Breaking my foot during a canoe trip was unpleasant. I’m just glad it was the second-to-last day of the journey and I had a paddling partner to help carry me out.
What if I had been travelling alone in a remote wilderness area when I jumped into that river for a late-night swim and hit a half-submerged rock? But that’s the nature of solo tripping — I would never have attempted something so foolish, which is exactly why I think travelling alone can be safer than heading out with a group of friends.
When going alone, you’re often so strung-out about something bad happening that safety becomes priority number-one. When travelling with a group, it seems that an axe-throwing contest or running unmanageable whitewater becomes the norm. You have a blind faith that there’s safety in numbers.
For most, the benefits of travelling solo far exceed the worry of something going wrong. In fact, solo tripping quickly becomes habit-forming and the first danger is that you’ll snub all your friends and go out alone all the time. To quote legendary paddler Bill Mason from his film WaterWalker, “All of my life, people have been telling me that you should never travel alone... but it’s interesting — I’ve never been told that by anyone who’s ever done it.”
The benefits of solo travel start at the simple fact that a trip shared with others has to be more deliberate and arranged. Going alone is easier. You can eat what you want and when you want and travel wherever you want and for long as you like. Basically, you can do whatever you wish. But it’s also a time when your senses are more alive and you find yourself studying the complexities of nature more than ever before. Travelling solo is definitely a life-altering experience. Before you go it alone, however, there are a few key points to consider:
1. Greenhorns Need Not Apply
Having a few group misadventures under your belt is important before attempting to go solo. Make sure you are skilled in navigation, wilderness first-aid, weather forecasting and survival. Mistakes that occur within a group situation are often manageable. A simple blooper when solo can be deadly.
2. An Overnighter Doesn’t Count
Most first-time solo trippers attempt a night or two. That’s one of the biggest mistakes. At first, you’re going to be phobic of the unfamiliar and you’ll be spooked while sleeping in your tent at night. After day five, you’ll be so exhausted from not sleeping that you’ll start to relax a little. After day seven, most of the phobias will go away. After all — if the bear hasn’t eaten you yet, it probably won’t. By day 10, you are at peace and the real hazard becomes the desire to stay out and live life as a hermit.
3. Lighten Up
Having no one to help share the load is a problem — that’s why packing light should become an obsession. Consider purification tablets rather than a water filter; an alcohol-fueled canister stove instead of a butane or white-gas stove; and be prudent about your food intake.
4. Sleep in a Hammock
You have some options for shelters. There are a lot of quality solo tents and lightweight bivy bags. The new hype for solo trippers, however, is the hammock tent. I’ve taken to the trend this past season and slept in Exped’s Scout Hammock and loved it. A hammock is lightweight, surprisingly comfortable and allows for great flexibility of where and when to camp.
5. Bring a Good Book
You’ll have a lot of spare time on your hands, especially if the weather turns foul. To keep your mind active and morale lifted, pack something to read. Some favourites for solo travellers are Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, John Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf and Kenneth Brown’s The Starship and the Canoe. My personal pick is Sigurd Olson’s The Lonely Land.
6. Enjoy the Company
Good group dynamics are critical when planning a trip with others. The same goes when travelling alone. Make sure you’re comfortable with your own character, confident of your abilities and most importantly, ensure you know your limits and don’t let blind arrogance get you into trouble.
7. Tell Someone Your Plans
It’s important that you tell someone back home your plans for each day; and even more crucial that you keep to those plans or let someone know of any changes. Think back to Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild infamy or Aron Ralston of 127 Hours. I respect them both, but neither left a route plan. McCandless died and Ralston cut off his own arm.
8. Emergency Devices
Buy, rent or borrow a satellite phone, SPOT Personal Locator Beacon or Delorme InReach (see page 30 of our Spring 2014 issue). Also, wear a pealess whistle at all times. If you don’t bring these emergency devices then you’re playing silly games and giving friends and family back home unnecessary anxiety.
9. Plan to Escape
Always consider the worst-case scenario and devise a contingency plan. You might have to pull the plug on your trip at any time. Don’t just pack a map of the trip route — add information about the surrounding area as well.
10. Keep a Journal
You’ll have moments of deep thought out there. Take advantage of them — jot everything down. Great things have come out of others doing the same: Henry David Thoreau, Noah John Rondeau, Paul Gauguin... You might not discover the meaning of life — but you could figure out ways to deal with your job, boss, spouse or mother-in-law.
11. Book a Doctor’s Appointment
Get a full physical prior to the trip. You don’t want any surprises out there. It’s not a good time to pass a kidney stone or suffer a heart attack. Besides, your family doctor can help you plan for the trip. My first-aid kit is top-notch thanks to my family physician.
12. Don’t Worry
Never listen to people who criticize solo campers for being anti-social misanthropes. Some are, of course. But most are well-rounded, highly intelligent, heart-warming individuals who feel it a privilege to be able to break away from the norm every once in a while.
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2014 issue.