It’s All Fun and Games Until Somebody Puts An Eye Out

30 09 2009

Nikki: You can’t do it that way.  You’re just measuring the difference between the temperature of your skin and his.  You need a thermometer.

Ava: I don’t think we have a thermometer.

Nikki: You don’t have a first aid kit?

–“And So the Day Begins,” Summerland

In an early episode of the short-lived WB series Summerland, the precocious thirteen-year-old Nikki Westerly, played by the adorable (and, apparently brilliant) Kay Panabaker, criticizes her new guardian — her carefree and childless aunt, played by Lori Loughlin — for her lack of parenting skills.  The sentiment, however, is one I’ve expressed on numerous occasions to casual hikers, and it’s especially important for solo hikers.

Seriously, you need a first aid kit.

You can make your own, or you can get a prepared kit at any outdoors store.  Mine is a prepared kit that I have modified, and it is ultra-light and compact (similar to this one).  It comes in its own little nylon bag, with an interior, waterproof plastic bag.  It measures approximately 5×7 inches, and lives at the bottom of my backpack.

It came with the following items:

  • Bandage materials, including sterile dressing kits, gauze, non-adhesive, adhesive and butterfly bandages
  • Adhesive tape
  • Antibiotic ointments and towelettes
  • Ibuprofen tablets
  • After-sting towelettes
  • Antihistamines
  • Splinter-picker forceps (which look kind of scary)
  • Moleskin pieces
  • Safety pins

Some kits have more items, such as cotton swabs, sterile gloves, first aid manuals, etc., and more of the items in the lightweight kits.  There are more comprehensive “survival” kits as well, with irrigation syringes and rehydration tablets, and some even come with other emergency items such as whistles or beacons.  There are even “women’s” kits, though the extra items in these seem to be lip balm, hand sanitizer, medication for menstrual cramps and tampons, which I find a little insulting (as if I couldn’t think of that myself if I didn’t buy a “women’s” kit).  While the truly comprehensive kits can be priced at $100 or more (and a more comprehensive kit might be wiser for longer backcountry trips), a lightweight basics kit should be fine for casual day-hikers.  The lightweight kits can be found for anywhere from $10-50, and the purchase is well worth it.

I like the prepared kit because everything comes in a neat little package.  Be sure to replace the medications when they expire, and to add anything to your kit that you think you might need out on the trail.

For example, I also carry extra moleskin (blisters can really hamper a good hike), an Ace bandage (because I’m prone to ankle sprains), and a snake bite kit.

The snake bite kit was a last minute addition before I took my road trip (my first solo hiking and camping expedition), and at the time I wasn’t sure it was necessary.  It comes in a little tube that doubles as a suction device, and contains a lance, a constriction device, topical povidone iodine, and emergency instructions.  I’ve never used it, but one day I came across this guy:

by joanarc4

by joanarc4

Let me tell you, I have never left that snake bite kit behind since.  On that particular hike (Kolob Arch, Zion National Park, UT) I wasn’t alone (and wasn’t the person crazy enough to get close and take the photo), but that kit was in my hand until our party moved on and left this rattlesnake to go about his business.

The important thing is tailoring your kit to your needs, and keeping it stocked with fresh materials.  This is one instance where a little preparation goes a long way.

And just think, I’ll never have to say to you, with a trademark Nikki Westerly sneer, “You don’t have a first aid kit?”

Note: This article in no way constitutes medical advice, and you should consult your doctor regarding specific medical conditions.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Anything You Can I Can Do…Maybe

28 09 2009


Yes, we can.  (Wait, haven’t I heard that somewhere recently?  Nah…)

I live alone, and one thing I have learned is that while I can do many things (rewire an electrical socket, figure out a plumbing problem, use a drill, kill any manner of bugs without freaking out), there are other things that I just can’t do on my own (hang a fifty-pound chandelier from the ceiling in my dining room — thanks, Gary and Erik).

