Anything You Can I Can Do…Maybe

21 02 2012

rosie1

Originally published September 28, 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.





Risky Business: Not Necessarily

20 02 2012

risky_business

Originally published September 10, 2009

Last 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.





What’s Your Survival Skill Level?

11 08 2010

The folks over at Women’s Adventure Magazine have a cute little quiz up about survival skills.  How do you measure up?

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

12 07 2010

Imagine an amazing hiking day.  There’s a light breeze, but the temperature is nearly perfect.  You’re whistling a little tune as you’re hiking down the trail.  You have your backpack of supplies.  You’re reveling in the sights, sounds and smells of nature, dawdling here at a brook, spending time setting up the perfect shot there, laying out on the rock at the peak, closing your eyes to just be for a while.

Sounds like a great day, doesn’t it?

Suddenly, in the distance, you see some angry-looking dark gray clouds.  They seem to be moving toward you awfully quickly.  You start down the trail, hurrying now, but sure enough, it soon starts to rain.  Hard.  You find some semi-shelter and wait it out, but by the time it stops the sun is going down.  Suddenly, what started out as a great hike, one that was simple for you, turned harrowing, all because the weather and the time caught up with you before you realized it.

Something similar happened to my friends.  If you remember, they left for their hike on the late side, were not familiar with the trail, took a couple of wrong turns, were hiking slow, and then it started getting dark — and scary — fast.  Everything is different in bad weather and when the sun goes down, and all the slightly dangerous things about hiking get a lot more dangerous: animals moving under cover of the darkness, higher chance of injury because you can’t see where you’re going, the temperature drops, etc.

How to prevent against this situation?  Rule Number 11:

Pay attention to the time and the weather.

Please don’t leave for a 3 hour hike 3 hours before sunset.  Please check the weather forecast for where you are hiking (i.e. not your house) before you leave.  Please keep an eye on the time — yes, wear a watch or have something on you that keeps track of time — and an eye on the weather.  Watch for clouds, darkening skies, temperature dropping, the smell of moisture in the air.

This is not to say that, on some occasions, you can’t hike with an iffy weather forecast.  Just use your head.  If the forecast calls for light showers in the late afternoon and you plan to be back by noon, you just have to keep watch on the weather while you’re on the trail.  If, on the other hand, you’re planning to snowshoe and there’s rumors of a blizzard, today might be the day to catch up on that novel you’ve been wanting to read.





The Answer, As Always, I’m An Idiot

11 06 2010

But you don’t have to be, because I’m here to help you not make the mistakes that I made when I started out hiking and camping solo.

On Wednesday, I posted this photo, of me at the end of my very first solo hike, on the teeny, easy little Door Trail at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  I asked you what was wrong with the picture — in other words, could you tell from this photo all the rules I was breaking and mistakes I was making?

Well, you guys did great!  It’s a little embarassing, but here are the answers:

