I was on a high of confidence, joy and a little disbelief in the days after completing a solo thru hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT). Just over four months later, the strength of the feeling has faded somewhat, although it returns as a warm tingle in my belly and a smile whenever I think about it.
I expect I’d still have felt amazing had I done the trail with someone else. And in reality I met and was supported by many people along the way. But there was something about turning up to the trail-head alone and knowing that essentially, I was on my own for the next three weeks that made me both a little scared to begin and completely exhilarated to finish.
I loved the freedom I had to start and stop where I liked each day, to hike as fast (or as slow) as I wanted and to take the breaks that I needed. Not having to answer to anyone was very freeing.
I also valued the sense of accomplishment that I got from doing so many practical things for myself day in and day out; from putting up my tent to filtering water. Knowing that I was carrying literally everything that I needed on my back gave me a huge kick. Frankly I felt like a bit of a badass.
I enjoyed meeting so many new people and found – as is often the case when you share incredible experiences – that I bonded with new friends very quickly. I only camped alone (and by choice) twice and if I wanted a few hours or a day of hiking with just my thoughts for company, that wasn’t an issue. I spent many a moment perched on a rock gazing out in sheer wonder at the views before me.
You are so courageous!
I met a lot people who were interested by the fact that I was alone and had travelled to The States to do the trail and I enjoyed talking about it. But I was interested by the number of times that I was called words like ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’, or where I elicited worry, whilst my male hiking partners were ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’ for having set out alone. And whilst my close friends and family were very supportive, I was met with a similar sense of disbelief and concern by some acquaintances, when I told them that I’d be going solo. This included a guy that I dated for a short time, who told me that I “didn’t know what I was I was getting [myself] into” and that he was “seriously concerned” about my ability to do it.
One of my most memorable encounters was with two men who told me that they couldn’t understand why there were so many women out on the trail – “some of them alone, some in pairs”. What did I think the motivation was of all these women? And for that matter, why was I there – a woman – on my own? I replied, “Our motivations are probably the same as you. Being outdoors, the challenge, the adventure? Or maybe it’s something …”
Looking a tad annoyed, one interrupted me with, “what, have you all been reading Wild or something?”
Whilst comments like these are easy to brush off at first, they can start to wear you down, especially against a backdrop of articles in the media telling women how to ‘stay safe’ when travelling alone. I shared this story and others with people that I met along the way. It was often received with a laugh and some recognition, especially from the women I spoke to – I wasn’t the only one to be having conversations like this.
These exchanges made me realise quite how much it is taken for granted by some that the outdoors is a male space, and that women (and a number of other groups) are still largely viewed as an exception. It’s also frustrating to me that women are often expected to provide a reason to be ‘outdoors’ and to prove their ability and competence in a way that isn’t expected of men.
But the fact is, despite how it may have seemed to some people, the main threats to my safety on the trail (including injury and hypothermia) can happen to anyone and their likelihood comes down to preparedness and poor luck, not gender. So long as you are well prepared and able trust in your own judgement and ability, you really have nothing to fear as a woman hiking alone and just as much of a right to be there as anyone else.
Preparing for a solo thru hike
There are many things that you can do to prepare for a solo thru hike.
Build your confidence and experience
If you are not familiar with overnight backpacking, or doing it solo (as I wasn’t) it’s a good idea to build in some practice trips as part of your preparation for a longer trip.
I started with a day hike close to home, and worked up to a couple of multi-day solo trips. Not only were these crucial in helping me to build my skills, fitness and confidence, they allowed me to be clear on my comfort levels and what I needed to improve or change in terms of both gear and ability. This in turn helped me to make informed decisions about what I actually needed to spend my money on and how to trim my bag weight.
These trips also helped me to see how sociable trail hiking is and that I did really enjoy the times when I was alone.
Learn first aid
It’s a good idea to be familiar with the contents of your first aid kit and to take a mountain first aid course. Whilst I knew that I shouldn’t have a significant problem getting help on the JMT, I wanted to make sure that I’d know what to do in the first instance or until help got to me.
You might want to consider carrying a GPS device with an SOS function (there was no phone signal on the JMT).
Improve your navigation skills
Even if a trail is well marked, a map and compass may become necessary if you wander off the trail by accident, it’s covered in snow, or your GPS fails.
I signed up for a short and inexpensive map reading course and whilst I didn’t need it on the JMT, I felt more confident knowing that I could navigate if I needed to. Especially as my natural sense of direction is pretty terrible!
Share your plans
I always share my itinerary with friends and family, along with the details of my pre and post trail travels. I didn’t carry a location device on the JMT, but had let them know that I’d be un-contactable and when they could expect to hear from me, so they weren’t too worried. As well as easing worries, it’s important that somebody knows where you are likely to be, and is able to raise the alarm if you don’t check in or return when you were supposed to.
Telling friends and family about my adventure also helped to bring it to life for me, and their enthusiasm and encouragement eased my quite considerable nerves.
I read a lot about the JMT and the things that I might have to deal with, including weather, wildlife and terrain. This enabled me to run through a few scenarios and to have an idea of what I’d do to reduce the risks and mitigate the impact of anything that might go wrong.
For example, my broken ankle hadn’t been healed for very long and I was worried that I might have an issue with the terrain. I decided to wear hiking boots rather than trail shoes and to bring poles and a support bandage. I also packed an emergency blanket in an accessible pocket, to allow me to keep warm easily, if I was injured.
Signing up to online groups and reading books about people (particularly women) who had taken on solo adventures gave me some extra tips, reassurance and inspiration.
Pack some whiskey (or red wine)
Not that I’m advocating drinking, but it came in pretty handy the first time that I camped alone and was feeling a little nervous. It’s also really nice to be able to share it with your new friends.
You can read more about how I prepared for the trail here.
The John Muir Trail (JMT)
- A long-distance trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. Almost the entire trail is officially designated as wilderness.
- The trail was named in honour of naturalist John Muir, originally from Scotland.
- The official length of the trail is 210.4 miles (338.6 km), and it has elevation gain of approximately 47,000 feet (14,000 m).
- The trail follows the same footpath as the longer Pacific Crest Trail for about 160 miles (260 km).
- About 35% of the trail, including the entirety of the last 30 miles (48 km), lies above 10,000 feet (3,000 m).