The simple truth is that, as an average woman, there will be things of the physical sort that are just more difficult for us than they would be for a guy.  Maybe a couple of us could handle it, but the whole point of this blog is to talk about solo camping and hiking.  As I keep saying (so it must be important), the best weapon you have as a solo hiker is to be aware of the risks and be prepared to handle them.  So that brings me to Rule Number Two:

Don’t Confuse Enthusiasm With Ability: Realistically Assess Your Abilities and Plan Accordingly

This rule could also be called “Don’t Overestimate Your Abilities.”  What it means is that I think it’s great if you want to camp out on your own and tackle the outdoors because your boyfriend/husband teased you that you wouldn’t last ten minutes without your manicurist once you chipped a nail.  However, I don’t suggest that you decide to prove him wrong by shouldering a fifty-pound frame pack and hiking twelve miles into the back country that is known for its aggressive population of grizzlies, if you’ve never slept outdoors in your life.

Solo camping and hiking is not the time to attempt some grand feat that you’ve never before come close to even considering, when that could land you in some serious trouble.  If you go with the boyfriend/husband (or a girlfriend, or your mom, or whatever), then at least there’s someone around to help when you realize that you need to dump half your pack or else collapse from fatigue.  There’s someone to encourage you when your muscles start screaming.  There’s someone to go for help when you step wrong and twist your ankle.

Rule Number Two doesn’t mean you can’t challenge yourself.  It simply requires that you realistically assess your abilities and limitations, and plan accordingly.

The key here is being realistic.  Are there some women who can rebuild a transmission?  Sure.  I’m not one of them.  Could I learn?  Probably, but right now I can’t do it.  When I was on my road trip, I knew that if something happened to my car, I’d have to get help.  When my tire blew out while I was flying down Rte. 40 in New Mexico, I called AAA to come and help.  Good thing, because the guy was also able to direct me to the nearest town that had both a hotel and a tire place that would be open in the morning.

Just be realistic.  Don’t be afraid to push yourself, and try new things, but have an escape plan ready in case you need it.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Set Your DVRs…

25 09 2009


So there’s this big thing happening over at PBS this weekend, and all next week.  What is it, you ask?  Drumroll, please…

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns, will air in a six part series premiering on PBS on Sunday, September 27, 2009.

I’m pretty excited about it, and hope it lives up to all the hype.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ken Burns, he is a documentary director and producer who became famous with his eleven-hour 1990 documentary entitled “The Civil War.”  He’s made many many other films (about “Baseball” and “Jazz” and “The Brooklyn Bridge” to name a few), and has won more than half a dozen Emmy Awards.

He’s also responsible for the “Ken Burns Effect” on your iPhoto application — you know, that thing were the camera zooms around the photo rather than just displaying it in one place — because his documentaries often rely on still photographs.

Now, this documentary has six episodes, which will air on six consecutive nights beginning on Sunday (and finishing up on Friday, for those of you who can’t count very well):

  1. Scriptures of Nature (1851-1890)
  2. The Last Refuge (1890-1915)
  3. The Empire of Grandeur (1915-1919)
  4. Going Home (1920-1933)
  5. Great Nature (1933-1945)
  6. The Morning of Creation (1946-1980)

It promises to be filled with beautiful shots of the parks, stories about Teddy Roosevelt, and the history of the founding, preservation, and enjoyment of the parks.

When asked in an interview why he chose National Parks as a subject for a documentary, Burns said:

“Our European ancestors essentially lived a geographically proscribed life, rarely venturing beyond where they were, and all of a sudden, the combination of land and democracy set in motion one hell of a great story.  We think the best one of all is the story of how a fledgling democracy suddenly decided you could set aside large tracts of natural land, not for the kings and royalty and the very rich who had normally cornered the market on beautiful places, but for everybody for all time….”¹

by joanarc4

Hoodoos. (by joanarc4)

If you have ever set foot in Yellowstone, or ventured into the Grand Canyon, or seen the sun rise over Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos, or camped in Acadia, or seen grizzlies in Glacier, or wondered at the blue haze in the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll understand where Burns’ enthusiasm comes from.

