On Getting After It Solo: What I Learned Along The Way

If you told me six months ago that I'd come to head out on my first solo travels last year, even locally, I'd have called you crazy. Before May of 2017, I had never set out driving alone anywhere past my own city even. And now here I am, hopelessly addicted and endlessly scheming the next spicier jaunt. 

When I shared that I was hitting the road alone this past fall on a speedy 6000 km trip through five states, my plans were met with mixed responses. Some were beyond stoked. Some said it was excessive. 

"Is that safe, going alone? Aren't you scared? Won't you get lonely? Where are you going to sleep? Do you even know how to change a tire?" I didn't know much, and I sure as hell didn't know how to change a tire. But I did know with certainty that Google knows basically all the things, so there's that.

While I didn't head off galavanting around the globe on a 6 month trip to foreign countries {this time, anyway}, I reckon there are a few things that are valid across the board, no matter where you go or what you do. 

This is what I learned along the way, mistakes and all.

Know your limit, play within it.

I'm all for pushing comfort zones - but there's a fine line between nudging your nervous self to do something you really truly want to do, and forcing a situation that your body straight up tells you is a terrible idea at best. During my time in Moab, I was deadset on making it down to the Needles district in Canyonlands to go hiking. I hadn't quite thought this scheme through, and left Moab to begin the 2.5+ hour drive down south just as the sun had set. My plan was to find somewhere to sleep along the highway or just outside the park, wake up for sunrise, and start hiking before the heat set in. That was a fail of epic proportions. 

Completely misjudging how much of this drive was, in fact, not on a well-lit highway with rest stops, cars, or any other remotely reassuring things, but an eerily pitch-black lone road into the park without another human in sight for well over an hour, I could feel my anxiety skyrocketing. I kept driving anyway, for miles and miles, attempting to ignore the increasingly panicked voice {likely compounded by lack of sleep} that told me with no uncertainty that I 110% did not want to partake in any of this. Unable to see my surroundings, save for a couple feet of the road ahead lit by my headlights, the thought crossed my mind that I hadn't told anyone where I was going.

After almost an hour driving into the Needles, the combination of exhaustion and anxiety got the best of me. I slammed on my brakes in the middle of the dead-empty road, told myself it was completely okay if I wanted to turn around, pulled a U-ey and got the hell out of there as fast as possible. The second I did, I felt my whole body breathe again and the nervous laughter errupted as I sped out of the park. Was I disappointed that I didn't get to hike the Needles? Sure. But there can be a next time, a better time, one that doesn't involve the onset of a panic attack. Lesson noted.

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On that note, know what it is that you need to feel safe. And also to, you know, enjoy yourself once in a while.

We all have different levels of comfort and experience. What feels terrifyingly impossible for one person is cake and a hell of a good time for another. And that's totally okay. The first night sleeping in my car at a highway rest stop was nervewracking - I may or may not have kept my pocket knife tucked into the car door beside me while I slept {sleep being an over exaggeration, really, seeing as every night spent in my car was composed more of naps in 30-minute increments than anything remotely resembling proper rest}. Some people wouldn't think twice about it. Some, you couldn't pay any amount of money to even consider it.

Acknowledge what you need to do to feel alright about life. Is it sleeping in a well-lit area? At a hotel/Airbnb once in a while? Not driving at night? Not sleeping alone in the backcountry? Maybe capping your daily driving km's at a reasonable point? Pushing your limits in a healthy way is part of the adventure, definitely. Feeling like you’re in mortal danger {whether that is markedly real or not} or hating your life every second of every day isn't a state you want to be in for too long at a time. Travel will test you, but it should also be semi-enjoyable a good deal of the time. As you gain more experience and trust in yourself, your needs may evolve and change.

Or they may not. You may just forever decide that five days at a time of hiking and sweating in the dusty desert heat without showers and running water or a half-decent sleep is where you draw your line. Maybe you're totally cool with trekking alone in the Himalayas for weeks on end. Either way, where you're at is perfectly fine and valid. Respect your basic needs.

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Check in frequently with your safety contact while you're on the move.

