I’ve slept under the stars at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, beneath shoulder-to-shoulder pines on the John Muir Trail and in view of glaciers in Montana.
Through years of pounding tent stakes and burrowing in sleeping bags, though, I’ve always camped within screaming distance of friends or family. After all, you never know when a grizzly might attack or a tent will malfunction.
But I’ve declared 2017 my Year of Adventure. I’m doing things that scare me. I’m traveling alone more than ever — and that’s OK.
So when I headed to Big Bend National Park recently, I decided to camp solo part of the time. I loaded my tent, mountain bike and hiking boots into the truck with visions of that big star-studded West Texas sky in my head.
I silently thank my parents regularly for towing the pint-sized me to parks and pitching tents from Michigan to Texas. We slept on bunkbed cots (true!), leaped into lakes and ate bread topped with orange slices and brown sugar that my mom toasted over a camp stove.
Since then, I’ve stared out of tent flaps in the shadow of Mount Whitney, braved fiery thunderstorms along the High Sierra Trail, lit my headlamp in the Grand Tetons and gazed into campfires all over Texas. Once, I narrowly avoided crushing a palm-sized tarantula lounging just outside my tent with my bare foot and lived to tell the tale.
By now, I know my biggest camping enemy isn’t a foraging bear or a knife-wielding psycho — it’s the chatter inside my head. That chatter can get pretty loud at times, though, and that’s why I decided to ease into solo camping. Instead of heading directly to a remote backcountry site in the middle of the desert at Big Bend, surrounded by scratchy cactus and howling coyotes, I drove to the Rio Grande Village campground on the park’s east side.
I’d wade in, instead of doing my usual cannonball, and leave the bear wrestling and javelina jousting for the next trip (coming right up, guaranteed).
I found a spot at the edge of the campground, where scrappy mesquite trees and thorn-studded cactus shielded me from other campers. I popped up my tent in about 3 minutes, climbed inside, stared out the flaps and wondered why this had ever made me even slightly nervous.
I know what I’m doing. While backpacking the John Muir Trail with my husband in August, we adopted different duties. He cooked dinner and breakfast; I set up and broke down the tent. I might go hungry for a few hours, but I’d have shelter.
Still, I imagine things. I once lay in a tent in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park and listened to something — grizzly? — stamp, breathe heavily and chew something just a foot or two from my tent. I froze in place while my husband snored through the whole episode, which was caused — based on the hoofprints outside the tent the next morning — by a hungry deer. Every crackling twig or howling coyote makes me feel very, very alone in the dark.
I wanted to camp alone to reconnect with nature and prove to myself that I’m capable and self-reliant. Doing things on my own empowers me. I love how it feels when I load our speedboat onto a trailer or fix a flat tire on my car. I know I can handle things — that I don’t have to call anybody to get me out of the usual jam. (And trust me, I face a lot of jams in this rapid-fire life of mine.)
Plus, camping alone means you don’t have to impress anybody. You can be yourself, with no parent-spouse-friend roles to fill. You get to do what you want, when you want to do it. You can walk around in your underpants, eat dinner at midnight, write poetry, roll in the mud or just sit and think.
In the end, my first stab at solo camping came off perfectly. I attempted to take pictures of my glowing tent until my camera gave out. I listened to owls hoot. I walked around and gawked at the night sky. I sniffed in a lot, sucking up that spicy, tangy aroma of the desert.
I highly recommend it. And I can’t wait to do it again — marauding raccoons and giant furry spiders be damned — in the real backcountry, without the safety net of other campers nearby.
If you’re tempted by the thought of some alone time with Mother Nature, heed these tips:
For your first solo trip, consider camping someplace you know well, where you feel comfortable. Here in Central Texas, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (hike around the backside of the giant granite dome for some solitude), Pedernales Falls State Park, Colorado Bend State Park, Mother Neff State Park and McKinney Falls State Park all offer easily accessible camping.
If you do decide to head into the backcountry — and that’s on my list next — pack light. You’ve got no one else to share the load. Consider carrying a personal locator beacon. I used one called the DeLorme Inreach when I backpacked the John Muir Trail last year.
Also, make sure you carry the “10 essentials.” The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoors group, came up with the list in the 1930s; the group’s current list is based on a system approach and appears in the book “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.” It recommends bringing navigation equipment (map and compass), sun protection, insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp or flashlight), first-aid supplies, fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles), repair kit and tools, nutrition (extra food), hydration (extra water) and emergency shelter.
Before you strike out, think about what’s going to make you nervous. If you’re worried about bears, carry a bear vault to store your food and stash it 100 feet from your camp at night. If it’s a knife-wielding madman, carry Mace.
Tell someone where you’re going, and make sure you’re healthy — both physically and mentally.
The solitude might do you some good. And you’re safer out in the woods or desert than you are driving down the highway to get there.