It also makes sense that the National Park Conservation Association is hyping the heck out of this premiere, with a party in Central Park, NYC, on Wednesday night, and even offering Party Kits if you want to host a viewing party.  In this age, where government spending is highly scrutinized and our own pockets grow increasingly shallow, it can be easy to dismiss the work the National Park Service does as inessential.  Faced with a raging debates on health care reform, bailouts, cash for cars, and shortfalls in education, a little bit of wilderness seems like it should just take care of itself.  I am hoping that this documentary showcases the rich history behind the parks, and the work that the National Park Service does to not only to maintain and preserve them but also to make them accessible through tours, educational programs, and events.  I am hoping that the documentary serves as a reminder that these spaces are worth supporting.

…if for no other reason than the fact that I personally want to keep enjoying them — and inspire you to explore them too.

National Public Lands Day is tomorrow, September 26.  Admission to National Parks (and many other sites) is free!

FN1: Kirkwood, Scott.  “National Parks: The Film; Ken Burns Focuses His Lens On America’s Best Idea.”  National Parks Magazine Spring 2009. National Parks Conservation Assocation.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Get On Your Boots

23 09 2009

Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite subjects.



Okay, not that kind (sigh).  This kind:


Hiking boots.  A must for any hiker.  Hiking in sneakers is okay for a loop around Walden Pond, but for more serious hikes, you need the grip, stability, and sturdiness of a good boot.  I mean, you wouldn’t go running in those little blue stilettos, right?  You wouldn’t try strapping sneakers to a pair of skis.  (You wouldn’t would you?  If you would, you should probably start your own blog.)  Having the right footwear will make your hiking safer and more enjoyable.

Figuring out what kind of boot to get can be intimidating, particularly since they can cost a chunk of change.  First of all, here is what you’re looking for:

  • A sturdy yet flexible sole, so you are protected from the rocks and sharp edges but can still move around with ease;
  • Sufficient toughness and padding around the foot so that if you scrape against rocks, trees, or get poked by a twig (happens a lot, actually), your foot will be protected;
  • The right fit: the boot should fit with thick socks, the kind you would wear while hiking (imagine that), they should be snug but not tight, they should not slip at the heel, and there should be a little room around the ankle;
  • Waterproof boots, or boots that can be waterproofed;
  • The right heaviness: there are lightweight, medium, and heavyweight boots…I like medium because they are a compromise between sturdiness and…well, weight;
  • Appropriate ankle support: hiking shoes have a low ankle, but I prefer boots with a higher ankle because I’ve had numerous sprains and need the support…the higher ankle is much better unless you’re hiking only flat trails.

In choosing your boot, you should try on as many as possible, because they are all slightly different and may have very different fits.  You’ll find the most options at specialty outdoors stores like REI and EMS.  These types of stores also have knowledgeable salespeople who can help you find what you need.

My favorite place to try on hiking boots is the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine, because they have all sorts of fake rocks and inclines that you can climb around on while trying on your boots.  But if that’s not an option, just walk around the store, crouch down, stand up, and flex and bend your foot around the way you might while hiking.  Bring/wear your hiking socks.  There’s just no way to guess at how the boot will fit otherwise.

You can find good hiking boots in the $120-250 range.  While cheaper and more expensive options are out there, those in this range are most likely to be high enough quality and suit your needs as a casual hiker.

Once you are the proud owner of new boots, please please please don’t tie them on and immediately go on a ten mile hike.  Spend some time walking around in them — in your house, to work, to the grocery store, wherever — to break them in.  You will probably get some blisters when you first wear them, and it’s better to get those while home — not hours from civilization.

PS: Any guesses at the title reference?

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

21 09 2009

Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

I promised that I wouldn’t talk only about the don’ts and the warnings, and so here we are, finally, at the first post about The Good Stuff.

But, Her Side, what exactly is The Good Stuff?

