How to Handle Fear While Solo Backpacking

One of the biggest leaps an outdoorsman or woman can make in their adventure career is going on their first solo backpacking trip. While tons of people camp, and a good number backpack, not many are willing to go it alone.

For those who do, the rewards can be great. Time to think, not catering to others’ wishes, and testing your grit are all benefits of backpacking alone. That being said, it can be hard to overcome the fear that plagues many people when they trek solo. Seasoned backpackers, even those who have gone alone multiple times, still often struggle with this.

Any little thing, especially after sundown, can put a solo backpacker on edge. Although it’s natural to have some fear while alone in the woods, preparing yourself to face it head on can be the difference between leaving early and making it through the trip.

Here are some tips for keeping your cool during solo excursions into the backcountry.

A lake surrounded by trees at sunset
The rewards of solo backpacking usually outweigh the risks.

Understand the actual risks

Nearly all the fear we face as solo backpackers comes from “what ifs” in our heads, and not from actual bad experiences. The first step to overcoming that fear is to figure out what the actual risks of solo backpacking are and address them.

In reality, when you venture out alone into the wilderness, there’s a very low chance that anything seriously bad will happen. That’s not to say there’s no risk, or that you should be careless, but most of our fears aren’t grounded in truth.

Take a minute to think about what it is you’re actually scared of. Most people would say their biggest fears are animals, especially at night. I can also personally attest to the fact that another big fear (particularly for women) is running across a serial killer hiking along the same trail.

While these things have certainly happened, looking at the actual statistics will probably ease your fears. Consistently, the number one killer of people in the backcountry is falling. Two other higher-likelihood risks are drowning and heart attacks. Bear attacks and serial killers are, on the other hand, extremely rare.

Although falling, drowning, and other higher-than-average risks exist, the upside is that many of these things are somewhat within your control. You can choose to be extra cautious along drop-offs or loose rocks when hiking, and can avoid crossing rivers in risky areas. You even have some control over unlikely bear attacks, by following food storage protocols and making enough noise.

Next time you go solo backpacking, remind yourself of the actual risks of being alone in the woods, which are usually preventable, and you’ll probably feel a lot better about those bears.

A tent pitched in a group of aspen trees.

Bring something to do

Many times, people head out onto the trail alone and feel great on their hike. The sun is out, the birds are chirping, and everything feels safe. Then, when it’s time to crawl into the tent at sundown, things seem a lot creepier.

Some of this is due to the inherent unknownness of the darkness. But, the bigger factor is usually that the mind has time to wander when your only activity is lying there listening for cracking twigs and footsteps. During the day you’re busy on the trail, but in the evening you may spend a few hours simply waiting to go to bed.

Instead, find a way to occupy your time, and therefore your mind. This could be all sorts of things. Probably one of the best pastimes is reading. Your mind will be engaged, and a book will still be entertaining throughout the entire trip. Bring a Kindle along for multiple books!

If reading isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other options. You could play a one-player game, journal, listen to podcasts, build a fire, play an instrument, or even watch a movie on your phone. Be creative with this. The goal is to keep your mind occupied, so anything that keeps you busy is good.

Go in prepared

One of the most practical ways to fight fear is to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. Ideally, you won’t need to actually use anything you brought in preparation, but knowing you’re equipped will ease the fear.

This preparation starts before you even start hiking. Give your trip itinerary to a few trusted people before leaving. Even if you don’t know your exact timing or route, sharing a general plan is a good idea, since you’ll be much more easily-located in case of emergency. And, you’ll be less anxious knowing this safety net exists.

Similarly, preparing yourself to not get lost will ease fear. Being familiar with a map and compass, as well as carrying a GPS, helps with the fear of getting lost. I’ve ended up plenty of places I didn’t mean to while backpacking. But, I’ve never panicked about it since I had the resources to get back on track.

In terms of bear encounters, if you really can’t convince yourself of the low-likelihood of such an attack, bring something along that makes you more comfortable. This is usually bear spray, but could also be a sidearm or simply hiking with bells. You’ll most likely never need to actually defend against a bear, but having the added protection can put you at ease.

Takeaway

Venturing into the backcountry always has risks, regardless of whether you’re solo or in a group. While you’ll never reduce that risk to zero, the odds of something catastrophic actually happening are very low. The hardest part isn’t preventing danger, but rather overcoming the (usually-irrational) fear.

The more you backpack alone, the more comfortable you’ll be each time you go. Even within a single trip, fear usually decreases as time passes. At the end of the day, the benefits of spending some time alone in the woods usually outweigh the risks associated with such trips.

If you’ve spent time alone in the backcountry, or want to but never have, I want to hear about it! Shoot me an email or let me know in the comments!

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