  1. I’m wearing the wrong shoes.  If you look closely, you’ll see I’m wearing Teva sandals.  Why are these wrong?  Let me count the ways.  First of all, they don’t provide the support needed for “real” hiking.  Second, they leave my feet (including fragile toes) completely unprotected.  They might be cooler than boots, but jagged rocks and sticks and rocks could do a number on my poor exposed feets.  Because this was a very short, easy hike, this wasn’t really a problem.  Would I do it again?  Not if I had never hiked the trail.  If I knew the trail well, I might, but without knowing the lay of the land, that was dumb.
  2. I’m not wearing a hat.  This is open, arid land.  There ain’t no shade anywhere in sight.  A hat is really really really a good idea.  But even worse…
  3. I’m not wearing sunscreen.  Now, you can’t see that from this photo, but trust me, it’s true.  I didn’t get too burned.  I actually think I had put on sunscreen that morning, but at this point it was early afternoon and it was time for some more.
  4. I’m wearing the wrong shirt.  Yes, that is a cotton t-shirt.  I like that t-shirt.  But it isn’t hiking-friendly, particularly not in hot, arid, South Dakota in August, when I was sweating just standing around.  This isn’t a fatal mistake.  I spent years hiking in regular old t-shirts before I discovered the wonder of wicking, and now I live in my hiking clothes in the summer.  But since we’re picking out things I would do differently with the experience I have now, this goes on the list.  Oh, and Josh is right: while somewhat minimal here, lighter colors and the desert are usually better companions.
  5. I’m not carrying my first aid kit.  Oops.  Now, I have said it isn’t strictly always necessary to carry your first aid kit, if you’re doing a really easy, short hike that you’ve done a million times and there’s a decent population there with you.  I don’t bring my kit when I traipse around Walden Pond, for example.  But here, in a part of the country I knew nothing about, on a hike I had never done, which could have rattlesnakes (something that wasn’t even a little bit on my radar at this point), not carrying the kit is stupid.  Thankfully, this was such a short hike, and there were a fair number of people there, so I wasn’t really in any danger from this mistake.  The next hike I did, immediately thereafter, however, I was the only one on the trail, and it involved climbing.  Not having the kit there was especially especially stupid.
  6. As Dad and Deborah noted, I also don’t have a pack.  This means my water is limited to my Nalgene bottle, and I don’t have any of the other essentials with me (cell phone, whistle, compass, etc.).  For this hike, again, it was short, easy and well populated, so it wasn’t a problem.  But for the next hike, what was I thinking?

I’ll tell you what I was thinking.  I pulled off the main road and into the trailhead parking lot.  There were a lot of people there.  I was so excited, because I knew this was going to be my first hike of the trip.  I got out of the car, pulled my hair into a ponytail (it was very hot), and grabbed my Nalgene bottle.  I went to the trunk and looked at my hydration pack, which was filled with hiking essentials, and my boots, and then I looked at all the totally non-hiking dressed people headed out on the trail, and decided it was all overkill.

I was sort of right.  The Door Trail is very simple.  The first part is handicap-accessible, for goodness sake.  But in retrospect, and especially when I headed out for the Notch Trail, I should have geared up.  If I didn’t want to fill my hydration pack with water, or if I didn’t want to carry too much, I could have at least put the boots, sunscreen, and hat on. 

Here is another photo of me, from several weeks later.  As you can see, I was learning my lessons, hike by hike, trail by trail:

This is on a hike in Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah.  As you can see, I’m more appropriately geared.  Those are pants (and yes, I did see a rattlesnake on this trail).  I’m wearing a hiking shirt, and a hat.  I am wearing sunscreen (though you probably can’t tell).  I’ve got my hydration pack filled with 2.5 liters of water, first aid kit, cell phone, compass, etc. etc. etc.

Thanks for playing.  Remember, we all make mistakes when we don’t know any better.  My goal is to help you avoid them as you embark upon your own solo journeys.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





What’s Wrong With This Image?

9 06 2010

Take a look at this photo:

There I am, nearly six years ago (yikes), at the end of the Door Trail at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  There are a couple of very significant things about this photo.

  1. This was my very first solo hike everIt was day five of my Road Trip.  The first four days I was concentrated on getting west as fast as possible (with a two-night stop in Chicago to visit a friend), and on the fifth day, I finally arrived, early afternoon, at my first National Park.  I was chomping at the bit to get out on the trail, since hiking was the focus of my trip.  I was also scared about my first solo hike, but comforted by the fact that I had picked an easy intro hike, and the fact that the beginning of the Door Trail (which is less than a mile out-and-back, the first bit of which is handicap-accessible) was crowded with people in sundresses and little children.  Yes, I looked at them and thought, if they are doing it, then I certainly can.  But that’s all right.
  2. I was doing this all wrong.  Seriously.  Can you pick out what I was doing wrong in this photo?  You’d think that, since I had been hiking before, and since I had done all this research, I would know what I was doing.  But nooooo.  Of course, on this hike, it was really fine, since it was so low-key.  Mostly flat, pretty well populated (at least the first half), short.  But I look at this photo and remember the mistakes I made.  Can you see them?  (Hint: one of them you can’t see, but you might be able to guess.)