Why, I’m so glad you asked.  The Good Stuff is the other side of the Rules.  In the Rules, we’re talking about things you should think about, prepare for, caution against, and learn about in order to make solo camping and hiking as safe as possible.  And you do those things, making this activity safe, so that you can go out and enjoy yourself.  So that you can leave your worries at home and focus on…wait for it…

The Good Stuff.

The first one is very simple.  It’s so simple, in fact, that you’re probably going to roll your eyes.  Ready?

The Power is in the Possibilities.

I know, I told you it was simple.  But just give it a second, let it sink in.  While you’re taking a moment, look at this photo:


by joanarc4.

That’s Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.  Pretty spectacular, right?  Oh, wait.  While I’m thinking about it, here’s another one:


by joanarc4

That’s the Great Smoky Mountains on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.  You can really see why they’re called that, right?  Oh, just one more, for the heck of it:


by joanarc4

That’s the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah.  Yes, there you hike in the river.  It’s amazing.

So have you thought about the possibilities yet?  Hiking lets you see incredible views, be in incredible places, and feel incredible things.    And that’s just possible locations you can find yourself when you hike.  Why should you have to wait to gather a group to explore those possibilities?

What are some other possibilities?  I know that when I set out on my road trip, I wasn’t sure I could do it.  I was worried I’d be lonely, or not be able to handle the driving, or take care of car problems, or handle the physical activity.  You know what?  I found out I could do all of those things.  When I returned to “normal” life, I was suddenly more confident that I could handle all the ins and outs of daily life on my own, too.  So another possibility is conquering your fears, squashing your insecurities, and getting to know your own capabilities.

It’s a rush.

One more thing, and then I’ll let you think of your own possibilities.  I’m going to quote Dr. Seuss again:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the [gal] who’ll decide where to go.

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Where do you want to go?  It’s YOUR decision, when you hike and camp solo.  So what’ll it be?

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

That Sounds Like “Work”

18 09 2009


If you’ve been reading, so far you’ve learned that there are rules, and cautions, and lists of equipment (which I’ll address soon, I promise) to consider when you’re going to solo hike and camp, and you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed about the sheer effort that seems to go into hiking before you even get to the trailhead.  But listen closely, because this is very, very important:

Hiking doesn’t have to be complicated.

This is not a rule, exactly.  It’s more of a truth.  Realizing this is often the first step for those of us who like the outdoors, who may have done some hiking in groups, but are a bit intimidated by the hiking culture to try it on our own.  I felt that way for a long time.  Avid hikers are so into gadgets and gizmos and trappings (I know I am, at least) that it can squash the dreams of someone who just kind of wants to take a walk in the woods and see how that goes before committing to equipment and mustering up courage to tackle a challenging ascent.

Today, I’m here to tell you that you can.  Absolutely, 100%, you can take a walk in the woods.  Just pick a place that is relatively populated, clearly marked, and not too lengthy of a trail.  Bring a water bottle, and your cell phone.*  And go for it.

One example of the type of hike that is perfect for someone just starting out solo and who wants to ease into it is Walden Pond in Concord, MA.  Yes, that Walden, the one made famous by Henry David Thoreau.


by joanarc4

The loop around Walden Pond is a just-under-two-mile, easy yet pleasant walk, that gets your blood pumping and whets your appetite for spending time in the outdoors.  The views of the pond are beautiful, and it is easy to see why Thoreau would have chosen this spot for his year in the woods.  The trail has some ups and downs — but nothing too steep, and there are no scrambles — and it passes by the site of the old Thoreau cottage, where you can imagine the views with which he was greeted every morning (and if you’re a literature geek like me, it’s a little thrill to stand in the spot where the cabin used to be).

The shortness of the trail (I get around the Pond at a decent but not hurried pace in about 35 minutes) and its accessibility (just outside city limits and easy to find) make it appealing for the “uncomplicated” hike.  Because it is a popular spot, you don’t need all the safety trappings that you would need on a longer, less-populated trail.  You will run into people at Walden…although even at its busiest times I have found myself alone at spots in the trail.

