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The first time I went backpacking, it was by myself.
That makes me sound a lot more brave and badass than I really was. The truth of the matter was that I was struggling with my personal life — just getting over a divorce, raising a teenager, dealing with a job I hated — and I just needed to get the hell out of town. I’d been researching backpacking online, because I firmly believed (and still do) that the answers to all the world’s biggest questions can be found either on the trail or in a book.
I wanted to go. I needed to go. So I picked a local popular backpacking loop and I went.
Mistakes I Made
Looking back, there were clearly mistakes I made: I didn’t understand the gear I needed, and so I borrowed some from friends, and bought the rest at Wal-Mart or thrift shops (more on this later). I packed way too much food. I decided to use my phone as a map, and I didn’t check my tent poles before I went.
As it turns out, all these were all huge mistakes.
But I did a lot of stuff right. I brought my dog Howie, who proved to be the best backpacking companion I’ve ever had. I didn't overpack my pack (despite all the food), I didn’t panic when I got lost, and I got to see a porcupine close up and a black bear far off.
And I came out the other side a different woman.
That’s what I want for you. To be able to hit that balance that so many of us women strive for: to be prepared, but brave. To take risks, but measured risks. To get outside — and not hate it.
This guide is for women everywhere who ever wanted to sleep outside, beyond their backyards and go for an adventure. Women who wanted to prove to themselves (and possibly their social media followers) that they could do it.
This guide is for you.
Women Who Backpack: Why We're Different
But before we talk about how women backpackers are different from other women, I first want to talk about what traits women backpackers share. Of course we are all basically built with the same parts, and many of us share similar cultural and environmental upbringing.
But women backpackers also tend to be strong (in more ways than one), smart, driven and in search of something more. Generally, we value nature and its positive effects on our moods and psyches. We are cautious, but we're willing to take measured risks. We’re brave, yet conscientious.
In short, women backpackers are the best kind of people.
Women who backpack have unique personalities
Anecdotally speaking, we’re different from other women in our personalities — we tend to be open to learning new things, and often have grown up being told we could be anything we wanted (somehow the word “outdoorswomen” wasn’t really on our parents’ radars back then). We want to be the valedictorian of the backcountry!
Intellectually we know we’re supposed to accept failures as learning opportunities, but in our heart of hearts, we just want to be good.
It’s often overlooked that Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the quintessential woman-on-the-trail-memoir Wild was actually a fairly accomplished outdoorswoman before she set out on her famous Pacific Crest Trail trek.
She’d grown up in a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing, and had been on plenty of camping and hiking trips, both as a child and as an adult. She wasn’t fresh out of the day spa, looking for some fresh air — she was just desperate for some healing, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Maybe you’re desperate too. It’s a quiet desperation, but it’s there. You want to experience the thrill of doing it yourself. You want to know what it’s like to watch the sunset over a campfire you built yourself. You want to walk through the woods, and not worry about work, family, relationships or any of that bullshit you left behind.
That’s why we backpack.
Mental Preparation for Women Backpackers
If you take nothing else away from this post, it’s this: Backpacking is 75% a mental game. You have to have your head in the right place in order to both enjoy backpacking, and stay safe.
Lots of women assume that backpacking is going to be really dangerous — they have visions of falling off cliffs, getting attacked by wild animals or bad people, or just experiencing bad weather.
Let me be totally clear: All these things are EXTREMELY unlikely. EX-TREME-LY UNLIKELY.
Animals tend to leave you alone (unless you have food, and there are plenty of precautions that you can take to avoid that situation). Generally bad people like to prey on people who are easy targets — hiking 10 miles out to the middle of nowhere so you can rob a likely-badass lady just isn’t worth it for them. And bad weather? Well, I like say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad preparation.
So how do you overcome these obstacles?
You get intellectually and physically prepared. This means that you decide that you’re going to work hard at getting to a place that feels comfortable for you. You can’t prepare for everything that might go wrong, but you can prepare for a lot. Research the hell out of what you need to bring, where you’re going, how you’ll travel and what you’ll do in an emergency.
In fact, you’ve already taken the biggest step of all by reading this post.
So what should you do if you’re one of those people who screams when a twig snaps and pictures rabid grizzly bears tearing you limb from limb?
