A number of years ago I made a list titled “Things I am afraid of”. My intention was to do as many things on the list as possible. Solo backpacking was one of them.
I had been going on a few backpacking trips a year for a while, so I was fairly comfortable with the basic concept. The thought of going it alone, however—particularly when my female-ness was on my mind—remained a frightening prospect. What if I get kidnapped? What if I get attacked by a bear? What if I get lost? The mind can go in seemingly endless directions with this sort of thing. But at this particular time, my mind was in motivated-fear-conquering mode. So, I made a plan and started preparing. This is the story of what happened, what went wrong (spoiler alert: things went very wrong), and what I learned.
I will admit right off the bat that of all the possible what-ifs, other people were my biggest fear. As a woman of fairly slight stature I felt vulnerable. I felt like an easy target. To make myself feel better, I researched and acquired a holster for my handgun that would fit comfortably while I was wearing my backpack. (In the National Forest were I was planning on going open carry of an unloaded firearm is allowed. Always check the specific laws and regulations for your area of the wilderness.) I figured that a chick with a weapon strapped to her chest would probably not be an assailant’s first choice of someone to mess with. This was good enough for me at the time.
I packed my things. The weekend came and I set off. It was mid May in southern California and the weather was mild and pleasant. The plan was to do a one night trip on a loop that would ultimately connect me up to a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Easy hike.
The first day’s hike was breezy and beautiful. I was a bit nervous, but happy.
My loop took me through a few trail junctions, so I was needing to check my map semi-regularly. I kept it in my pants pocket for convenience. Poor choice #1: Keeping something lightweight and important in a non-zippered pocket. About 10 minutes after I stopped for a pee break off the side of the trail, I noticed that the map was gone. I carefully backtracked to where I had been 10 minutes prior, but there was no map to be found. The breezy day had gotten downright windy at this point and I eventually decided that the map had probably blown far enough away that I had little hope of finding it.
But oh how I did not want this unfortunate mishap to deter me. I determined that I knew fairly well where I was and could easily make it to my planned camp spot without trouble. I determined that I also knew the direction I had to head in to finish my loop, as well as the trail names. I reasoned that I could manage without a map from here on out.
As I made camp, the wind was really picking up and the stand of pine trees I was camped under were making loud whooshing sounds. As evening set in, so did my uneasiness. Night time felt even more isolating than day and the weather seemed to be getting still worse. What followed was one of the longest nights of my life. I slept for perhaps 2 hours before I woke up to the sound of rain. Rain?! Poor choice #2: Failing to check the weather for my specific location just before leaving. I checked a few days prior and everything looked good. And I checked the forecast for the city the day I left. But I didn’t check the weather for the mountains. While the coast of southern CA is a sunny paradise in the spring/summer, I learned that the mountains are a whole different ball game.
I spent much of the night awake, watching the walls and roof of my tent bend and cave and warp in the very high winds. (One thing I will say that I did right was to stake down my tent well.) The rain came in bouts. The temperature plummeted.
It seemed like sunrise would never come. When it finally did the weather had not improved in the slightest. But to be honest, at this point, everything was relatively ok. My tent kept me dry, I was warm enough in my sleeping bag, and I had some water to drink. I could have waited out this storm. It would have been somewhat uncomfortable and boring, but I could have done it just fine.
But I was drained, nervous, and antsy. I wanted to bail. I’ve heard many times that wilderness survival in large part comes down to psychology, and now I think I better understand why. After such a miserable night, the thought of spending an entire day (and maybe another night?) alone in this tent in the rain and the wind felt unbearable to me. I was not thinking rationally. I just wanted out. My emotions and my impatience lead me to make a choice that is easily the biggest mistake I have ever made in the wilderness. I decided to try to hike out in the storm with no rain gear, no map, and a dead cell phone.
It was only 3 miles to the nearest trailhead and coincidentally, one of my coworkers was backpacking in the same area that weekend. I had texted her that morning (with my one bar of service before my cell phone died) and she indicated that she was planning to hike out on the same route I would be headed. Her car was at this nearer trailhead. I had also been able to complete a short call to Nick and told him of my situation. He explicitly instructed me to stay put. But I felt so desperate. I couldn’t listen to his advice. I thought I could do 3 miles to my friend’s car. I thought I could handle being a little cold and wet. I did not have a real grasp of the risk I was about to take.
