You’re all excited about your first solo camping or backpacking trip. Camping alone in the woods, just you and nature.
You read up on all the gear and how to set up camp and you are ready. You head out for the greatest experience of your life.
But now it’s morning and you’re staring at your coffee cup, tired as hell, wondering why everyone thinks this is so great.
The tent was cold, there were rustling noises in the leaves all night, you had to get up at 1 am to go to the bathroom in the dark, and you wound up counting down the hours rather than sleep.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Camping by yourself can be scary. Backpacking by yourself can be scary. Being alone in a tent in the middle of nowhere by yourself can be scary.
It’s okay to be scared. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
The good news is that you can become comfortable out in the woods alone if it’s something you want to do. It’s a simple matter of getting out there in a way that feels safe to you and then pushing forward to see where your limits lie.
- Being Capable Versus Being Scared Versus Not Enjoying Camping Alone
- Busting Some Myths About Camping Alone
- Tips for Becoming Comfortable Camping Alone
- Final Thoughts for Camping Alone
- Get Out There
Being Capable Versus Being Scared Versus Not Enjoying Camping Alone
Before we go further, I want to address the difference between being capable, being scared, and simply not liking camping alone.
Whether Alone or in a Group, You Need to be Capable
Regardless of whether you want to camp alone or not, you need to be able to manage as if you were camping solo. Even in a group, emergencies arise, and the group may need to split up.
Can you navigate your way back to the car, or the top of a mountain to get help?
If someone is injured and others go for help, can you stay at camp and assist your fellow camper? Do you know how to filter water and maintain a fire to keep someone warm?
Whether you’re in a group or solo, you need to be self-sufficient.
It’s Okay to be Scared
There’s nothing wrong with being scared your first few times camping alone. I’ve got some tips below to help build up your confidence.
The more you camp alone, the easier it will be to overcome your fear.
But you may find that while you’re not afraid anymore, you just don’t like camping alone. That’s fine too.
You Don’t Enjoy Camping Alone
I’m living proof that not everyone enjoys camping alone. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it. It also doesn’t mean I’m not capable. I just don’t have fun by myself.
When I’m at camp alone, my brain doesn’t quiet. A steady stream of random thoughts blocks my ability to think, read, or just be calm. Unable to concentrate, I wind up bored out of my mind.
I’ve been on plenty of solo trips. Sometimes it’s necessary if I’m scouting or need photos. And I really enjoy hiking in a full pack by myself. My brain quiets and I do some great thinking.
But if I can talk a few friends into coming along, I know I’ll have a better time.
The point is, it’s okay if you prefer camping with others. It’s not okay to use them as a crutch, depending on them to help you with everything.
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Busting Some Myths About Camping Alone
A Group is Safer Than Being Alone
Well yes. And no. It depends on the group.
In a group, you’re at the mercy of others doing the right thing when it comes to food storage. If you’re with sloppy campers who fall asleep with food all over themselves and a stash of Reese’s cups in their tent ten feet away from you, then I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable.
While animals may be less likely to approach if there are a lot of humans around, once a bear becomes addicted to food and loses its fear of humans, this may not matter.
If you’re by yourself, you lose having 12 people around to scare off a bear, but you also should be less likely to attract one. Just be sure to check the area around the campsite for bear scat before setting up your tent.
And if you think having eight people around may help in an emergency, I’ve been at sites where people were drinking heavily, and I wouldn’t rely on them in an emergency.
You’d also be surprised how many people take something to help with sleep outdoors. I’m not a fan of incapacitating yourself in the backcountry, but it’s not uncommon.
I Can Pack Like I Always Do
If you’re camping solo, you need to be careful about backups. In a group, there are extra lighters, fuel, band-aids, stoves, water filters, etc. For anyone that’s had an equipment failure (hello clogged water filter, I’m talking to you), you know how nice it is to be able to borrow one.
When you’re by yourself, you don’t have that luxury.
Always bring two ways to light your stove and a second way to treat your water. I would also highly recommend having a second headlamp or extra batteries available. And test both the lamp and the extra batteries before heading out.
Look at every piece of equipment and think, “what’s my plan if this doesn’t work?”
Other Campers are Looking at Me
I promise they’re not. Well, not because you’re camping solo. They’re assessing you as their new neighbor and wondering if you’re going to be quiet or loud. We all do this. You know you do.
Once they determine you’re not going to be the campground problem, they’ll go back to whatever they were doing.
Now, it’s possible they may be interested in your gear. Campers tend to get gear envy and often want to check out new gear if they see it. If someone thinks your tent is interesting or they see you do something they haven’t seen before, they may wander over to say hi.
