This year, go it alone.
We have the advice and inspiration that will see you heading into the wilderness safely solo.
We talked to some of Canada's most experienced adventurers to gather info about travelling into the wilderness—or into another country—alone.
What we found is—anyone can do it. With the right skills.
So read on. And prepare to get adventurous.
What are you waiting for?
Don't Do It! (Unless You Really Want To)
Free-soloing—rock-climbing without a rope—may be the ultimate form of going alone. “Obviously, it’s a pretty unforgiving pursuit,” says Will Stanhope, one of Canada’s best free-soloists. “Soloing is really fun. Until you get scared. And then it’s the least fun thing in the world.” Staying on the positive side is the art to this form of rock-climbing.
A hyperactive kid, the climbing gym became Stanhope’s home as a teen growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia. He idolized Peter Croft, a Canadian climbing legend who made a name for himself with gutsy solo ascents. So it seemed a natural progression for Stanhope to take climbing outside and then to leave the ropes behind.
Around 16 he tried his first solo, a 5.11c route called Horrors of Ivan in Squamish, BC. “I charged up and push through the hard sequence,” he remembers. “I almost came off, and topped out shaking. It didn’t feel like an accomplishment. I felt like I got away with something dumb.”
He thought that was what soloing would always be like, but over the years he’s realized it’s the total opposite. Rather than bulldozing through the fear, it’s meditative. His heart rate is steady. His moves are smooth and controlled. If the climbing’s easy, he’ll be lost in thought. If it’s difficult, he’s totally focused on the next move and nothing else. “Everything feels 110 per cent solid,” he says. “I’m constantly assessing whether I can reverse every move I make.” Yes, it’s dangerous, but Stanhope says he thinks it’s safer than texting and driving.
And there’s no other way to cover as much rock. In a few hours he can knock off 20 pitches of climbing. “You could never do that with a partner,” he says, noting a pitch typically takes 30 minutes with a rope.
But despite all the benefits he finds in going without a rope, he would never recommend free-soloing. “I love it, but the consequences are so high it’s definitely not for everyone. It’s got to be something you really want to do.”
A Deeper Connection
Four million canoe strokes, 7,600 kilometres, 200 days. Those are just some of the numbers from Mike Ranta’s second solo paddle across Canada. The Atikokan, Ontario, native paddled a canoe with his dog, Spitzii, from Vancouver to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia last summer to raise money and awareness for military veterans. He met plenty of interesting and inspiring people along the way but it was the subtle moments bonding with nature that stand out.
“By yourself you don’t have distractions,” says Ranta. “You’re more in tune with what’s going on around you. You enjoy the moments more and see things you would have missed.”
For safety, he purposefully slows down and plans more. That also affords him more time to notice his surroundings and it all leads to a more respectful relationship with Mother Nature.
“You stop fearing the bush and start respecting it,” he says. “If you let her, Mother Nature has a way of talking to you. Helping you out. And it happens a lot faster and easier when you are travelling alone.”
You're Stronger Than You Think
Sarah Caylor’s (left) resume included 24-hour mountain races and 72-hour adventure races. She trained like crazy. She was physically ready for the Tour Divide—a solo, self-supported mountain bike race from Banff to the U.S.-Mexico border—when she entered in 2012. But by day 11 she was on her way home—she could blame it on a mechanical issue, but really it was her head that was broken.
“I didn’t know what I was getting in for,” she says. “The day-to-day grind got to me.”
When she returned to the start line in 2014, she arrived with a different mindset and it made all the difference.
“If you really want to do something you can’t get stuck by the minutiae,” she says. “I let the small stuff get to me in 2012. In 2014, I knew I just had to push through.”
As she did, over and over again, it opened her eyes to just how far she could push. “I could talk myself into not feeling the pain,” she says. “I could talk myself into loving it. It’s just another hill—get over it.”
She climbed them all, finishing the 4,418-kilometre route in 22 days. Along the way she learned resilience. “You understand you are a lot stronger than you think you are,” she says. “That’s especially important as women. We’re brought up being told we’re not strong.”
Hope For the Best, Plan for the Worst
Laval St. Germain
Laval St. Germain struggles to find partners for his adventures. It’s not his personality—he’s charismatic and personable. No, he figures there just aren’t that many people with the time, resources and, let’s cut to the truth, the propensity to do what he likes to do. For instance, not many people could, even if they wanted to, cycle Yukon’s Dempster Highway in winter or climb Mount Everest without bottled oxygen. St. Germain was the first Canadian to do both.
“I like to be the person who disappears over the horizon and comes back to talk about it,” he says. “Living in the margins, out of sight, is the richest experience for sure. And doing it alone adds purity to the experience. There’s no one to rely on but yourself.”
With that passion, it takes novel experiences to get excited and that’s why the born-and-raised Prairie boy decided to row across the Atlantic by himself last summer. The 53-day trip from Halifax to Brest, France, was the fastest solo crossing ever.
