The first time I camped out by myself, it was nearly out of spite. My 30th birthday was rapidly advancing on me as I cautiously weighted one-by-one baby steps, finding my own way in the world after ending a three-year codependent relationship with an alcoholic. During those three years, the things I’d dreamed of doing in my 20s, like mountain biking and camping and climbing mountains—and any people who might do those things with me—had slid quietly out of sight. Now I was free. I lived in a state full of mountains to climb and creeks to camp alongside, but my phone was devoid of numbers of any people who’d go with me. So I lay alone in my tent.
I didn’t sleep much that night, evidenced by my pillowy face in the selfie I snapped the next day. I lay on my back in the darkness because curling up on one side or the other felt like I was exposing my back. To what? I didn’t let myself go there. Listening to the wind rush down one side of the valley and whoosh across to the other side, ruffling my poorly staked tent fly on its way, I tried to think about what caused it. Scientifically. The temperatures changing, dropping. I tried to focus on my place within the natural world, to feel a part of it, instead of paying attention to the tight nervousness that crept up my torso.
“This is what you wanted, right?” I did not want to admit to myself that I felt afraid. I was strong, I was better than that, right? I worked hard not to let my mind dwell on any of the millions of things I could have laid there fearing—but I still felt it in my body. And I felt it again later that summer when I ventured out on my first solo backpacking trip. I doubt I even slept a solid hour either of those nights. But really, I wasn’t there for the sleep.
I wish I could say that since then I’ve learned how to relax, that I’ve graduated from feeling afraid when I’m sleeping outside by myself, but that would be a lie. This summer I helped interview a trail runner who regularly camps solo so she can be near the big mountains she trains on. I asked if she usually sleeps in her car or in a tent. Her tent, she replied. I bit back my burning question. I wanted to ask, Do you sleep well? Do you feel at home? Did you always feel at home sleeping out by yourself?
Sometimes I think I should just pack up my things for a solo thru-hike. That would certainly break me of this, right? Night after night, alone in the woods, I would have to learn to be at ease through the dark hours, like a baby being sleep trained by her parents. At the very least, I’d be so exhausted at the end of each day, my body probably wouldn’t give me much choice.
At least one recent study, published in the journal Current Biology, helps me feel a little less uncomfortable about my own fears. It showed that humans, like many animals, actually only put one half of their brain fully to sleep when they spend their first night in a new place. So at least I know I’m not the only one feeling a little less rested after a night out in my tent.
Whether or not I ever do embark on that solo thru hike, I’ve been trying to embrace a new way of thinking lately: Maybe It’s OK to feel afraid. Instead of beating myself up for it, or feeling ashamed about it, maybe it would be more helpful simply to accept it. Instead of trying to ignore my feelings, to look at them, sit with them, and let them be a part of the experience as a whole.
Thankfully I now have friends who’ll jump at the chance to spend a night under the stars together, and I’ve got a wonderful partner whom I’ve spent so many nights out with, I’ve stopped counting. But even if it means a shitty night’s sleep, I still look forward to a few nights out alone once in awhile. It’s important for me, as a person and as a woman, because it helps me feel a sense of ownership and belonging in the outdoors. It reminds me of my independence and my personal agency. And, really, feeling fear does not take away from that.
Header photo by Brendan Leonard.