I packed my sleeping gear up and put on all the clothes I had. This amounted to cotton pants, a thin long sleeve shirt, a thin down jacket and a thin hat. I jumped out of my tent. The rain was really coming down, driving into me from the stiff wind. The air felt wintery. I was up at about 6000′ with relatively sparse tree cover. I quickly took down my tent in a matter of a couple minutes and shoved it, soaking wet, into my backpack. My manual dexterity was already worsening. It was extremely cold and my fingers were imprecise and clumsy. I threw on my pack and began to jog.
In about five minutes I came to the trail junction and found there were numerous ways to go. Which one was right? Why weren’t there any signs as there had been before? With no map, I was stuck guessing. The guess I made took me along an exposed ridge where 50 mph gusts of wind blasted my face with stinging droplets of water. I had to lean forward to prevent being blown over. The visibility was incredibly low. My hands were completely numb and my feet were well on their way. I was soaked through and through and feeling very cold. I couldn’t find my friend. I didn’t even know where I was going. Twenty minutes in to this I started to really really regret my decision.
I felt panicky. Clips from survival TV shows flashed through my mind. I remembered sitting at home, criticizing the people on the show for their poor survival choices. I remembered how many of them nearly died from hypothermia because they made a series of bad decisions. I started to realize that I was about to become one of them. Temperature-wise I knew I was in danger. I started to have thoughts of people finding my body on the trail and wondering why I have ever left my shelter. As I ran against the rain and the wind I began to cry.
I realized I had to recalibrate my expectations. I could not safely make it to the trailhead three miles away. I had to figure out how to get out of this weather and fast. I remembered that I saw a car parked back near the last trail junction with some fire roads. I turned around and ran back. I found an SUV with a soaked and wind-battered tent nearby. I swallowed my feelings of deep embarrassment and approached the tent. “Hello, is anyone there?” I yelled at the tent. No answer.
I ran over to the car and knocked on the fogged up windows. “Hello, hello, is anyone there?” To my immense relief, a sleepy person cracked open the door. I can only imagine how I must have looked to that poor person. A very distressed completely soaked girl desperately asking for help with a handgun laying across her chest. Not a look I ever hope to repeat. Thankfully, this kind couple took me into their car and were willing to give me a ride out to the trailhead where I parked. I felt so ashamed, but so grateful.
When I finally got to my car and turned it on, the built in thermometer displayed the outside air temperature: 38F. Well in the range of hypothermia, particularly when wet and in the wind. I am not sure what would have happened had I not found those people in the SUV, but I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have been pretty. I got extremely lucky.
As scary as this experience was, I am glad to have had it and come out ok. A number of valuable lessons were seared into my head as a result.
First, always carry some way to protect yourself from the elements, even if poor weather seems unlikely. My first day in the mountains was sunny, breezy, and about 70F. By the next morning it was raining, windy, and 38F and I was incredibly unprepared. This doesn’t mean carry three backpacks worth of gear. What it does mean is that it’s usually worth it to carry something waterproof and something warmer than what you think you’ll need on your trip just in case. I spent all sorts of mental effort thinking about the prospect of getting attacked by a person or an animal, but very little mental effort preparing for the much more common weather-related threats.
Second, do not leave a safe situation for an unsafe situation in the backcountry unless its really necessary. Boredom and impatience do not count as “really necessary”. Given what I was equipped with, I should never have left my tent.
The third, and in my mind the most important lesson, is that stress and fear can lead to serious errors in judgment. Managing these emotional reactions is absolutely critical in the backcountry. When I think about why I left my shelter, it is clear that my impatience was driven by anxiety. I was uncomfortable being out there alone and I had been nervous all night in the bad weather. When we talk about fight or flight, I certainly landed in the flight camp. It is easy to think rationally while you are sitting at home. It is harder to think rationally when you are in the middle of a tough situation, particularly when you are alone and don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. My best advice in this area would be to frequently ask yourself “What are my motivations for this decision?”. Get to know your fears and anxieties and be able to recognize them when they crop up. Before making a big decision, consider making a mental pros and cons list if you have a minute before you have to act.
All in all, despite how wrong this first trip went, taking a solo trip is an experience I highly recommend. I know I am smarter and stronger for it. It has not deterred me and I hope it will not deter you either.