I went away last week for a quick overnight camping trip to see two parks I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. The weather was perfect and there was a hole in my schedule, so I took off for a short adventure. The campground was great and the parks were fun (the mosquitos were horrible!). Overall, it was a refreshing trip. It was certainly tame compared to some of the things I’ve done, but I still got some interesting reactions from people. As I was leaving one park where I had taken a long walk, a woman and her daughter stopped me to ask if I had walked there alone. They wanted to know if I felt safe. Was I worried about bears or people? Was it scary? I answered honestly. I felt completely safe, although I probably wouldn’t walk there alone after dark. I wasn’t worried about bears or people. It never crossed my mind to be scared when I was less than two miles from my car.
A few days later I was talking to someone else I know and they were surprised I would go camping alone. “I don’t think I would be able to sleep,” she commented. I responded that I have found the best way to sleep is to get a spot near a stream because it drowns out a lot of the unusual noises that would startle me awake at night. She responded by wondering if that was worse because I wouldn’t be able to hear if something bad was coming toward me.
Both conversations surprised me because I actually don’t often get these kinds of questions. I think that solo female travel is becoming much more accepted as safe and enjoyable. Are there bad things that can happen to people (particularly women) out alone? Of course. We all know the stories. But that’s part of the problem. We have all heard those horror stories that loom large in our imaginations and memories. In reality, they make up a teeny tiny percentage of experiences adventurers have. Pretty much everywhere I go these days I see men and women flying solo and having a great time. Here is a blog post by another female solo traveler who talks about some of the things she has learned through traveling on her own. I definitely agree with most of this list. What I've Learned About Traveling Solo as a Woman - Just Chasing Sunsets
Why are solo experiences so awesome? Well, I’m sure everyone has their own opinion, but here are some of my top reasons:
No negotiating over what to do.
Changing plans on a whim without putting anyone out.
No discussing budgets.
Or dinner plans.
No wondering if another person is having fun or feeling guilty because they are doing something just because I want to.
No tight, uncomfortable living spaces.
No need to apologize when you get grumpy.
No dealing with anyone else when they are grumpy.
Now, this isn’t to say that doing things with others isn’t also awesome. Some of my best memories were made taking trips with friends and family. My sister and I went to Costa Rica for my 40th birthday. I spent two weeks in England and Scotland with one of my best friends. My brother and I have logged many hiking miles together, most of which I would not have attempted alone. And some time you should ask me about that crazy bus trip I took to Indiana to see another dear friend and we had a very...unique...experience at our rental home!
So I have had a lot of great trips and experiences with others that I wouldn’t pass up for the world. But over the years I’ve had to face the fact that there isn’t always someone available to do what I want to do. So I could stay home and do nothing, or choose to go out alone. I specifically remember a point in my late 20s where I was griping to myself about not having anyone to take a trip with me, then suddenly realizing that I DID have the option to go myself. So I did. I loved it and never looked back.
Since then I’ve been on a ton of solo trips. Hiking, camping, flying across the country and out of the country, going to the beach, driving up the East Coast, and much more. I’ve met all kinds of interesting people and done some really fantastic things that may not have ever happened if I was waiting around for someone to do it with.
Was I always this confident and independent?
My sister went to Europe when she was in high school. And then back again a second time. And then she went to Costa Rica to study in college. She was naturally independent and brave. I thought she was totally nuts and never thought I’d do anything like that. Not alone, at least. The two of us used to take the train once a year to New York City and go to a Broadway show and find good food to eat. But she was the brave one, I was just kind of along for the ride.
I guess having her as an example made me realize that these sorts of things are possible. That females (males too, of course, but I think the mental blocks are larger for females) can be safe and do what they want.
I had never had any trouble being alone. I’m naturally introverted and am happy not to have to make conversation. So even as a young adult I spent lots of time walking and doing things by myself. Once I got a car and a job I did small independent things like go out to eat, go to the movies, and buy myself tickets to the local theatre. Maybe that’s when I learned to love the fact that going alone meant that I didn’t have to be responsible for anyone else having a good time. I don’t think this was typical, though, in the circles I grew up in. Females didn’t really do things alone for reasons that often surrounded “safety” but probably had more to do with how much independence it showed. Whatever the case, I did start learning to do my own things.
Then as I got into college and beyond I kind of started working unintentionally on having big adventures alone on two parallel paths. One was the path of learning to do small solo trips like getting myself to NYC to see a friend, driving alone for several hours to someplace I had never been, booking flights to meet up with someone. So the whole trip wasn’t solo, but there were elements I had to learn to do alone. The second path was just learning how to travel. I did a lot of trips with friends just figuring out the ropes. Figuring out how to plan itineraries, book lodging, negotiate transportation, and problem solve when things went wrong. With every trip I gathered skills and got a little more confident.
