The last remnants of daylight slowly sank in a golden band over the far side of Tennessee's Sequatchie Valley as I settled into a clearing atop the 1,800-foot-tall eastern ridge. The wind that had been blowing through the dry fall leaves tapered off with the sunset, and the silence had a presence of its own as I watched the sky fade to a deep midnight blue.
In that brief moment of dusk, before house lights began to wink on in the valley below, I could imagine I was the only person within a hundred miles. I was alone with only my thoughts and the soul-stirring landscape for company. A feeling of deep inner peace began to fill my mind, and it wasn't long before the tension of a hectic work week was replaced by a feeling of deep tranquility. I sat still until long after the sun had set, then made my way back to my tent by light from a sky so clear I thought I could reach up and touch the moon and stars.
There are a multitude of ways to enjoy the great outdoors, but few can move your spirit quite like a solo camping trip. The challenge of taking full responsibility for your safety in the woods focuses your mind. The peace and quiet make you keenly aware of the world around you. And the break from interaction with other people has a rejuvenating power that can make you more balanced, peaceful and secure when you return to the "real world."
But the freedom of camping solo comes at a price: In nature there is no safety net, and the freedom of getting away from it all means there's little room for error in trip planning and safety precautions. Proper planning can mean the difference between a fun, renewing trip and an uncomfortable -- or dangerous -- disaster. Read on to learn about five of the most valuable considerations you can make when preparing to hit the trail by yourself.
Whether you're planning a short day hike or an overnighter, half the fun of the trip is in the planning stage. Research hiking trails and wilderness areas thoroughly to familiarize yourself with the natural features, flora and fauna you will likely encounter on your trip.
Study a topographic map of the area you will be exploring to learn the geography, reference landmarks, water sources and alternate trail routes. On a topographic map, the curved, nonintersecting lines represent changes in elevation -- the farther apart the lines are, are the flatter the terrain. When you cross a line on a topographic map, you're either hiking uphill or downhill [source: Falk].
Go online to scout possible sites by visiting destination Web sites, online forums and wilderness adventure blogs. Read anecdotal accounts from other hikers who have visited the area to learn if your planned campsite is actually a bug-infested swamp or an idyllic beach. These insider accounts are invaluable for picking up useful information regarding regional weather patterns, seasonal trail conditions and related local lore.
If this is your first solo camping trip, choose a spot where you've camped with a group before. That way, you'll avoid nasty surprises and ease yourself into solo camping. The more you know before you go, the better your trip will be.
Make a realistic estimate of how long it will take to get to your overnight campsite or back to your vehicle. Plan the timeframe for each leg of the trip. Generally, on flat terrain during normal hiking conditions, the average person can expect to cover 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) every 30 minutes -- but you can use an online hiking calculator to make estimates based on different elevations [source: Hiking New England].
Allow yourself ample time for unscheduled delays and take note of sunrise and sunset schedules. Plan each stopping point with plenty of daylight left to set up camp and prepare for nightfall: Trying to build a fire and put up a tent in the dark won't be a relaxing cap on your day.
Knowing how long you plan to be in certain locations will allow you to adapt your plans if something unexpected happens, such as a change in weather that slows your hiking speed. Mark overnight camping stops on your trip itinerary route map before you go -- that way, you'll have check-in points in the event of an emergency. When you give someone your agenda (which you definitely should do -- more about that on the next page), they'll have a general idea of where you'll be and where to search if you miss your return time.
Before leaving, the last thing you should do is check the weather. Consult up-to-date weather predictions and online radar tracking for the area, but remember that forecast models can change quickly. A rudimentary knowledge of cloud types, frontal zones and weather patterns will help you react to changing weather conditions [source: NOAA].
Documenting your itinerary and route on a map may could save your life. Sharing your agenda with a friend -- and setting a time (or times, in the case of a long trip) to check in -- will reduce the chance that you could experience the nightmare of being stranded with no one aware of where you are and no efficient way for people to look for you [source: Hiking Dude].
