10 Tips for Exploring Alone
Even parents need alone time. Follow these 10 tips for the perfect solitary adventure weekend.
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Every now and then we all need to escape, unhindered, to the mountains, rivers, lakes, or wilderness, and light out on an adventure alone. Leave the kids, friends, spouse at home. You’ll step out of your comfort zone and get a serious dose of silence and freedom—all too rare in real life. For 36 or 48 hours, you’re on nobody’s schedule but your own. You can climb a peak, run a trail, cast your line in the river, or snooze in your tent all afternoon.
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Chances are, you’ll go home with a clearer head, stoked on the sports you love and refreshed to tackle the biggest adventure of all: wrangling your kids. “I know that I am a better parent when I get some time to myself,” says ultrarunner and mother of two Pam Smith, who won this year’s Western States 100 trail run. “I also know that I’m setting a good example for my kids, showing them the importance of getting outdoors and being active.”
Here are 10 strategies for launching your own solo adventure:
Keep it simple
This doesn’t have to be a major commitment. A day and a half or two is all you need to break out of the daily grind and get a dose of nature Rx. And you don’t have to get extreme. Start with sports you already do and love: hike a new peak, run a trail you’ve never been on, cast your line in a creek you’ve been eyeing. Don’t push yourself so hard that you burn out—going alone is challenging enough; on the other hand, says Mark Jenkins, a veteran explorer, father of two, and Outside’s former Hard Way columnist who’s logged plenty of solos over the years. “If you’re going to go, do something you’re proud of.”
Camp in good company
Sleeping alone outside can be the biggest mental hurdle to going solo. I’m kind of wimpy, so I like to pitch my tent in semi-developed forest service or BLM campgrounds that are close to trails and water and town, yet not so remote that I’m the only one there. If you’re worried about getting wigged out after dark, pick a site relatively close to a harmless looking group, like another family (but not too close—you’ve come for peace and quiet, after all). Tell someone at home where you’ll be, follow the same common sense decisions you’d make when camping with other people (pepper spray brings peace of mind), and listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, go elsewhere.
Keep your options open
Multisport towns are ideal for solo trips. The more varied adventures there are close at hand, the easier and more fun it is to keep yourself entertained. (Boredom is a surefire way to feel homesick.) I could have easily spent a whole week mountain biking, trail running, standup paddling, and climbing 14ers in Buena Vista, Colorado. And outdoor towns are usually crawling with like-minded sporty types. If you start feeling lonely, just head down to the local bakery or backcountry shop. For your first trip, choose a place you’ve been before, and go in with a plan. Knowing the lay of the land and having a specific objective—like summiting a peak or riding singletrack—will keep you from feeling adrift.
After the adventure, the R&R
On the other hand, don’t pack your schedule so full that you’re racing from one thing to the next. Not fun. Focus on a couple of goals, and be sure to leave time to chill with your book beside the lake, kick back with a beer before dinner, or hang out at the coffee shop. Remember, the whole point is to do things you can’t do, or don’t do often enough, at home.
Get an alpine start
One exception to this rule: Sleeping in. If you’re hiking or riding a big peak, you’ll need to get alpine start to get you up and off the summit before the weather turns. Pretty much any worthy adventure goal requires an early wakeup; a stickler for pre-dawn starts, Jenkins says, “If you don’t have to use your headlamp, you’ve started too late.” Even if you’re only camping one night, leave your tent up in the morning, and come back down for a nap after your ride or hike. Nothing says freedom more than a midday snooze in the tent.
Scout it out
A friend of mine gave me this tip: The afternoon before you plan to climb, run, ride, or paddle, drive out to the trailhead or river launch to make sure you know how to get there, and how far from your camp site it is. Distances can be deceiving at 6 a.m., especially if this is new territory. Once you’re there, hike a few hundred yards up the trail to get a feel for it in the daylight, so you’ll feel more comfortable if it’s dark when you arrive.
Check in, but not too often
Text is best. You can send a simple message telling your partner you’re fine and asking how things are at home, but unlike a phone call, you don’t have to get sucked into the drama. A simple “All’s well here” right before you crawl into your sleeping bag provides instant peace of mind, and is almost as good as taking an Ambien.
Know your gear
Before I left on my 36 hour solo, my husband, Steve, showed me how to light our two-burner Coleman stove so I could drag myself out of my sleeping back before dawn to make coffee. I’d watched him do it a hundred times but had never bothered to try it myself. It was so simple, I felt like an idiot. On the other hand, the first time I camped alone, I’d never set up our new two-person tent before, so I bumbled around a bit before the instructions on the stuff sack started to make sense. Don’t bring something you don’t know how to use—if you need it, learn how to use it (a topo map)—and don’t forget stuff you really, really need (your headlamp).
Write it down
Bring a notebook and a pen to record your adventures. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ll want to keep track of what you did, what worked, and what didn’t, so you can tweak your solo system for next time. Plus, there’s nothing more relaxing than hanging out in your tent or sitting in a coffee shop writing (if you don’t like to eat alone, stick your nose in your notebook). Writing it down gives your trip well-deserved gravitas—it’s not easy to get out of town solo—and gives you incentive to do it again.
Don’t feel guilty
Make a plan, prep your kids and partner, double check your gear, and then get going. “Humans can handle themselves alone in the wilds and your kids will be just fine for a few days,” says Jenkins. “Just leave a detailed plan before you go.” When Pam Smith comes home from a solo trip, “I always make sure I have a fun activity planned with the kids to make up for lost time and make sure the kids get something out of the bargain, too.”