Backyard: A Woman, A Backpack, And The Importance Of Going Alone

Photo: Justa Jeskova

words :: Emily Pennington

“You’re going to get raped!”

It’s always that. Or, “What if there are bears?” or “What if you get lost?” The list of calamities that other people force on you when you’re female, five-foot-two, and about to go hiking alone is exhaustive in its repetition and dizzying in its scope.

And yet, every weekend, I politely hush their worried tones and cruise out into the lush, green tapestry of the wilderness – even if only for a few hours. Why? Because the mountains are one of the few remaining places where our safety is not curated, and I think that solo trekking is a vital key to building stronger, more resilient, and radically self-reliant humans.

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I often find myself conjuring up the Zen-like state mountaineering can help achieve when workweek office drama threatens sanity.

The first time I solo thru-hiked a 120-kilmetre (75-mile) trail, I broke. Tent-bound in near-freezing temperatures and sticky with rain, sweat and humidity, I nervously darted my eyes around the nylon walls of my tent. My headlamp broke. My back-up headlamp also broke. Ditto my trekking poles, my solar charger and my GPS. To top it all off, I had lost my favourite wool hat, and my thermals and socks were soaked through. Game over. I took the kind of deep breath usually reserved for jumping off of buildings or trying to displace road rage and bailed from the trek with a resounding, “F*ck this sh*t.”

But you know what? I learned more on that trip than I had on any other. The mental agility required to plan, pack, execute and make judgment calls with no one else to turn to carves deep grooves into the human mind that quickly apply themselves in more ordinary aspects of life. Learning to steady one’s breath, strip away the emotional fat, and assess a situation from a more linear point of view can hold just as much power in the city as it does in the wild.

I often find myself conjuring up the Zen-like state mountaineering can help achieve when workweek office drama threatens sanity. A boss’ harsh tone loses a lot of impact once you’ve recently traversed a knife’s edge or stared down a moose in the backcountry, because the blistering rawness of what we experience in the wild holds no space for excess. It demands that we examine things exactly as they are and with fierce immediacy.

Of course, this on-the-fly assessment must be married to a solid habit of advance planning in order to safely navigate solo dangers in the backcountry. You can’t control most variables in the outdoors, but you can build a sturdy framework when things go awry on the trail. Pack the night before, triple-check everything, and the best place to stash extra batteries is in an extra headlamp.

The places your mind will take you on a solo journey are invaluable, and the imprints these wild spaces make inside your heart will be unmatched.

Education is the ointment that soothes irrational fears in the outdoors. Learning wilderness first aid, how to evaluate avalanche terrain, and how to use a paper map and compass have brought my awareness up, while also ensuring that I rely on my brain instead of Google while in the thick of it. When your fancy GPS watch breaks, will you know which berm of rocks you need to parallel to make it safely back to the car? For me, developing a sense of autonomy has been confidence building and rewarding. Rather than becoming paralyzed by all the “what ifs” floating around in my skull, I can smugly respond to my worried brother-in-law, “A rattlesnake bite actually isn’t a deadly threat to adults. I just need to hike out slowly and immediately call a hospital if bitten.” Mic drop.

Photo: Justa Jeskova

After two years of diligent training to become a better alpinist I returned to the first peak I ever summited to climb it again, only this time I was alone and in the snow. Merrily digging my crampons into the consolidated slabs, I soon reached the top with buckets of reserve energy left to scramble up the summit block, snap photos, and laugh at overly-friendly marmots darting beneath my feet. I had cut my hiking time in half and enjoyed myself fives times as much as I had the first time around, barely arriving at camp in the late gloaming. The point is: training works. It provides a margin of safety that allows you to relax and enjoy the mountains, rather than huffing and puffing your way through the forest, only to collapse in your tent before sunset.

Yes, I’ve encountered bears (without getting eaten), been a little bit lost for a bit, and survived a host of other “dangers” everyone always warns us about. I’ve also put my first aid training to work helping another hiker suddenly struck with an epileptic seizure (check airway, breathing and pulse!) Allowing ourselves to take the illicit and delicious plunge into solo hiking, travelling, or backpacking gives us the gift of absolute freedom. Of standing on our own two feet with nothing but our wits, skills and instincts to get us out there and back again.

The places your mind will take you on a solo journey are invaluable, and the imprints these wild spaces make inside your heart will be unmatched. When you venture out alone, you’ll find it is not the trail that changes, but yourself. –ML

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