Remember these three points:
Steps to Take To Prepare Mentally for Backpacking
First, take a hard look at your real fears and take steps to remove their power. Do you watch too many crime shows? Stop.
Start watching nature shows instead. I like movies like Wild (though the book was better), Mile, Mile and a Half and The Way as inspiration. Read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Change your thinking, change your life. It turns out that you are a backpacker!
Imagine yourself free of any obligation other than getting to your next campsite! No work. No family. No email, TV or news shows. Eventually your “city senses” start falling away and you return to a state where you can hear things, smell things and see things you couldn’t before. You start to remember that you are part of something bigger, part of the natural world. You are nature.
I cover this more thoroughly in another section, but just know that the physical training helps with the mental training. The stronger and more fit you feel, the more mentally prepared you’ll be to deal with anything the trail throws at you (though don’t wait until you’re in perfect shape to go backpacking — that day will never come!).
First, start small. Celebrate your small victories when they come, and set bigger goals.
Next, think hard about what a bad day on the trail might look like. What if it rains all day? What if it’s cold? What if you get lost? What if your gear doesn’t work? Every single one of those problems is workable — you just have to anticipate what they might be and then actually prepare for that possibility.
Finally, imagine what it will feel like after you’ve completed this feat. What pictures will you bring back? What stories will you tell? How will you feel about yourself — stronger? More confident? More relaxed? How will you feel when you're sucking down that shower beer you've saved just for this occasion?
So if you’ve never thought of yourself as “outdoorsy” or a backpacker, it’s time to start changing your thinking. Prepare, then take the risk. In fact, that’s pretty good advice for anything new you do in life.
This post was originally published in November, 2013.
Whether it's bad weather, unsavory bad guys or wild animals, some women think that camping alone is only for the very brave or very crazy. But that's just not the case. If you've got the right gear, right preparation and the right attitude, camping alone can provide just the right combination of adventure, peace & quiet and much-needed rejuvenation. It's one of my favorite ways to reconnect with myself and nature.
Why spend time outdoors by yourself?
Camping by yourself is a great way to spend some quality time with the one person who probably needs it the most: you. The simple act of being around trees, rivers, lakes and the woods can take you from being a burned out, over-stressed crazy lady to a zen, bring-it-on kind of Wonder Woman.
There's nothing that will build your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment faster than packing all your gear in the back of your car and heading outdoors by yourself. (Plus you'll have the best story on book club night — which brings me to the best reason you should get outdoors: uninterrupted reading time!)
Here are seven tips to help you feel safe and relaxed while camping by yourself:
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7 Solo Camping Tips for Women
1. Prepare mentally.
This is the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do. Take some time to channel your inner Katniss Everdeen or even author Cheryl Strayed in her book *Wild. Imagine yourself as strong, capable and a total total badass, ready to take on whatever challenge the outdoors can throw at you. Journal about your fears, then switch roles and play the wiser, braver version of yourself and answer those fears. Next, minimize risks by following the rest of my tips to give you even more confidence.
2. Test Your gear.
Don't over pack, but make sure you have everything you need (this can be a hard balance for many women to strike). Bring a first aid kit, and know how to use it. Also bring bear spray, mace or a knife (one of these should be in every woman's standard hiking/camping gear) for emergencies, and understand how it works. ALWAYS practice setting up your tent and using your cook stove before you leave.
3. Let someone know your plans.
It's always a good idea to let several people know where you're going and when you'll be back. If you're going to a campground or state park, let the ranger/hosts know that you're there, and if you have any medical problems. Also, it never hurts to ask, "Is there anything I need to know?"
Some women like the extra confidence of having an emergency radio — one of my best friends, who often hikes in very remote areas, has a *Garmin In Reach Mini Satellite Communicator which allows her to always have a way to contact authorities in an emergency. These are pretty expensive tools, though, and I really only recommend them if you're going to be in the wilderness or so terrified there's no other way you'd go camping by yourself.
4. Pick a well-worn route.
Pick a trail or area that you're familiar with, and have visited before — barring that, pick a destination that's known to have good cell phone reception. State campgrounds are good options, as are private campgrounds — especially if you're just starting out.
The more experienced you are, the more you'll want to move out to less crowded campgrounds. The tradeoff is more peace and quiet.