Tips for Becoming Comfortable Camping Alone
Practice With Your Gear
Practice setting up and using your gear before you head out. You should know how to pitch your tent, blow up your sleeping pad, use your stove, and filter your water (if you’re in the backcountry with no potable water).
If there aren’t bear lockers where you’re going, you’ll need to decide if you want to use an Ursack, bear canister, or learn to set up a bear hang. (Verify any specific requirements for where you’re camping).
Find a Location Where You Feel Safe
There seems to be this huge push to do something crazy and way out of your comfort zone to “prove” you’re a badass. That’s ridiculous.
We all want to push ourselves and feel good about conquering new things, but you can do it your way. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You’re awesome right now, as you are.
For me, heading outdoors is about getting out where cell signal can’t reach me and seeing great sights. Away from the lights, the sounds, the stress. Being somewhere I can take a deep breath and relax because work, home, and family, can’t suddenly reach out and ask me to do something.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying, find a location where you feel safe for your first solo overnight.
Here are a Few Ideas to Pick Your Location
- Consider starting with a car camping location where you park your car right in front of the tent pad.
- If you want to hike to a location, consider a campsite with a short 1-2 mile hike from the parking lot.
- Look for popular locations where there will be other people around. State Parks are great places for a first solo overnight.
- Go to a location you’ve been to multiple times, are familiar with, and feel comfortable going alone.
- Schedule your trip for a single night. Consider a Saturday when more people are out.
If you’ve never been backpacking, I would recommend starting at a car camping site, but pretend you’re backpacking. Pack everything in your pack and use only what’s in the pack to set up camp.
This allows you to practice setting up a campsite with a safety net. It’s going to take a bit to develop a system for setting up camp and packing everything back down.
When you first start backpacking, you tend to “find” things in random pockets that need to go in the bear hang. It’s a pain in the rear to lower the bag, repack, then haul it back up. Placing items in a bear locker, or your car is much easier.
As you become more experienced, this is less likely to happen.
As you become more comfortable being by yourself, you can gradually move to places where there’s no one if you find you like the silence.
Why I like State Parks for a First Solo Outing
With State Parks, usually, you must reserve the campsite, including primitive sites. This alleviates the issue of not having somewhere to camp. For your first solo outing, I’m a fan of removing as many obstacles as possible.
When you make the reservation, there are often photos you can look through to see how you feel about the location. Backpackers can take advantage of the online maps to determine how far they need to hike to reach the site and get a sense of how remote the location is.
State Parks offer options to help you grow as you gain confidence. You can start with a car camping site at a family campground, then move to a location with a short hike (possibly 1-2 miles), then you can push to primitive sites deep within the park.
North Carolina has 4 State Parks that offer multiple primitive campsites spaced far enough apart to create weekend backpacking routes.
Have Something to Entertain Yourself
Consider how you’re going to pass the time.
- You can load podcasts on your phone (remember to bring earphones).
- Have a small journal to write in or jot down your thoughts.
- Maybe you need to think something through – a small notepad can be helpful for this.
Be Animal Aware
If this is your first time solo, I would recommend a place where animal encounters are rare, or where you feel safe.
You can always carry bear spray if it makes you feel better. But proper food handling and storage is your best defense.
This is another reason I like State Parks. They don’t often have issues near the campgrounds, but if something is going on, there are usually posted warnings so you’re aware before you unpack.
Also, keep in mind that two squirrels playing around in fallen leaves can sound big. And when you’re by yourself sounds magnify. Just try to relax and smile as you imagine the animals playing and having fun.
Final Thoughts for Camping Alone
As you gain confidence camping and backpacking solo, there are a few likely scenarios that will emerge.
You hate it
That’s perfectly fine. You tested it out, gave it a go, and discovered it wasn’t for you.
In the science world, we say all data is good data. You learned something. Knowing you like to be with other people will help you have a better experience when you’re outdoors.
Some places are okay
Most people fall into this category. You may find there are some areas where you feel comfortable being by yourself and other locations where you prefer company.
Again, this is good information and there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way.
You don’t mind it, but it’s not fun
This is my category. I’ll do it, but my id, ego, and superego do not enjoy each other’s company and bore the mess out of each other.
Hey, it’s good information to have. I know when I’m camping or backpacking solo that I need to plan for the boredom.
You love it
It’s possible you come out of the experience finding you love being alone in your tent and couldn’t imagine camping with people ever again. That’s great!
You know to keep the group trips to a minimum.
Get Out There
I do recommend trying to camp alone occasionally to keep your confidence and skills up. If there is an issue, you want to be part of the solution.
But it’s okay to be whatever camper, backpacker, or outdoors person you are, just as long as you’re getting out there.