I’m interested in learning how to travel by myself. I’m getting older, and there are places I want to see and photograph. I’m just tired of waiting for other people to go with me. I’m running out of time! But I’m scared to go alone. Do you have any tips to make this easier on me?
~A Fraidy Cat
Dear A Fraidy Cat:
We’re all getting older and running out of time…but neither means we have to give up on the things we want to do. Also, we shouldn’t have to wait on others to make our dreams happen. To echo sentiments from my January 1st post, “Your time on this Earth is not guaranteed. The time to do what you love is now. The time to live your dreams is now.”
Now, I don’t care how old you are, one of the most courageous things you can do is not only acknowledge your fears, but also recognize how they limit you in your life. By writing in this question, you’ve done just that. I commend you for your honesty, bravery, and willingness to try something new.
Fears such as this one are rooted in past experiences and uncertainty in the unknown. In other words, they are fears for good reason. Your subconscious is trying to protect you and keep you alive. Which is great, until you realize, in most cases—not all—our brains are overreacting to situations that may never come to fruition. It’s fears like these that we need to stare down, develop the necessary skills and plans to address them, and then plow right through them. Smartly and safely, though.
I remember the first time I went for a hike by myself. It was 2004. My ex-husband and I had temporarily relocated to Oregon to support his job. I was so thrilled to explore this new place, which mind you, was so different than our home in Arizona. We had nine months. I wanted to see it all! He had to work 24×7. So I had a choice, sit at home and wait for him to have time to go with me or go by myself. I chose the latter. I was terrified, though!
I picked a trail in Silver Falls State Park, one that was little more than a half-mile round-trip to get to a waterfall, one we had been on once together. When I arrived at the empty trailhead and was just about to start my hike alone, I saw a yellow sign tacked to the information board. It warned of a recent mountain lion sighting in the area. I got back in my car and started shaking. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this. I’ll get eaten by a mountain lion!” (Talk about a fraidy cat…)
It was a silly thought when you consider just how elusive mountain lions are and how infrequently humans get attacked by them. I calmed myself down and got out of the car. I extended the legs on my tripod (one can never be too careful…) and ran the whole trail, through the forest, down the steps, around the cliffs before reaching a protected amphitheater behind a waterfall (see photo above). I was so excited I made it! Until I realized I was only halfway through the ordeal. I had to hike back to my car eventually. I started shaking again. After only a few minutes, I ran uphill as fast as I could back to the parking lot. I never did see a mountain lion. I’m not sure I saw much of anything, come to think of it!
(Funny enough, I spotted a mountain lion—only my second in the wild—at a distance in a different location within Silver Falls State Park while hiking alone there in 2019. I can only describe the encounter as unbelievably magical, almost surreal. It was such a beautiful creature. But important public service announcement: do NOT run in mountain lion country. You’ll look like prey…)
In any case, I’m much calmer and more confident now not only hiking, but also traveling in general on my own. I love having the freedom to do what I want when and how I want. I follow my own bliss. I can blend in or stand out. I can engage or unplug. I can eat the whole bag of white cheddar popcorn if I want to. And I sure do sometimes!
When I’m alone, my awareness of my surroundings heightens. I tend to live fully in the present moment in my independence. As my skills and sensibilities are tested in various situations, I learn much about how the world works and how I respond to it. For me, it’s educational and liberating.
For me, I am a more creative photographer when it’s a solitary endeavor. It’s not that I can’t make images when I’m with other people. It’s just that I tend to worry about things like becoming a burden on other people, trying to get out of other people’s way, making sure they’re fed and having fun, and the like. In a group, caring about others’ well-being rises above the importance of making an image. By myself, however, my brain instead shifts its limited resources on being mindful, connecting with the landscape, and creating self-expressions. I couldn’t care less if I starve in the process. HA! Ok, that’s not entirely true, but you catch my drift.
It’s taken almost 16 years for me to build up to that point, though, from freaking out on a well-traveled trail. If you’ve never ventured out solo, start out with smaller, shorter jaunts. Head to your local park and walk around for 15 minutes. See how that feels. If all goes well, next time, go a little farther out and for a longer period of time.