5. Know your limits.
Start small, with a day hike so that you can become familiar with the area. If you're going to be gone for more than one night, make sure you're physically (okay, and mentally) capable of taking on a solo trip - be honest when it comes to your limits.
Build up to what you'll be taking on through walking, running and lifting weights, and make sure you have the appropriate food, water and all the right backpacking gear (including good shoes, a warm sleeping bag and the ability to pee in the woods) before you go.
6. Bring your dog.
A canine companion can provide just the right amount of company, though make sure you know the rules of the campground or area where you'll be bringing your pooch. Also make sure you pack extra gear and food so that Fido is comfortable and doesn't become more of a burden during the time when you're supposed to be re-charging your mental health.
A word of warning: sometimes your dog just isn't cut out for camping, and so your weekend away in the woods becomes super-stressful as you try to manage their anxiety. Know your dog's limits — sometimes a vacation includes getting away from the responsibility of dog ownership as well (assuming you have someone at home that can take care of your dog).
7. Bring a great book.
This is your chance to have some amazing reading time - make sure you take advantage of it! Whether you spend the whole time snuggled up in your sleeping bag with a book in front of your face (personally, my absolutely FAVORITE place to read is in my *hammock, or intersperse your reading time with some strategic hikes or cooking some gourmet meals for yourself, novels make great camping companions.
Looking for some great book recommendations while you're out in the woods? I've got you covered.
Camping by yourself isn't difficult or hard — it just seems that way if you've never done it before. Take the leap and you'll find it truly rewarding. What other tips or questions do you have when it comes to camping alone?
Leave a comment or question below and I'll answer it!
Located in one of my FAVORITE outdoor places in Michigan — Ludington State Park — the Jack Pines Hike-In Campground is one of my favorite beginner backpacking sites. It's located just on the other side of the dunes of Lake Michigan, so at night you can fall asleep to the sound of waves. There's a pit toilet and water pump, and many of the sites have picnic tables, which is nice when you're first starting out.
In order to get to the campground (it's nestled inside the state park), you need to hike a mile in with your gear — the perfect distance to get away from all the crowds at Ludington (at least in the summer). However, you need to reserve your site ahead of time, so make sure you get online early. Once you're there, there are miles and miles of beautiful hiking trails to explore. Plus, if you wimp out and get hungry for some restaurant food, the beautiful town of Ludington isn't too far a drive!
Sand Lakes Quiet Area
The best thing about Sand Lakes is that it's not that well known — so if you're looking to get away from the backpacking crowds (yes, there is such a thing), consider Sand Lakes Quiet Area.
One thing I do warn visitors is that, as late as fall of 2017, the water pump was broken at the "campground" (really it's just a collection of worn spots & a pit toilet next to a marshy lake), so you need to be prepared to get water from the lake. And like I said, the lake is surrounded by mud and cattails, which makes getting the water into your filtering system a little tricky (but it can be done). Just be prepared!
But there's great hiking in the surrounding area, and if you decide you really only want to do one night in the "wilderness" there's a state campground (Guernsey Lake State Forest Campground) nearby that's really nice and hardly ever full.
Manistee River Loop
Because of its incredible popularity — and the damage that's resulted from that popularity — apparently local Michigan Hiking & Backpacking Meetups have officially stopped mentioning or promoting the Manistee River Loop to new backpackers. There's been too much trash, too many people driving in on old logging roads with their pickup trucks and beer coolers.
But I figure it's not the trail's fault people are destructive assholes! So I say go try it (though read up on it first). It's one of the best loops in Michigan, offering the perfect weekend trip for women who are beginners, with beautiful views and close proximity to civilization so you don't have to feel so remote..
Pro Tip: Plan on spending the night on the east side of the river — suitable campsites are few and far between on the west side.
Waterloo Pickney Trail
"Waterloo-Pinckney Trail is a 33.9 mile lightly trafficked point-to-point trail located near Grass Lake, Michigan that features a lake and is good for all skill levels," says AllTrails.com. This is the only trail on the list that I have very limited experience with, but I wanted to add something for east-siders to visit. This trail is one-way, so you'll need to have two cars or some way to get back to your vehicle from the starting point. Do your research on which section of the trail you'd like to attempt — because 34 miles is NOT for beginners!
South Manitou Island
If you have to choose between North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island (you can reach them both via the Manitou Island Transit), newbie backpackers should opt for the latter — South has many more amenities such as bathrooms and water pumps. My husband has taken his three teenage boys camping on South Manitou twice, and both times they've had great experiences .