On Friday, we’ll talk about the things I did wrong on that hike, and on the one that happened right after, that make me cringe at my own naiveté (or, in some cases, overconfidence or laziness).  Make your guesses in the comments!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





I Get By With a Little Help From…That Guy

12 04 2010

One of the greatests things about solo camping and hiking is the feeling of accomplishment and independence that comes with realizing you can be self-sufficient.  Holy cow, I can build a fire!  I can pitch a tent — and get it all back into that little sleeve it came in!  I can climb a mountain and find my way back down!  (These are even greater triumphs if you grew up thinking you had no capacity to deal with the outdoors or anything remotely physical — and having that thinking reinforced.)

Self-sufficiency, and the independence and freedom that comes along with it, is truly valuable.  When embarking on your first solo camping and hiking endeavors, you should definitely push yourself towards that goal.  Even if you aren’t totally sure you can build a fire and cook that hot dog, give it a try.  A real try, not just a half-hearted one.  Plot your own course on a hike, figure out how to use your equipment, make your own decisions.  You’re way more capable than you give yourself credit for, I promise.

Sometimes, however, you need a little help.  Maybe you can’t change the tire on your car in the middle of a busy highway.  Maybe you can’t get a particularly tight knot undone.  Maybe you just. Can’t. Get. That. Fire. Going.  That’s when Rule Number 10 comes into play:

Ask For Help When You Need It

Sure, it’s great to be self-sufficient.  Sure, part of solo camping and hiking is to push yourself and test your limits, boost your confidence by realizing you’re better at a lot of things than you thought you were.  Sure, sometimes it’s embarrassing (and, as a woman, can rankle a little) to ask for help.

But here’s the thing: faced with the choice of spending a few hours frustrated and upset, or asking someone for help, avoiding the frustration, and perhaps learning a new way of accomplishing your intended task so that you don’t have to ask for help in the future, that second choice sounds pretty good.  It’s not giving up, it’s being realistic and making a choice about your own education and enjoyment.  You might also make someone else happy, because when you’re out on the trail, people generally like to be friendly and helpful. 

This isn’t to say you should give something a feeble try, say “I can’t do this” and find someone to do it for you because it’s hard and/or annoying.  But when you’ve given something a good go and you just haven’t quite managed to figure out the best way to do it…or have learned your physical limitations, ask for a hand.  You might even make a friend in the process.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





The Road Less Traveled is Overrated

8 03 2010

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Taking the “road less traveled” is the metaphor we use when we want to muster up the courage to do something out of our comfort zones, congratulate ourselves for choosing the more adventurous alternative, and justify not sticking to boring routines.  As a metaphor, it’s inspiring and comforting at the same time.

Taken literally, however, choosing the “road less traveled” might not always be the wisest decision.  For example, imagine that you’re driving into a blizzard in Vermont.  You could choose to take the interstate most of the way, along with all of the other cars persistently slushing through the precipitation, or you could go the shorter, windier route through the mountains that, during nice weather, is much more pleasant.  Here’s a hint: the road less traveled is a pain in the ass.  (Based on a recent, and very true, story.)

When solo hiking, you may think the road less traveled might be just what you’re looking for.  You want solitude and serenity out in nature, without hordes of other hikers spoiling your meditations, and what better way to achieve that than to find that trail no one else seems to want to hike?

As a casual solo hiker, however, someone who is just dunking a toe into the shallow end to see how it feels, the road less traveled can be scary.  Choosing the trail where you’ll be by yourself might seem ideal at first, but once you’re out there you may change your mind.  It might not be as well-maintained as the more-traveled routes, causing you to question whether you’re still on the trail.  If you’re truly out there on your own, and there is little likelihood anyone will come by, then there won’t be anyone to help you out if you need it.  Finally, you face higher chances of surprising wildlife — hint: surprising wildlife is usually a bad idea — lulled into complacency by the infrequent sightings of humans.

