Going Solo (with a little help)

The first time I went on a solo backpacking trip, I didn’t.

It was back in the 1990s, I’d been backpacking with friends for about 5 years, and convinced myself I should take a solo backpack trip. I felt good about my basic backpacking skills, I loved hiking alone … still, there was this worrisome doubt. 

I’d selected a spot for that first trip that I was only vaguely familiar with at the time, Panthertown Valley. I’d hiked there, but never done an overnight. It was also a long drive: even ducking out of work early around 2, I still wouldn’t arrive until 7:30, leaving precious little daylight to hike in (on a trail I didn’t know), find a spot (assuming there was one) and set up camp. It was a plan that left no room for the unexpected. Like a visit from a wayward turkey.

Heading into Asheville on I-40 in late afternoon, my road reverie was broken by something dark rising from off the shoulder. Suddenly, the head of a turkey appeared out the front windshield, its vacant look suggesting that it, too, was lost in some far-off world. Just as suddenly, the rear back window exploded, the Trooper bucked, and in the rear-view mirror I could see the lifeless bird butter-balling down the shoulder. When I pulled into an auto glass repair shop 20 minutes later and presented my dilemma to the five workers waiting for the 5 o’clock whistle, no one said a word. Rather, they walked single file out to the car, where one of them plucked a feather from the backseat and declared, “He’s right.”

I wound up getting to the trailhead in the dark. I could see the trailhead kiosk, and I could see a yellow sign just beyond that proclaimed, “Bear Sanctuary.” What exactly does that mean? Long story short, I checked into a motel. It would be another couple of years before I took my first solo backpack trip. 

Good thing, too, because as I later discovered, I was woefully unprepared for my first solo venture. Among my mistakes:

  • Picking an area I didn’t know well for my first foray.
  • Allowing zero cushion in my schedule to arrive at camp and set up before sunset.  
  • Not having a good map of the area (which might have shown campsites closer than the one I was contemplating two miles in).
  • Not triple checking my gear before heading out to make sure I wasn’t missing anything important. (Like my water filter.)
  • Not making a practice run setting up camp in the dark.
  • Not knowing what exactly a bear sanctuary was. (They’re areas where bear hunting is banned to elevate the bear population.)

I wish I could say I vowed then and there to never let another backpacker head into their first solo trip as unprepared as I. That didn’t happen until last year, when I realized that very few of the 200 or so backpackers who had gone through our GetBackpacking! Intro to Backpacking program had gone on to do solo trips. There was interest — backpacking is, after all, about getting away. But there was also a good deal of trepidation.

So when we launched our Intermediate Skills courses last year, Going Solo was among the first offerings.

For the course, we issue a guide with tips on how to prepare and what to expect on your first solo outing. We then get together and go over the guide, addressing additional issues (mainly involving gear), and answer questions. Then comes our trip to the Wilson Creek area. We spend Friday night together, working out any gear issues in a group setting but mainly having fun. Saturday, we explore Gragg Prong in the morning, head back to the campsite, pack up and head out. We arrive at the Big Lost Cove Trailhead around 2; about half a mile into this 1.7-mile trail, we start dropping campers one by one at their solo site for the night. No two campers are more than a couple hundred yards apart (because of the terrain you have no idea anyone is close), no one is more than a mile from the trip leader. Around 7 that evening, the trip leader walks back down the trail to see if anyone needs assistance. (Display a flashing, LED nightstick near your tent if you do; otherwise, we leave you alone.)

Sunday, we gather for breakfast (on a gorgeous outcrop overlooking Big Lost Cove) and discuss how the night went, possibly do a short day hike to South Harper Falls, then head home. It’s a fear-free way of discovering whether solo backpacking is your thing, and it’s a great weekend of exploring the waterfalls and pools of Wilson Creek. 

We can’t guarantee that you’ll love it, but we’re pretty sure you won’t be derailed by a deranged turkey.

Happy Trails,

Joe

Learn more

To learn more about our GetBackpacking! Intermediate Skills: Going Solo class, go here.

To learn more about our GetBackpacking! program in general, go here.

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