While my first solo backpacking trip wasn't long and strenuous, it was a major confidence builder for me while I was mentally and physically prepping for my AT thru hike. I feel like being out there alone really helped me to realize how strong I truly was and helped me to understand that I am strong enough and capable enough to make good decisions when faced with a problem on a long hike. I was totally prepared to be afraid or call it quits. I was convinced an ax murderer would sneak up to my camp in the middle of the night and no one would ever hear from me again. I was terrified a bear would climb a tree and steal all my food. In reality, it was a completely uneventful and confidence-building experience.
Do you backpack alone or with friends? Have you dreamed of taking the leap to do your first solo trip? I'd love to talk about how you like to backpack. Leave me a comment or find my page over on Facebook to get the conversation started!