Does that mean that, as a beginning solo hiker, you should only choose the most populated hiking trails?  Not necessarily.  As always, kids, the key here is balance.  That brings us to Rule No. 9:

Choose the Right Trail.

As you get more comfortable solo hiking, and get a sense of your comfort level, this will get easier and easier.  That’s because your comfort level is precisely what should dictate what trail you choose — and not the dire warnings and scare tactics of naysayers. 

While on my Road Trip, I started out picking only those trails that seemed to get a lot of visitors.  I was alone, in the sense that I didn’t have a travel companion, but I wasn’t yet comfortable being alone in the woods, or the desert, or wherever it was that I found myself on that day.  After a few hikes, I became more confident, and soon I wasn’t paying all that much attention to how popular the trail was.  Even so, and to this day, I am comforted when there are a couple of other cars at the trailhead, because I know that, somewhere out there, I’m likely to run into someone.  On the other hand, I dislike hiking on trails that are so populated I’m constantly staring at the heels of the person in front of me.  Happily, it’s easy to find balance once you know what to look for.  Here are a few indicators:

  • How many cars are at the trailhead?  If you’re having trouble finding a place to park — especially if the parking area is large — you’re going to be hiking amidst a sea of other hikers.  If there’s not another car in sight, you’re probably the only one there.  And if there’s a school bus, turn tail and run (or is that just me?).
  • Is the trail highlighted, discussed, or merely mentioned in guidebooks?  The most popular trails can be spotted from miles away because they are considered must-sees and mentioned everywhere you look, while others are less well-known and publicized. 
  • Once you’re on the trail, can you see any other hikers?  Hear them?  If not, that doesn’t mean they aren’t around the next bend, and you can usually tell after hiking for a half hour or so the level of travel on the trail by how many people you meet.

So pick the trail that’s right for you.  If you’ve never solo hiked, you might want to try a couple of well-visited trails to build your confidence rather than seeking true solitude right away.  And it’s okay for even experienced solo hikers to generally prefer to run into at least a couple of people during an 8-hour hike.  Chances are, you’ll find plenty of spots on the trail where you’re on your own and can soul-search and reflect in solitude to your heart’s content.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





Can You Hear Me Now?

1 02 2010

Ah, cell phones.  Twenty years ago they were only for the very wealthy — and the very strong…did you see the size of those things?  Now, however, they are tiny, multi-functional lifelines that most of us couldn’t imagine living without.  They are also the solo female traveler’s best friend.

Back when I took my road trip, I had a cell phone.  It was a cute little silver flip phone from Motorola, not the top of the line, but certainly sleek enough for the day.  That phone came in very handy while I was out on my own.  One day, when I was headed back east on Rte 40 in New Mexico, I blew out a rear tire.  I avoided the speeding 18-wheelers, pulled over to the side of the road, and pulled out my phone, praying I would have a bar or two.  I did!  I called AAA, they showed up and changed my tire, and I was on my way once again.  I was never so thankful to have the phone, because it was a nearly 10 mile walk to the next exit.

This brings us to Rule Number 8 (8!  Can you believe it?)

Don’t Forget Your Cell Phone.

When out on your own, having a (working, charged) phone with you decreases the risks you face.  It’s a lifeline to the rest of the world.  This is true even while hiking and camping.  Remember my friends A and B?  One of them let his phone lose the charge and the other didn’t bother bringing hers, and so they found themselves out in the woods in the dark, sort of lost, with no mode of communication available.  (Sorry to keep referring to that story, guys, but it’s such a great real life example!)

Now, this rule comes with one big caveat: Just because you bring your phone doesn’t mean you should neglect your other precautions. 

