A Woman’s Struggle With the Fear of Camping Alone

What does one do with the thoughts that keep you up at night, solo in the tent?


The first time I camped out by myself, it was nearly out of spite. My 30th birthday was rapidly advancing on me as I cautiously weighted one-by-one baby steps, finding my own way in the world after ending a three-year codependent relationship with an alcoholic. During those three years, the things I’d dreamed of doing in my 20s, like mountain biking and camping and climbing mountains—and any people who might do those things with me—had slid quietly out of sight. Now I was free. I lived in a state full of mountains to climb and creeks to camp alongside, but my phone was devoid of numbers of any people who’d go with me. So I lay alone in my tent.

I didn’t sleep much that night, evidenced by my pillowy face in the selfie I snapped the next day. I lay on my back in the darkness because curling up on one side or the other felt like I was exposing my back. To what? I didn’t let myself go there. Listening to the wind rush down one side of the valley and whoosh across to the other side, ruffling my poorly staked tent fly on its way, I tried to think about what caused it. Scientifically. The temperatures changing, dropping. I tried to focus on my place within the natural world, to feel a part of it, instead of paying attention to the tight nervousness that crept up my torso.

“This is what you wanted, right?” I did not want to admit to myself that I felt afraid. I was strong, I was better than that, right? I worked hard not to let my mind dwell on any of the millions of things I could have laid there fearing—but I still felt it in my body. And I felt it again later that summer when I ventured out on my first solo backpacking trip. I doubt I even slept a solid hour either of those nights. But really, I wasn’t there for the sleep.

I wish I could say that since then I’ve learned how to relax, that I’ve graduated from feeling afraid when I’m sleeping outside by myself, but that would be a lie. This summer I helped interview a trail runner who regularly camps solo so she can be near the big mountains she trains on. I asked if she usually sleeps in her car or in a tent. Her tent, she replied. I bit back my burning question. I wanted to ask, Do you sleep well? Do you feel at home? Did you always feel at home sleeping out by yourself?

Sometimes I think I should just pack up my things for a solo thru-hike. That would certainly break me of this, right? Night after night, alone in the woods, I would have to learn to be at ease through the dark hours, like a baby being sleep trained by her parents. At the very least, I’d be so exhausted at the end of each day, my body probably wouldn’t give me much choice.

At least one recent study, published in the journal Current Biology, helps me feel a little less uncomfortable about my own fears. It showed that humans, like many animals, actually only put one half of their brain fully to sleep when they spend their first night in a new place. So at least I know I’m not the only one feeling a little less rested after a night out in my tent.

Whether or not I ever do embark on that solo thru hike, I’ve been trying to embrace a new way of thinking lately: Maybe it’s okay to feel afraid. Instead of beating myself up for it, or feeling ashamed about it, maybe it would be more helpful simply to accept it. Instead of trying to ignore my feelings, to look at them, sit with them, and let them be a part of the experience as a whole.

Thankfully I now have friends who’ll jump at the chance to spend a night under the stars together, and I’ve got a wonderful partner whom I’ve spent so many nights out with, I’ve stopped counting. But even if it means a shitty night’s sleep, I still look forward to a few nights out alone once in awhile. It’s important for me, as a person and as a woman, because it helps me feel a sense of ownership and belonging in the outdoors. It reminds me of my independence and my personal agency. And, really, feeling fear does not take away from that.

Photo by Brendan Leonard

 

Contributing editor Hilary Oliver lives in Denver and blogs at The Gription.
Showing 10 comments
  • Carol David
    Reply

    Beautiful….I am preparing for my first solo camping adventure. I don’t mind saying…I’m scared. Breaking through my fear of the dark and being alone in the woods alone is either going to break me or make me stronger. I’m sure strength will prevail. Maybe someday, I too, will write of my adventures. Thank you for your story.

  • Toby A Blauwasser
    Reply

    I used to have the same concerns.
    Some ideas:
    1. Find like minded souls and go in a group or just with one other person. Boulder’s Women’s Wilderness Program organizes outings. Meetup.com is another good source. CAUTION: Your biggest threat are other people, not animals. So if you have any concerns, stick with a group that is mostly or all women.

    2. Most two legged predators don’t like to hike. Stay away from the road and other people’s houses. Be aware of your surroundings when you hike in, choose neutral colors to blend in with the environment and find a place where you have a vantage point of the area where you can sleep. Some place where you can see and cannot be easily seen. Limit your use of light at night. If you have to sleep near your car – get a tall van or other vehicle where you can sleep on the roof. You will have the perfect view of the night sky. Use a detachable ladder and pull it up after you get up there.

    3. Animals – obviously you don’t want to sleep out in a group of grazing buffaloes. But realistically, it is extremely rare to be attacked by a large animal (in the US). The only animal that will intentionally stalk and attack humans is the polar bear. Stay away from large animals such as moose and elk with calves or bears with little ones. But again, you are highly unlikely to be attacked by them just sleeping. Your risk with these is to surprise them when you walk up without seeing them. Male bears can be aggressive during mating season in the fall. If you are in bear country, secure your food in a tree or use a bear proof container and place it some distance away from you. Bears are interested in your food, not you, personally. OK, true story, I actually got licked by a bear when I was sleeping on the side of a river in Desolation Canyon. It was all I could do not to reach out and try to touch the bear.

    4. The real dangerous animals – stinging and biting insects, red ants, wasps, etc. Good news, most of them are not active at night. No native snake is going to target you while you are sleeping. In Florida, I would probably not sleep in the Everglades outside of a tent because of the invasive Burmese Pythons that can grow quite large. Scorpions – they like warm shoes or clothing that has been taken off and hide in them occasionally. So before you get into your sleeping bag, shake it out. Put shoes and clothes in a bag. They will not target you but do sting in self defense.

