My Solo Backpacking Fail

Words like “failure” sit heavy on my shoulders, full of judgment – but if we’re being honest with ourselves, then we must acknowledge that we’ve all been here. We’ve all failed at one thing or another. Yet, titling this post was still difficult. The important part is not failure itself, it’s how we work through that failure, find the lessons, apply them, and carry on. This is the story of how I failed at my first solo backpacking trip:

I spent months planning for this solo backpacking trip. And, by planning, I mean buying all the things. I spent weeks alone researching and picking the perfect location. I wanted a challenging hike with some sort of like or river. I settled upon Loch Leven Lakes. At this point in time, I had never been there before, but after reading reviews I thought it would be a welcoming challenge.

The plan was to camp the first night with my husband and our dog at our usual Tahoe destination, Onion Valley Campground. I wanted a day to chill with my little family, clear my mind, acclimate to the altitude, and quadruple check my bag. The following morning, my husband would drive me to the trailhead, about 45 minutes away, where I’d spend the next two days and nights alone. I told everyone about my plan who would listen, partly as insurance in case the worst were to occur and partially because I couldn’t contain my excitement! This trip was something I’d thought about extensively for years, it was my turn to push past my comfort zone and do something new and exciting.

In a past life I backpacked more frequently and am so grateful for the experiences I’ve had. Trekking through Desolation Wilderness in the El Dorado National Forest felt like being on a different planet. I made my first summit at Pyramid Peak. I’ve hiked through Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches National Parks in Utah. Yet, somehow I had forgotten all the time spent preparing for those trips – physically and mentally.

In those days, I’d begin training at least three months in advance. I’d run stairs at the tallest parking garage in town. I practiced yoga a few times a week to keep my mind in check. I cycled, climbed, and lifted weights. I was all about it. I’d even go so far as to create a printable calendar of my workouts to help keep me accountable. ALL ABOUT IT. I truly love training, especially those stair runs. I know, crazy right? Yet, I had forgotten why I stopped. I had forgotten exactly how much time had actually passed since my last big excursion. I had forgotten about that annoying little knee injury I acquired while pushing myself too hard running those stairs.

Life in those days looked a lot different than life does now. Back then I had an office job that held me hostage 40-60 hours a week. Having a routine was the glue that kept me together. But, I no longer have that office job and my routine went right out the window with it.

This time around my arrogance got the best of me. I didn’t train for this trip at all. I had forgotten that I needed to. I forgot that carrying a third of my body weight on my back requires some strength. I was so caught up in planning, shopping and talking about it that I neglected to physically and mentally prepare for it. No stairs runs or spin classes. No weights or climbing. Not one single yoga class. I convinced myself that the one hour I spent ONE day a week working out before teaching yoga was enough.

It wasn’t.

Somewhere between talking about it and shopping for it – my trip snuck up on me. Next thing I knew, it was time to start packing.

Everything I needed was in my bag, plus so much more. This was my first mistake – overpacking. I packed enough clothes to get me through an entire winter in the wilderness and enough food to last about a week for a family of four. Although I was only going to be gone a couple days, I was ready for whatever. Or so I thought.

Another major component of my “failure” was neglecting the real possibility of a bear encounter. Of all the things purchased for this trip, I let two important things fall through the cracks: 1.) A bear canister and 2.) bear spray.

Instead of a bear canister, I purchased scent-proof bags. Bear canisters are expensive and the bags were a fraction of the cost. The main selling point was that the bags I had purchased came in a variety of sizes, unlike the large clunky bear canisters. I remember thinking it was good enough, pushed aside those uncomfortable feelings and kept packing. Instead of bear spray, I packed two knives, but let’s be real – if it came down to it, was I really prepared to shank a bear? Fuck no. But it was one less expense and at the time, also seemed good enough.

