Hiking Solo But Afraid of the Dark

wolf moonI will admit it.  As much as I enjoy backpacking solo there have been a few times when I found myself wishing I wasn’t alone as the sun went down.

You may know what I’m talking about: when the long, friendly shadows cast by a glowing sun suddenly morph into sinister-looking shapes that scurry behind trees or stop moving the instant you look their way.  Uh-oh.

Seriously, where’s that noise coming from?  This is starting to freak me out!

A few years back I spent a particular night alone in the woods on a shelter floor.  I don’t think I slept more than 45 minutes at a time. I jumped at everything I heard, and kept swinging the beam of my headlamp about the treeline around me.  The light revealed nothing.  I then began to imagine what I would do if my headlamp actually did illuminate something – like a face.  Oh, man, I can’t deal with that.  I stopped looking.

That following morning, as sunlight finally stirred me, I wondered why I had become so frightened.  I had wasted a night of precious sleep and felt completely miserable knowing that I had a long day of hiking ahead of me.  I was pretty frustrated.

Generally speaking I sleep well in the woods alone.  However, there have been a few nights when – for who knows what reason – my mind wants to go all Stephen King on me.  It doesn’t happen much anymore, but every so often I still find myself getting a little freaked out.  Maybe I’m the only guy this happens to because I don’t hear a lot of backpackers sitting around sharing how frightened of the dark they can sometimes be.  Maybe I’m the only scaredy cat.

What I’ve learned is that my biggest threat to a peaceful night is not some mysterious, apocalyptic creature, but me.  Although there can be some reasons to be genuinely concerned for one’s safety, more often than not it’s the unrealistic fears that keep the anxiety level at a crescendo.

Backpacking solo challenges a person to occasionally leave their comfort zone.  Spending the night alone in the woods might classify as being outside of that zone for some people.  However, just as we have to master control of the gear we use and of our bodies that are being pressed into service, we must also learn to master what goes on inside of our heads.  A disciplined backpacker isn’t just the guy who buys only one thing at an REI garage sale.

If you’ve ever wanted to spend a night solo in the woods but are worried that you’ll be too frightened, then this article might be for you.

Let me first say that fear can be a healthy emotion. It warns us of perceived dangers.  If those dangers are real, then fear has readied us.  If, however, the perceived threat does not exist in reality, then fear becomes  an inefficient use of our energy.  Learning to differentiate between real and nonexistent threats is an important part of staying in touch with reality.  Learning to discard nonexistent threats is an important part of staying sane.

What follows are some tips for those who really want or need to spend a solo night out on the trail.  Keep in mind, however, that this author assumes no responsibility for your actual safety.  Heck, I don’t even know who you are, or where you’re spending the night!  Maybe you should be afraid?

  1. Build a Fire. Fires warm us up and dry us out.  However, they can go far beyond their physical advantages.  A good campfire has psychological benefits that stagger the imagination.  My worst nights on the trail were spent without a fire. Check the regulations for your area.
  2. Don’t Watch That Or You’ll Have Nightmares!  There’s truth to what your mom used to tell you.  By filling our heads with nightmarish stories, movies, and books, we can really ignite our own frightening imaginations.  Remember, garbage in – garbage out.
  3. Control Your Thoughts.  In most instances our fears are generated from our over-fueled imaginations.  Stop. going. there.
  4. What About the Bears?  It’s always a good idea to be aware of the problems that we might encounter in any location.  Assuming that your camping spot is not in a high risk area, then do your research and follow the recommended protocol for that place.  Remember, things can go terribly wrong in your own bed at your own house.  Worrying has never stopped anything bad from happening.  However, it sure has stopped a lot of good.
  5. Practice.  Simply put, the more you do this the easier it will become for you.  My first time alone was a little unnerving.  However, just a few weeks before I wrote this article I spent another night solo in the woods without a hint of anxiety.  The more familiar you become with any task the more comfortable it will feel to you.

If you’ve discovered any practice that has helped you through those creepy nights, please feel free to share below!

Now, put that headlamp out and get some sleep.



Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, amateur filmmaker, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.



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