How to Deal with Loneliness in the Outdoors
If you sent me this question before the pandemic, I probably would have a very different answer. But we’re all in a different time now.
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Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I made a resolution at the beginning of 2020 to go for one solo backpacking trip a month, which I have been doing every month of the year. I live alone, and I was trying to get comfortable with solitude. At first I really liked it, but I have found that I don’t look forward to the trips much anymore. It’s hard to find motivation to go above and beyond, or to make a nice meal for just yourself. I end up wishing I had company or wanting to scroll through my phone, which is the opposite of what I’m trying to do. Do you have any advice for dealing with loneliness outdoors?
When I was a teenager, I lived for a year above the arctic circle, where the sun didn’t rise for about two months. I spent most of that winter outside, loving the blue darkness, feeling totally fine; for all I cared, winter could last forever. Then one day the sun rose and it hit me—I swear—like a drug. That white light over the horizon, and even though I hadn’t consciously known I’d been missing sunlight, my body knew. I felt an absolute chemical elation. And no amount of adventure or cozy hours by the fire could replace the feeling of real sun.
I’ve thought of that often during the pandemic, because I thought I was fine, spending months in the woods (where I live), seeing only my husband and our dogs. After all, he’s my favorite person to see. I worked from home and picked up outdoor groceries. I’m an introvert; I like being alone, right? And then I got COVID, and after a few weeks my friends brought me to their house so I wouldn’t be by myself during the day. (They’d had COVID the month before.) It was a bustling household, and even though I was exhausted and kind of anxious, damn if being around people didn’t switch off some sadness inside me that I didn’t even know I’d had. Happy people, busy people, people going about their lives. Not people in movies, or friends on the internet, or family members on a screen. Physical people.
If you sent me this question before the pandemic, I probably would have a very different answer—something about learning to appreciate your own company, enjoying the freedom, getting to know yourself, and so on. And part of that would be my own bias, as someone who genuinely enjoys solitude and has always been slightly baffled by people who recharge through social situations. But also, we’re all in a different time.
You’re not breaking your resolution by adapting it to where you are and what you need right now.
A lot of people are really isolated right now, or are coming out of a period of serious isolation, and the mental and emotional toll of that isolation is deeper than I, at least, could have realized. I don’t know if that’s your situation, and I do know I’m projecting. But there’s a point at which you can’t will yourself through loneliness. You sound like someone with a strong will, who’s been pushing and challenging yourself in exciting and interesting ways, but I wonder if maybe, maybe, given the current state of the world, given the isolation of the past year and a half, solitude isn’t a thing that you really need to push yourself through at the moment.
If this reflection doesn’t ring true to you, and you’re committed to completing your trips alone, here’s my advice for solitude: find a way to capture your experience. Journal, take photos, keep a scrapbook, make art, write letters from your tent. This puts you in conversation—even if it’s just with yourself—and it’s a record you can share with loved ones, too, if you ever choose to in the future. Keep track of what you’re seeing, doing, and learning through this whole intense process. It’s a remarkable project you’ve taken on, and just as remarkable that you’ve stuck to it this far into the year.
But if, after some reflection, you think that you’d really rather have company on your trips, I’d encourage you to do that instead. Maybe you could bring a friend or family member; even if they don’t come the whole way, they could hike with you on the first day, or meet you on the way back. Your friend doesn’t need to be super-experienced; you could invite someone on their first-ever backpacking trip and teach them the ropes. Heck, maybe it will be so annoying that by next month you’ll be thrilled to be alone again. But the point is, you’d have texture. You have a choice.
You’re not breaking your resolution by adapting it to where you are and what you need right now. You’re staying true to your intention—and finding a way to build up your resilience instead of chipping it away.