Unfortunately, this is a common way of dealing with technology — we become so dependent on it that we lose the ability to function without it.  I rely heavily on my car’s GPS and so it takes me longer to learn how to get places without it.  I rely on my phone to find people now…we’ll pick a time to meet and a general place and then call each other to triangulate once there, which means that, if the phone dies or you leave it behind, you might be out of luck.  It’s always a good idea to have a back-up (often luddite) solution if your techno-tastic precautions fail.

The truth is, there isn’t always great cell reception in the wilderness.  You’re less likely to have reception the farther out you go, and this means the phone could end up being useless as a rescue device.  Does that mean you shouldn’t bother bringing it?  No, because that’s not always the case, and if you’re hiking closer to city limits on day hikes, you’re more likely to be able to get some service — and, if you do need help, you can more easily describe your problem than by just sending up a flare.

Besides, if you have a phone that’s the size of the one Zack is using in the photo above, you’ll get an extra workout as well.

Don’t forget to enter Her Side’s First Contest!  Deadline Friday!

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.





I’ll Be Over the River and Through the Woods

11 01 2010

You’re out on the trail.  You’re moving along at a good pace.  You’ve taken all your precautions.  Unfortunately, something goes wrong.  You trip, injure your ankle, and you can’t make it back out.  Bad luck, you also picked today to hike a trail where you haven’t seen any other hikers, your cell phone isn’t getting any signal, and you never got around to getting one of those “come get me” survival beacons.  Is all hope lost?

Nope.  You’ll be fine.  Because you followed Rule No. 7:

Tell someone where you’re going to be.

This sounds obvious, but it isn’t always.  It’s also (unlike the first aid kit rule) negotiable.  There are many times that I break this rule because I just don’t think about it.  When I was on my road trip, I was hiking practically every day, and was alone for most of the trip, so there wasn’t anyone to tell (and this was pre-facebook and twitter, and in the early days of accessing the internet via cell phone…I was still hunting up internet cafes to check my email).  When I go to the places near me for “quick hikes” on trails I am very familiar with, it often doesn’t occur to me to mention my intended destination.  And sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to be until you go, because there are multiple trails and you want to check them out before deciding which to commit to.

This is all right.  Like most of what I talk about here, this Rule is a matter of balance.  Going for a walk around Walden Pond, or on a highly populated trail, simply doesn’t pose the same risks as going somewhere difficult and secluded.  It is a good idea to make your intended hike known, however, and to get into the habit of doing so.  That way, if you don’t come back, someone knows where to start looking.

Remember when I told the story of my friends A and B who got lost in the dark?  One thing they did absolutely right was telling us where they intended to be.  We knew what trail they were taking, and we knew when they were expected back, so when they didn’t show up, we knew exactly where to go and look for them.  (Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.)

Now, in 2010, it is very easy to tell people where you’re going.  Here’s how:

  1. Call someone.  “Hey, Mom, how are you?  How is Dad?  Listen, I can’t talk, because I’m on my way to the Canyon Loop Trail in the Betasso Preserve.  It should take me a couple of hours — I’ll call you on my way home.”  See?  Easy.  And you make Mom happy by calling.
  2. Text someone.  Don’t feel like talking?  “hkng Laurel Falls tday b bk by 3.”
  3. Email someone, or a couple someones.  “Hey girls, I’ll be hiking to Crow Creek Falls in the Helena National Forest tomorrow, starting around ten.  Let me know if you want to join!”
  4. Facebook/Twitter it.  This lets you reach lots of people, and also is sort of second nature to many of us now.  “Jane Smith is going to hike the North Pawtuckaway Mountain Trail today.  See y’all in 3-4 hours!  Should I post photos?”
  5. Leave a note in your car at the trailhead.  I wouldn’t put it on the dash and be obvious about it, but leaving it in the driver’s seat, where someone could find it easily if they were looking, is not a bad idea, particularly if you didn’t decide where you were going until the last second and don’t have any cell reception.

And that’s it.  So simple.

© Her Side of the Mountain, 2010.