Traveling alone should be enjoyable and enlightening experience, not a scary one. You have to be smart and safe about it, though. To help make solo adventuring more comfortable, here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way from experience and other solo travelers:
- Communicate your plans: Leave a detailed itinerary with a trusted family member or friend. Consistently check in with them via phone or email during your trip. Use a Garmin InReach (which I prefer over SPOT) or satellite phone if you venture to areas without cell phone and internet services.
- Be aware of your surroundings: Know the areas of travel very well—where to go and where not to go—by researching and planning your itinerary before you go. Select well-lit routes over dark, unlit areas. Inquire about road terrain and conditions, checking for hazards and closures, before you drive them. Actively observe your environment and use common sense to avoid compromising situations. Keep a list of local emergency phone numbers in your pocket; do not be afraid to ask for help if you feel concerned. Use bathrooms at fast-food restaurants instead of rest areas, where you can conspicuously blend into a busy, family-friendly place.
- Know how to take care of yourself: Take a first aid class from the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org). If you spend time in the backcountry alone, consider the NOLS Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder class instead (www.nols.edu).
- Stay safe in hotels: Ask for a different room if the check-in clerk verbalizes your room number and ensure they know you are not expecting any visitors. Instead of hanging the breakfast room service card on your door overnight, call room service directly. Wedge a plastic doorstop behind the door while inside.
- Protect yourself while camping: Do not overtly advertise you are traveling alone—especially on social media—but let park rangers, camp hosts, and other authorities know you are by yourself. Ask for their after-hours contact information in case of emergency. If you’re female, select a campsite near a family or other women. Keep your car keys with you at all times and use your vehicle’s panic alarm if in danger. Sleep in your vehicle with the doors locked if needed. Put a pair of men’s hiking boots outside your tent and set up two chairs. Consider traveling with a dog who will raise a ruckus if someone invades your space.
- Tread smartly while hiking and/or backpacking: Secure necessary permits and sign in at trail registries. Be well versed in wildlife behavior and safety. Carry bear spray and wear bear bells in bear country (check local/park restrictions, as group sizes in grizzly bear country frequently require a minimum of 2-3 people for safety). Avoid using headphones and listening to your music storage device while on the trail. Understand how to use a GPS, compass, and map. State-based Becoming an Outdoor Woman camps (www.azwildlife.org) often offer classes in navigation.
- Get help on the road: Sign up for an AAA membership (www.aaa.com), which provides 24/7 roadside assistance. Memorize their help number (1-800-AAA-HELP). Avoid driving long stretches at night in remote places.
- Do not bring valuables with you: Leave fancy jewelry in a safe place at home. Store money in your underclothes, socks, or travel purse carried close to your body. Make multiple copies of your travel documents, leaving one set with family and friends, storing a copy in each of your bags, and carrying one set on you.
- Trust your intuition: Don’t second guess yourself or brush off that odd feeling in your gut. There’s no harm in leaving a situation if it doesn’t feel right.
- As a last resort, defend yourself: Look for local organizations within your community that offer self-defense classes. Carry a taser, mace, and/or bear spray. If you are willing to educate yourself, use it responsibly and safely, and can handle the potential consequences, decide whether to carry a firearm. Check and abide by local and federal laws and take a firearm safety class first.
- Travel with other singles: Join singles groups, clubs, meetups, etc., which help men and women traveling alone come together. (Shameless self-promotion: join one of my co-ed or all-women’s workshops! I get lots of single travelers on my trips who gain confidence in traveling on their own and/or meet other soloists to adventure with together.)
Do readers have any additional tips and tricks that work for them? If so, please add them to the Comments section below. Let’s help our friend “A Fraidy Cat” out!
Then let’s all hit the road together! But separately. Alone. With our own really big bag of white cheddar popcorn…
As Suzy Strutner, the Associate Lifestyle Editor for HuffPost Travel, said, “Solo travel not only pushes you out of your comfort zone, it also pushes you out of the zone of others expectations.” To build on that, as Neale Donald Walsh said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Be well, BE SAFE, be wild,
Have a question about photography, art, and/or the creative life? Need some advice? Send your question to Dear Bubbles at email@example.com to be possibly featured in a future column post. (If you’d prefer a different display name than your real first name, please include your preferred nickname in your note.)