When you feel ready & have some experience under your belot, come back and visit North Manitou Island — it's one of my most favorite places on earth. Peaceful, gorgeous sunsets, and it's just remote enough to feel like you're really getting away from the world..
One of the most gorgeous natural ecosystems in Michigan, Nordhouse Dunes is a National Forest and a very popular place for backpacking, since it offers dispersed camping along the shores of Lake Michigan. Most seasoned backpackers avoid the location since in summers it fills up with college students dragging giant coolers of beer (there's no one as dedicated as a college boy with his beer). But if you can get there early and claim your secluded spot — the dunes offer a lot of privacy if you do it right — the views and the hikes are incredible.
Your own backyard
If you're nervous about backpacking, one of the best places to start is your backyard, or even a local park. BUT DON'T STAY IN CITY PARKS OVERNIGHT. Just set up your gear, maybe even cook a meal using your stove to get a feel for what it's like. Lie in your tent and smile and sigh, and imagine what it would be like to leave it all behind and do some serious shinrin-yoku. It's a great first step toward getting comfortable and feeling safe with the idea of backpacking.
Seasoned backpackers — what are your tips for newbies? Leave them in the comments below.
Celebrities don't often come across as the backpacking type (or at least their public personas don't really lend to imagining them out on the trail, with no makeup and dirt under their fingernails). Still, there are a handful of women who seem like they would be a blast out in nature. Here are my top eight women whom with I'd love to share the trail:
1. Jennifer Lawrence
Known as "America's Kick-Ass Sweetheart," you have to try really, really hard not to like J-Law. Her acting is all-in (I thought her performance in American Hustle was mesmerizing), and with roles like Ree in Winter's Bone and of course Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games trilogy it's hard not to imagine her as completely amazing out in the wilderness. Also, she has claimed herself to be "the fastest pee-er ever," a total bonus when backpacking.
2. Alanis Morrisette
Claiming her favorite place in the world is California's Big Sur, Alanis seems like she'd be a great conversationalist around the campfire at night (are there portable guitars)? Her songwriting skills make her one of the most memorable women performing today, and the fact that she starred on "You Can't Do That On Television" as a teenager likely means she's got a wicked sense of humor.
3. Annette Bening
Maybe it's her charm, or maybe it's the fact that she's managed to stay married to Warren Beatty for 23 years, but I feel like Annete Bening can do anything, and do it with grace (including walking miles a day with a 40 pound pack). Her roles in The American President and American Beauty, two of my all-time favorite movies, make me wonder if she'd be a fun-yet-even-keeled addition to any backpacking trip.
4. Alicia Keys
This badass R&B star made a name for herself at a young age, and has said that she loves trying new things. She's been quoted saying that she has huge calves, which puts you at an advantage in backpacking, and she once considered changing her name to "Alicia Wild." Plus, she could sing while we hiked, something that makes a long haul go faster (not to mention keeps the bears away).
5. Reese Witherspoon
Her recent performance in Wild aside, Reese is a big reader and considers herself “a big dork who read loads of books...I get crazy in a bookstore. It makes my heart beat hard because I want to buy everything." She's also a feminist — when asked who she would invite over for dinner, she said "all the female senators" and when asked what she would ask them, she replied "why there aren't more female senators." I hear you, sister.
6. Jennifer Aniston
I know this is completely ridiculous, but I've always secretly believed that Jen and I would be best friends given just 5 minutes together at the bar (good thing we'll never meet in real life). She's smart, she's independent and she's funny — all things that I look for in a bestie and a trail partner. Imagine how close we'd be after two days in the wild! (Plus maybe she'd bring along her bestie Courtney Cox.)
7. Jillian Michaels
Jillian Michaels is everyone's favorite badass, making her the ideal celebrity to get me out of my comfort zone and push me to be my best (something I do with my own clients). But I'd also like to take her backpacking because she's a writer, a vocation that's near and dear to my heart, and as an investor in the jerky company Krave, we'd have lots of great snacks on the trail. Plus she loves animals and communing with nature.
What female celebrity would you love to spend some quality time with while backpacking remote backcountry trails? Leave your answer in the comments below.
Jill Hinton Wolfe,
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