Clearly mark the route you will be travelling and all the stops you plan to make along the way. Schedule check-in calls with family or friends at regular intervals. Give one trip itinerary and route map to your check-in contact and bring another copy of your plan along with you to file with local park rangers or authorities before you set out -- many parks have Web sites with the appropriate contact information. It's also a good idea to leave a copy behind in plain sight on the dashboard of your parked vehicle. And for the tech-savvy camper, some monitoring services maintain Web sites where solo campers can file trip itineraries -- or you could carry a GPS-equipped device that will allow you to communicate your status from deep in the wilderness [source: Owings].
Even a simple car-camping trip, in which you simply park at a designated campsite and camp a short walk from your vehicle, is more fun if you minimize the time spent lugging gear from one place to the next. Every extra ounce of gear you carry slows down your pace and lengthens your time on the trail. Traveling light also means you'll have less refuse to carry back out. Many groups, like the American Hiking Society, advocate leaving a pristine, untouched environment for others to enjoy in the future [source: American Hiking Society]. Wouldn't you want the last camper who blazed your trail to do the same for you?
A solo camper requires fewer provisions than a larger group. The essentials like food and water -- and the smaller, lighter campsite equipment used when cooking for one -- will be considerably easier to carry over rough terrain. If you're hiking or canoeing, there are lots of ultralight tents, packs and other gear on the market that take up little space and make travel easy. Lighten up your load and you'll cover a larger area, allowing you to spend more of your time observing and interacting with nature.
But don't take the pack light mentality too far. Bring proper gear for any weather changes you're likely to encounter, and don't leave out essentials like a map and compass, first-aid kit, matches, knife, flashlight and enough food and water to last the length of the trip. If you're planning a more ambitious hike, consider packing a small amount of emergency food, such as energy bars or military MREs -- meals ready to eat, sealed in vacuum pouches. The extra bit of food won't weigh much, and could keep you much more comfortable if you end up staying out longer than planned [source: Sierra Club].
Solo camping can be inspiring and refreshing, but it can also be a little bit of a shock. Taking a step back from your daily immersion in technology and constant stimulation from friends and family can be disorientating. The sudden loss of interaction, conversation and connectivity can cause jittery unease at first. But this feeling goes away over time as you find peace with your thoughts and learn to enjoy the experience of being alone with nature. After all, there's a huge difference between loneliness and solitude [source: Marano].
To help ease into it, it's helpful to make short solo day trips first. Then go for longer treks as you become more experienced. Conditioning your body for the physical exertion of a solo camping trip by making successively deeper forays into the wilderness will build your confidence and broaden your survival experience. Every day out will present new learning opportunities and challenges, and you'll return to civilization with a calm mind and lasting memories of your time on the trails [source: The Beginner Backpacker].
HowStuffWorks looks at the popularity of hiking in the U.S.
- American Hiking Society. "How To's and Hiking Information." (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.americanhiking.org/Resources/How-Tos/
- The Beginner Backpacker. "Backpacking and Hiking Guide for Beginners." (Jan. 22, 2012) http://www.backpacking.net/beginner.html#conditioning
- Falk, Erik C. "Learn How to read a Topo Map." Wilderness Backpacking. 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.wilderness-backpacking.com/how-to-read-a-topo-map.html
- Hike New England. "Hiking Time Calculator." 2011. (Jan. 25, 2012) http://www.hikenewengland.com/LegendTimeCalc.html
- Marano, Hara. "What is Solitude?" Psychology Today. July 1, 2003. (Jan. 23, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200308/what-is-solitude
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration. "The Importance of Understanding Clouds." 2005. (Feb. 2, 2012) www.nasa.gov/pdf/135641main_clouds_trifold21.pdf
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "National Weather Service." July 27, 2011 (Jan. 23, 2012) http://www.weather.gov/
- Owings, Rich. "SPOT gets some competition." GPS Tracklog.com. Feb. 11, 2010. (Dec. 27, 2012) http://gpstracklog.com/2010/02/spot-gets-some-competition.html
- Sierra Club. "Hiking Toolkit; How to Host a Family Hiking Event." (Jan. 23, 2012) http://trails.sierraclub.org/know-how/before-you-go/Family_Hike_Planning_Guide.PDF