The biggest downside to Walden is — you guessed it — also the population.  During the summer, the parking lot can fill to capacity and the rangers will close the lot until some of the crowd thins.  Sometimes they won’t let you walk in because there are too many people already at the pond, usually swimming and hanging around on the tiny beach.  I avoid that by going as early as possible, shortly after the parking lot opens, when the population of the park is me, a few other enthusiasts, and the people who swim across the pond in training for triathlons.  The crowd is also thinner in the spring and fall.  The key is finding the right balance between overcrowded and crowded enough that you’re not truly alone.

The point is, there are places, usually state parks or local conservation lands, that you can take a hike with a bottle of water and your cell phone and feel (and be) safe.  It’s a good way to try hiking solo to see how it feels, or, if you’re a busy urbanite like me, to just get outside and get some activity without having to devote too much time and effort into preparation and planning. 

What hikes have you found to be the right level of populated, the right length, and the right accessibility for “uncomplicated” hiking?

*At some point, I will explain that First Aid Kits are absolutely non-negotiable and you must have one with you when you hike solo.  In this rare exception case, if you take a hike like what I describe here, where there will be lots of people around and you’re not that far from civilization…well, just use your judgment.

**That photo at the top is from, which sells lots of “demotivational” products.  Go ahead, click on the photo, have fun shopping. 

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Risky Business: Not Necessarily

10 09 2009

risky_businessLast time, we talked generally about risks inherent in solo camping and hiking, primarily that any risks you face while camping and hiking are heightened because you may have no one around the help you if you find yourself in a difficult situation. 

Life is full of risks, however.  Driving a car is risky, and yet many of us do it every day.  We minimize our risks by being cautious, requiring drivers to be licensed, discouraging risky behavior with civil and criminal penalties, and making cars as safe as possible through the use of seatbelts and air bags.  We also avoid increasing risks through our own behavior, by not driving while intoxicated or on medication or while sleep-deprived (at least, I hope we avoid this…you do, don’t you?  Yeah, I’m looking at you, with the margarita glass in your hand and salt on your lips…).  We are taught to be extra cautious in these situations: if you have any question about your ability to drive safely, don’t try.

That brings me to my first rule for safe solo camping and hiking:

Knowledge is Power: Learn the Risks and Take Precautions

We’ll talk a lot about the risks.  We’ll talk a lot about precautions and preparations and how these preparations, just like obeying traffic rules and wearing seatbelts and not driving drunk, can make solo camping and hiking safer. 

So what are some of the risks?  This list is not exclusive, of course.  I haven’t listed, for example, “Getting a concussion when a stray parachuter lands on top of you” or “Making a fool out of yourself when you run into Billy-Bob Thornton” (hey it could happen…in fact, it might have happened to me).

  • Getting Lost
  • Injury (twisted ankle, gashes/scrapes, broken limbs)
  • Wild Animal Encounter (snake bite, bear/mountain lion sighting)
  • Sudden Change in Weather (drop in temperature, rain/snow)
  • Heat Exhaustion/Dehydration/Over-Exertion
  • Meeting Unsavory Characters/Being a Target

For every risk, there are preparations and precautions, such as:

  • Maps/GPS/Distress Signal Devices
  • Cell Phones
  • Telling someone where you’ll be
  • First Aid Kits
  • Knowing how to handle an animal encounter/Being aware of surroundings
  • Having the right clothing/equipment
  • Knowing the weather forecast and packing accordingly
  • Visiting the ranger station for trail/campsite updates and cautions
  • Having enough food/water and knowing your own limitations
  • Being cautious around strangers and choosing the best trails/campsites to minimize the risks of solo female travel

This may seem like a lot, but most of it is really common sense, and the volume of risks to be aware of/prepare for shouldn’t discourage you from getting out there and enjoying nature.  Stay tuned for the first post about The Good Stuff, the encouraging counterpoint to the Rules.  Up first is “Oh, the Places You’ll Go: the Passion is in the Possibilities” so stick around.

In the meantime, what are some risks that you have encountered or that you worry about when you camp and hike solo?  How do you prepare for these things?

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Isn’t It Dangerous?