It wasn’t until later in my 20s that I realized I had the travel bug and that I also had all the skills to do it alone. I started with smaller trips and slowly built up to bigger ones. The more I traveled, the more I wanted to see. The year after I retired from teaching, I did a bunch of solo camping, spent 14 days in Arizona and California, and then did a separate 16-day trip to Mexico. (Then Covid hit and I spent the next 18 months within 4 hours of my home. ~sigh~)
So what am I actually trying to get across through all this rambling? It’s this: being able to do things alone, be independent, and travel solo are skills that can be learned just like any other skill. You aren’t born with the “independent adventurer” gene. No one wakes up one day simply knowing how to get through the airport and rent a car. Some of us are more naturally inclined that way, but all of us have to learn the skills to make it a reality. I was not an independent adventurer as a kid or as a young adult. It was something I grew into. I saw it as a way of being in the world that I admired and wanted to create in my own life, so I took steps to make it a reality. I knew I wanted to travel and explore the world whether or not anyone else was willing to go with me.
If there is something you want to do, you have to figure out where you are, then think about what you have to learn or do to get there. For instance, in college my siblings and I started learning how to go backpacking and camping. We talked to people, read stuff, and bought equipment. We went out and made a lot of mistakes (you wouldn't believe how much food we took on that first trip!) and learned together. Then I went to Rhode Island with a dear friend and we camped out one night (Skunks! Thunderstorms! Great memories!) and learned more. Then my brother and I started exploring the Adirondacks and camping there. I clearly remember the day I realized that if I wanted to do more camping, then I’d have to learn to do it myself. So I planned my first trip to go sleep in my tent by myself in a campground. That first night I laid awake for hours pretty sure I had made a bad decision. But I got over it. In 2017 I took another trip to Maine, camped in a campground for several days, and hiked Mt. Katahdin by myself! That was a culmination of a whole bunch of goals I had worked on. My next big milestone is to go backpacking by myself. To walk miles away from my car and sleep alone in the middle of nowhere. I’m not quite ready to do it, so my next small step is to find somewhere I can sleep near my car but not near people. Then maybe I’ll find a place to walk a mile from my car and camp. So I plan to work myself up to a full multi-night trip.
Being able to travel or even just to go away for the day alone is a great thing. The flexibility gives you options you might not have if you are dependent on others for presence and happiness. Maybe you need to think through some things and a day alone at a beautiful garden would give you the space you need. Maybe you love the beach but you never go because no one else has the time or money. Being able to go solo gives you what you most desire without driving everyone else around you crazy. I think it is really important that people do what brings them joy. If your joy is dependent on whether or not anyone else is available or willing to go with you, that’s not a healthy place to be. Your ability to be happy should not depend on others.
Are you interested in learning to do things alone? Maybe you are good at the small stuff, things close to home, but are terrified of bigger trips. Or maybe you can do some things alone but others feel really scary. Be honest about where you are right now. Then think of what you would like to do that feels uncomfortable at the moment. No matter how far away those two points seem, you can learn the skills needed to bridge the gap.
Here’s what you do: Think about something you’d REALLY like to do, whether or not anyone else is able to go with you. Sit down and write out what you would need to make that happen. This includes money, knowledge, equipment, and skills. Then take an honest assessment of where you are now and check off anything from that list you already have. So perhaps you need to be able to book flights to make your dream come true. If you already know how to do that, then check it off. Finally, look at the list that remains of what you still need to make your dream trip happen. Start to figure out how to gain the skills, knowledge, money, and equipment that you still need. Pick one place to begin and start working at it. Click here if you want a simple worksheet I created to help you get started with this: Learn to Travel Solo Planning Sheet.
What is great about this exercise is that it makes your dream very concrete. This helps you manifest what you need to support your idea. It tunes your brain into exactly what you need so it can be on the lookout. Maybe you never once thought about snorkeling lessons but the week after you write it on your list you hear of a place nearby you never knew existed that gives lessons. Bingo. Your next step is now easy to take. The other great thing is that there is something about checking items off a list that is SO motivating. A big dream feels overwhelming. A list is doable. Just do one thing a day. Or a week. Or even a month. Whatever it is, you are taking concrete, visible steps toward your goal.
Having trouble finding the steps between where you are now and what you want to do? There are two ways to tackle this. First, you can start with what you have, even though you know it is not complete, and assume that the details will fill themselves in as you go. This works really well if you want to do something totally new. If I wanted to learn to scuba dive, I have no idea what that entails. So my list would look like 1) figure out what equipment is needed to scuba dive… and then the rest would flow from there.
Your second way to tackle this is to go find other people who have done what you want to do and ask them to help you fill in the gaps for you. Find someone with some empathy for your lack of knowledge and possible uncertainties. Nothing will kill enthusiasm faster than a know-it-all who wants to brush aside all your concerns. A thoughtful person can help you fill in the gaps and give you good advice to get started.
And of course, it doesn’t mean you need to do all this preparation yourself. Find friends and family who will take short trips with you to experience/practice stuff on your list. Do what I did and meet up with friends so that only part of your adventure is solo. Maybe you start by driving an hour away to stay at a hotel by yourself. Or maybe you catch a bus somewhere just to see what it’s like. Be creative and have fun experimenting! No matter what you do, you’ll get something from the experience that will be useful in the future. There’s so many ways to learn and experience what you need to make your dream happen.
So it’s time to get serious and start making your adventure dreams happen! No matter how wild it sounds, you can learn all the skills you need to make it happen. Start planning today!