The day before the trip, when my bag was finally fully packed, I hoisted it onto my back. I thought, this must be how Cheryl Strayed felt when she described hoisting Monster on her back for the first time in her book, Wild.  At that moment my gut tangled into knots and I distinctly remember thinking, “Nope, not yet…”.

I ignored that gut reaction and the following morning we left for Tahoe. After setting up camp, and several hours stewing in that uneasy feeling, I made a decision. I couldn’t ignore my gut any longer. I wasn’t ready. Suddenly everything became crystal clear – the fact that I hadn’t physically trained at all, the fact that I couldn’t quiet my mind, my fear of encountering a bear or forest-dwelling serial killer with only a pocket knife as protection. I felt overwhelmed while the sheer weight of my bag alone brought me to tears.

But instead of giving up all together, I planned a compromise out in my head. There was a trail behind our campsite that lead to the top of the mountain. I would ascend toward the peak and find someplace to setup camp for myself. I coined it “mini-backing” when telling my husband the new plan. I would be on the same mountain as him and our pup which made me feel less afraid.

So, the next morning, with over 40-lbs strapped to my back, I kissed my little family goodbye and made my way up the mountain. The hike felt eerie that day. I had done most of the trek with my dog in the past but this time I was all alone, just me and my thoughts. The silence was overwhelming at first. I played some music through my iPhone and sang along as I tried to focus on keeping one foot in front of the other. I felt anxious and nervous, excited and afraid. The feelings stayed with me all day like that feeling you get after watching a really good horror movie. About a mile in, I found a perfect campsite. But it didn’t feel far away enough, so I kept going till I reached the top. With no viable spots to set up camp at the peak, I made my way down to that nice little campsite I had seen previously.

I setup my tent between a few trees, one of which had an arrow stuck in it. My mind raced as I contrived a horrific story as to how it got there. Just beyond the campsite was a grassy meadow that stretched to the edge of the forest, I imagined someone out there… watching me… hunting me… with a crossbow… waiting to strike the second I let my guard down. It was then I realized I watch way too many horror movies. I took some deep breaths, giggled at my overactive imagination, put on another podcast and attempted to not freak out over every sound I heard.

Bears were still on my mind and an encounter was still a very real fear, I managed to control my anxious mind by keeping busy. I spend the afternoon gathering wood for the fire, exploring my surroundings and listening to podcasts (Shoutout to all the murderinos out there!). I practiced a little yoga and meditation to keep from another agonizing fear-spiral.

It worked!

Once I was able to let go of the “what if”, I was able to be fully present. I was able to enjoy the silence and solitude. I watched birds flutter and ground squirrels chase each other all around me. I watched the sunset as the trees turned to silhouettes. I watched the fire dance and crackle as night approached and I was able to appreciate the stars in a way I hadn’t before. I slept soundly through the night. I didn’t have to shank a bear.

I woke up feeling energized, content and at peace but was eager to get back to my little family. I packed up camp and made the short trek back to home base.

I spent one day and night alone at that campsite a mile from my husband. It was half the time I had planned on and not where I thought I’d be, but I still did it – I managed all the emotions that come with stepping out of your comfort zone and conquered some fears along the way.

I was reminded that I was the only thing standing in my own way.

Although I technically failed my first solo backpacking trip and it didn’t go according to plan (read what we think about expectations here), I still made something of it instead of letting fear get the best of me. It has taken me some time to accept that my progress isn’t the same as yours and that’s okay. It’s taken me some time to realize that most of the fear and anxiety I felt was created in my mind. Yet, progress is progress, no matter how minuscule it may seem. Personal growth isn’t a race and there’s no need for comparison. I’m proud of the progress I made that day and am turning those mishaps into lessons learned so next time maybe I’ll be able to spend two or three nights backpacking alone.

A few days after we returned home, I took a solo day trip and hiked Loch Leven Lakes. Next spring, I hope to spend a few days backpacking alone here, fully prepared this time.

How have you learned from your failures and fears? Let us know in the comments!

Happy adventures friends!

Holly