9 09 2009


So let’s get this out of the way. The number one question anyone has about camping and hiking as a solo female is:

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

The simple answer is yes. Solo camping and hiking is always dangerous, whether you’re a man or a woman. Some people think it’s crazy to hike alone and should never be done. Solo travel of any kind has its risks — solo travelers, women in particular, are targets for thieves, con artists, and other unsavory characters — but when hiking the uncertainties of nature must be factored into the equation.

What can happen while solo camping and hiking? Anything that can happen while camping and hiking with others — except that there’s no one around to help. If you fall and hurt yourself, you could be stuck until someone comes along and finds you. If you get bitten by a snake, or encounter a wild animal, you’re on your own. And, of course, there are always stories like this to strike fear in the hearts of anyone — male or female — wanting to hike alone.

If it’s so dangerous, then, why take that risk? Why do it at all?

That’s a question you have to answer for yourself. For me, being on my own while hiking is serene, giving me time — time I don’t often make for myself — to think. Being on my own while camping makes me feel capable and accomplished. See? I can pitch a tent. I can cook a meal outside. I can fend for myself and take care of myself. It’s invigorating.

Despite the risks, solo camping and hiking can be done safely, if you know the risks and take preparations and precautions. That brings us to Rule Number One…

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.

Carpe Diem

8 09 2009


Buffy 2Willow: Carpe Diem.  You told me that once.

Buffy: Fish of the Day?

Willow: Not carp!   Carpe!  It means “Seize the Day.”

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Surprise”


During the summer of 2004, I received a letter that changed my life. Having recently graduated from law school, I was studying for the bar when the engagement letter from the firm I would be joining arrived. “We are excited to welcome you on Friday, October 15th, 2004,” it said. October 15th! I was scheduled to take the bar exam at the end of July. I would have over two months free before I had to start working.

Immediately, I started to think about traveling.

The idea that floated through my mind first was to take The Road Trip. You know, the one that a bunch of my guy friends had taken at one time or another, sometimes solo and sometimes in groups, driving cross country to “find themselves.” Since I love hiking and camping and the outdoors in general, and had lived my whole life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, seeing the rest of the country was very tempting. But I dismissed the idea.

First of all, I had no one to go with. My friends all had jobs and other obligations and didn’t have such a lengthy span of free time. I had never traveled alone, and the idea frankly scared me, less because of safety and more because I was worried I would be lonely or bored without anyone to share the experience with.

Second of all, I was a woman. Sure, my guy friends had packed up their cars and driven around the country, camping and hiking and meeting people, but surely I couldn’t do that. I liked to think of myself as independent, but that independence included not being dependent on the approval of others for self-worth, and being able to make decisions about my life without needing someone to confirm the wisdom of those decisions. It fell short of knowing how to build a fire, or lift heavy objects, or get myself out of sticky situations. That’s when I called friends and family — or a boyfriend — for help. Right?

Ironically enough, it was my then-boyfriend who convinced me that those two reasons were bad reasons for not taking The Road Trip. He had done it a few years before and said it was one of the most important experiences of his life. “Look, you’re smart, you can handle yourself,” he said. “You have friends all over the country. I promise you won’t be bored, not with everything there is to see and do. When are you ever going to have this chance again?”

I decided he was right. I decided that being a woman, and having to travel alone, was no reason not to do it. I took a deep breath, plotted my route, packed up my car, and drove west. Over the course of six weeks, I drove through twenty-six states, visited fourteen National Parks, and saw and did so much that I’m still in awe of that time in my life.

Of course, it wasn’t really that simple. There were a lot of preparations and precautions to be taken before and during the trip. There were bad moments along with the good. There were mistakes I made, and also some very good decisions.

And that’s what this blog is about. Because camping and hiking as a solo female can be safe, and it can be one of the most incredible experiences a woman can ever have. I still do it, and it still affects me the same way as it did during those six weeks. If it’s something you want to do, then Seize the Day…or Fish the Day, if you must…but don’t hold back out of fear or uncertainty.

(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.