“Beyond a little sea kayaking, I’d never done any ocean stuff before,” says the Calgary-based pilot. “I wanted to aim for a blank spot in the North Atlantic and just be on my own mentally and physically.”
To overcome his lack of ocean savvy, he turned to his pilot training, the same mindset that served him well in his other solo adventures.
“We have a deliberate way of doing everything,” he explains. “You fall to your level of training. You don’t rise to it.”
He imagined all the absolute worst cases and trained until he was certain he could handle them.
“When things go wrong, you have a plan to deal with it and you dig yourself out, it’s a great feeling,” he says. “Being tested is what I love about being out there and doing these trips.”
After riding just about every trail and back road in the Canadian Rockies, frequently solo, mountain biker Ryan Draper sometimes lacks for inspiration. That’s when he turns to a carefully curated mix of adventure-focused Instagram feeds.
“I just can’t help but be inspired by others’ exploits in the wilderness,” he says. He suggests cultivating your own by finding people who are into your passions. Here are a few of our favourites:
@captainlizclark — A woman and her cat sailing and surfing around the world.
@wilderness_culture — The collaboration under #wildernessculture translates to variety and inspiration.
@paulzizkaphoto — Mountain scenery and wicked night shots from the Banff-based photographer and regular explore contributor.
@theplanetd — Your travel bucket list is about to overflow.
@ryan.cycling101 — Draper’s own feed, full of epic riding around Canmore, Alberta, and racing round the world.
Even the Pros Get Scared
After spending years locating and paddling an unexplored Hudson Bay river and now preparing another solo trip across the Arctic in 2017, it would be easy to assume Adam Shoalts (also pictured at top of page) was born fearless. That would not be the case.
“The first solo trip I ever did in the wilderness was when I was 13. I remember I was fine during the day; but at night I was terrified by every little sound outside my tent. I didn’t sleep at all. I huddled in the centre of my tent clenching my Swiss Army Knife, thinking a black bear or axe murderer or aliens were going to burst through the screen door at any moment. Fortunately, they never did. I made it through the night and I’ve been pretty much hooked on solo trips ever since.”
But he admits he still gets gripped. So how does the man some call “Canada’s Indiana Jones” deal with challenges?
“Calm down, face the problem and deal with it. You just have to take the bull by the horns—no one else is going to do it for you.”
Going Alone for Dummies
“Pretend you are stupid... the most stupid person on Earth.” That’s Sebastien Lapierre’s best piece of advice for anyone considering a solo adventure. He took it to heart on the 1,200-kilometre solo ski to the South Pole he completed last spring. “If you do your preparation according to this supposition, dealing with a problem will be easier,” he continues.
For example, he uses colour-coded bags, so he always knows exactly what is where. And to make sure he could set up his tent in any weather, he practised in all kinds of conditions.
“You should have seen the faces of my neighbours when I was setting up my tent in my backyard during a thunderstorm,” he laughs.
On the Road, Alone
Janice Waugh loved travelling alone so much she started a website in 2009 to document her wanderlust and share tips and tricks.
“Fundamentally, when you travel solo you are leaving behind all the people that define who you are,” she says. “With someone from your life, you get sidetracked with the nitty-gritty back home. Alone, you are more open to new things, new ideas, new cultures and new experiences.”
In all her time alone on the road, it’s been mostly fun and games. But Waugh has made mistakes. She’s compiled much of her learnings in The Solo Traveler Handbook. Here are a few of her key rules to follow:
- Control your surroundings. Meeting someone for the first time? Pick somewhere busy.
- Check-in during the day. Arriving late at night in Havana, Waugh once wandered the streets searching for her closed hotel. In hindsight she was safe, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.
- Be proactive. “If you’re feeling unsure, lost or vulnerable, it’s better for you to look for the person you want to help you (families and couples are good choices) then have the wrong person choose you,” she says.
- Never rush a decision. Take your time, resist the pressure and you’ll probably spend less and feel safer. Harassed by a crowd of taxi drivers in India, she slowed down, thought about the situation and then tapped into the local culture. “I told them my brother doesn’t allow me to talk to strange men, something any one of them could relate to,” she says. It worked and she was able to pick the driver she wanted.
- Seek social situations to prevent loneliness. Waugh tends to stay at hostels where there’s always a buzz and people are open to connecting with strangers. She also likes coffee shops, a great place to meet locals.
- Do take an organized tour. They’re a nice mental break from the rigours of navigating a foreign place on your own. And for less experienced travellers, a tour will ease you into the local culture. “You’ll quickly see you can do it on your own,” she says.
- Don’t pay solo supplements. Many tours charge extra for solo travellers. Avoid or at least pay less by signing up to Waugh’s newsletter, which advertises the best solo tour deals from a dozen companies operating hundreds of trips.
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