    5. After spending many night after night outdoors, I can now sleep soundly. Here in the Southwest, I generally do not use a tent unless it is very cold, rainy or the bugs are too bad. I actually have a harder time sleeping in a tent than under the stars. For me, sleeping in a tent always makes me wonder what is on the other side of the paper-thin fabric. So I avoid it whenever possible. And that way, you can see the possums, raccoons, ringtail cats, coyotes and other furry friends when they come to visit. If you don’t like mice walking over you, sleep on an elevated cot such as the ‘rolling cot’ which I can also use on some backpacking trips.

    6. Practice, practice, practice. I was raised in Germany and did not become comfortable being alone in the wilderness. I was so lucky to find outdoor programs in graduate school and went on many group trips where I could learn from others. Again, choose your male companions carefully and go with other women. You are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by a stranger.

    7. I still carry a can of bear spray and a flashlight that I put right by my head when I sleep outdoors. The most important protection for sleeping outdoors is good footwear that you can slip on easily if you have to get up in middle of the night. I provide expedition medical support and the most common injury on our river trips is from people stubbing their toes on a rock or stepping onto something sharp in the dark. Again, your real threat is often completely different than those portrayed on some late night horror flick.

    8. I lived outdoors for a year, it was really hard to sleep indoors again after that. I actually feel safer in the middle of nowhere than in an urban area. I also used to work in law enforcement and had martial arts training. Having the confidence that you can fight off drunks and nut-jobs helps. But I would not trade my experiences in the wilderness for anything as they are my most cherished memories.

  • Nat
    Reply

    Yes! Thank you for writing this, I’ve been on the same journey for a while now. I love the idea of just letting the fear be a part of the experience instead of trying to conquer or avoid it. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Chandra
      Reply

      Licked by a bear! I have bear phobia…you are now my hero lol. I would have panicked I am sure!

  • BW Paddler
    Reply

    I think it’s OK to feel fear. I belong to a large online community of paddlers, many of whom take solo trips. Men or women, they all speak about feeling some caution when sleeping alone outside. I did a lot of solo camping in my 20s – all without a tent. Hang a tarp in case of rain, but set up under the stars. I’ve been run over by raccoons and once a bear explored my midsection with his/her nose – I earned some stripes I guess! I prefer wilderness camping – campgrounds make me nervous (more worried about 2-legged intruders than anything). Now I use a tent because – you know – nylon is a solid barrier, ha! Keep it up – just GO and get out there, with or without a companion!

  • Krittika Dutta
    Reply

    Such an amazing post.Best Line “Thankfully I now have friends who’ll jump at the chance to spend a night under the stars together”. Thanks for sharing this post.

  • Aimee K
    Reply

    Thanks for the story. I used to regularly camp and hike alone. It took some time to get used to it, but after years of wilderness camping, I found that the two-legged animal is the only real threat (depends where you camp, of course.) There is a certain peace that you can only get by spending long hours alone in the wilderness. I miss it.

    I have not been out camping for a few years. I am a trans-woman and have been dealing with all that entails. But now, as I consider camping again, I find I have to deal with the fact that as a woman I have a new set of threats to deal with. While this is not news to me, it is something I will need to deal with – either by taking companions, or by battling with my fears and taking proper precautions.

    Toby offers good advice above. I found that back_country camping, away from others and off the trail was the best way to avoid unwanted attention. In most parks you only need to travel a mile or so from the trailheads to avoid most people – except near summits and other areas of interest.

    Thanks again for the article and happy camping!

  • Matthew
    Reply

    Enjoyed the article.

    As I walk from Barrie, ON, Canada to Anchorage, AK across black bear, grizzly, wolf, and cougar country alone (and in a tent at night), these same thoughts are with me every evening, night, and morning. Unfortunately, these thoughts seem to do little in the way of protecting or helping me enjoy nature.

    Fear is a peculiar emotion, one that is either unfounded or a relic of our primal beginnings, however, it is natural. Humanity’s fear of predators is well founded and has helped keep our small tribe(s) alive — sometimes. Remember, fear has brought about great technological advancements and rituals to keep those predators at bay, such as the invention of spears, firearms, fences, traps, and pesticides.

    Regardless, being ‘strong’ has little to do with the emotion of fear. Strength, in my opinion, is being able to work through a situation and the associated emotion, then, keep moving forward, stubbornly.

  • Diane
    Reply

    Great article Hilary, thanks for sharing. I also struggle with my fear of the dark (seen way too many stupid movies) and need for both solitude and wilderness. But I’m getting braver. Glad to hear you found your way.

  • Aline
    Reply

    Loved reading this article! I have wild-camped in the UK a fair few times whilst cycle touring. I’m a heavy sleeper, and usually sleep well once I’m set up (I always choose somewhere hidden away in the bushes, use a very small, dark green tent in order to blend into my surroundings, avoid using a torch, and cover my bike with a black tarp – mainly to hide the fact that it is a woman’s bike!). I have found that since I started to camp alone, I have become MORE worried rather than less worried about it – totally due to the fact that everyone I know is so shocked by it. Nowadays, I tend to lie and say I’m staying in a campsite or a hotel, which adds to my stress levels pre-camp. I am a small woman (under 5ft 2″ and slim) and I can understand why people are concerned, but I think it is highly unlikely that there would be someone threatening waiting around in the bushes in a remote area after dark. Personally, I think I’m more under threat in a campsite as others are nearby and will see that I am in a tent alone. However, having those I am close to constantly lecture me about the “risks” I am taking whilst out alone has made me doubt myself! I am NO WAY going to give up wild camping alone, but I’m going to have to work on my nervousness, which has developed after many a lecture on personal safety from friends and family! To all those women who wild camp alone – don’t listen to the haters! Keep on camping! 🙂

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