If you're roadtripping, the difference of a few hours rippin' means you could have easily passed through two states or into another country by the end of the day, and it's well worth checking in whenever you can so someone knows your approximate whereabouts**. Whenever I found wifi, I’d send a quick note to trusted humans back home as well as friends who were of closest proximity to the state I was in at the time. This also goes for checking in before and after any wilderness outing, hike, climb, or the sort. Let someone know your exact route and estimation of when you'll be back. If no one knows where you went, no one would know to look for you if things were to go awry. 

**If you use Google maps for navigation like I do, I recently learned that you can easily share your trip progress. I haven't used this function yet, but will definitely give it a go next time I'm on the road.

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Speaking of safety, again.. don't forget the first aid gear.

This trickles down from standard hiking advice, but I always bring generous emergency gear {those two bandaids living at the bottom of your bag for the past 5 years don't count}. I brought a fully loaded first aid kit for the car, plus my usual smaller version for my hiking pack. On top of that, I packed a small knife, a few extra gallons of water left in the trunk at all times, spare batteries for my headlamp, emergency blanket + tarp {and the rest of the top 10 essentials}, bear spray, those little warming packets, extra food, a wildlife deterrent horn, and multiple paper maps {yes, people still use those!}, and warmer clothing than I would expect to need. Having the gear is one thing - knowing how to use it is another. Go through your things beforehand to make sure you're familiar with all those bits and could handle yourself in an emergency. Alright, mom moment over.

Don't abandon your common sense, but remember: the world isn't out to get you.

No doubt, there are many places where it's easier and safer to travel solo as a woman than others. I'm speaking mainly from my recent experience travelling in North America, which can be very different from the vast majority of the rest of the world, but I reckon the general sense remains the same wherever you go.

Keep your wits about you, but not to the point where you adopt the excessively wary and suspicious mentality that every stranger is up to no good and is not to be trusted. One of the joys of solo travel is the people you meet along the way.

Be open, stay safe, talk to people around you, absorb stories, share your own. That's the best damn part, really. 

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Plan for rest. Frequently.

I'm just gonna call it like it is: solo travel is often friggin' exhausting.

You know that feeling when you hop on a rope swing and realize mid-air you've sent it way too hard, but are all up in it now and there's no going back? That was me 24 hours into my roadtrip. I'm just gonna go ahead and point out the obvious again that, well, you're alone. It's all on you. I didn't quite realize how exhausting that would be until I was the only person I had to rely on, to troubleshoot, to get un-lost, to figure it out, to fix things that broke, to find somewhere to sleep every night, to negotiate issues, to clock the driving miles, to come up with a backup plan {or thirty-two of 'em} when things went sideways. Draining, whether you notice it at first or not. I didn't account for how tough it could be running at full speed consistently for days on end, and, in hindsight, it's something I wish I had considered. 

Plan to give yourself breaks to recharge and re-coop your energy, both mentally and physically. Looking back, I wish I had chosen a slightly less ambitious driving plan to have allowed for more downtime, and next time I'll be scheduling in rest breaks way more frequently - even if that's just a free afternoon with nothing planned, or a couple hours to read quietly and give my brain a break, or a sleep-in past the crack of dawn every now and then. Both my body and my mind tend to run at a hundred miles a minute on an average day - combine this with the demands of solo travel, and it's a recipe for speedy burn out.

At the end of the day, it's a marathon, not a sprint, travelling - maintain your energy and take care of yourself, so you can finish strong and have a hell of a good time along the way. 

And know this. This is probably the icing on the cake:

The absolute best thing to come out of all this solo galavanting business is the incredible forging of self-trust and ultimate strengthening of your resilience.

As I pulled the car back into the rental lot and dropped the keys to my impressively dirty, sandy, salt-coated Santa Fe, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I survived. Go figure. All those worries I'd had before the trip? Well, half of them actually did happen. And yet it all ended up being totally okay. 

Being on your own, you gotta trust absolutely and wholeheartedly in your ability to figure it out when everything heads south. And it likely will at some point. But you know what? You can handle it.

You can.

And you will. When all else fails, remember: everything is figureoutable.

Go get after it. x