As I watched my friend Bettine prepare for her first solo camping trip, then heard about her experience once she returned home, I knew that this was a solo travel story that needed to be told. This type of travel won't be for everyone, but it's an inspiring tale with some interesting lessons learned. ~Tracey
It was a long, dark, cold, hard day in December and I was feeling downright miserable.
It wasn’t because of anything in particular, or at least not anything I can remember. Things just seemed gloomy and dismal. My solution? I put my work aside and booked myself a campsite on an island in the middle of a small lake in Ontario for 3 days in June. I instantly felt better.
Before you credit me with enormous bravery and/or insanity, I should tell you that I have done many camping trips before. I am the person in my circle who knows how to survive in the wild: I have all the gear and the know-how and my friends know to come to my place in the event of apocalypse. However, I had never camped solo before.
There is a key difference between the way I plan a trip and the way I plan a camping trip. I find the planning and packing for a camping trip almost as much fun as the trip itself. I plan each meal in advance (I even practice them), I carefully weigh the need to bring certain non-essential items, and I figure out the best way to pack everything into two dry bags. For a regular trip I usually pack the night before and just wing it once I get to my destination. I’m not going to talk too much about the specifics of what to pack because Mountain Equipment Co-op has done a great job of that here.
This trip in Ontario’s Kawartha Highlands involved crossing one lake (Bottle Lake) and portaging to the second lake (Sucker Lake), where my island campsite was located. I guess the simplicity of this was more than handy since my map–in spite of all my carefully detailed organizing–was the one thing I forgot to pack! It sat on my dining table in a waterproof bag the whole time I was away. Luckily, there was a great map posted at the car park at the access point to the lake, so I took a photo of my route before setting off, just in case.
On a little side note: Please don’t go off into the wilderness without a map! I was in a high traffic part of the wilderness on this occasion so I wasn’t too worried, but while paddling on a lake you can become disoriented and sometimes islands look like mainland and vice versa. Unless you have a truly photographic memory, a quick referral to the map can at least set your mind at ease as the campsite and portage markers are very small and hard to see until you are right in front of them.
So, off I set for my island campsite. Picture this: one 43 year old woman on a paddle board (not so unusual) with a life jacketed dog at the front (this gets me a fair amount of attention) and some gear strapped to the back. But, wait–it doesn’t end there! Behind me is an inflatable Sea Eagle kayak which is connected to the paddle board by about 20 inches of dog leash. In the kayak is another life-jacketed dog cozily wedged in between two more dry bags full of camping gear, with a split paddle sticking out of the end like a duck’s tail. Yup. That’s what we looked like as we set off on our adventure…like some sort of amphibious steampunk dog sled, where the dogs don’t do any of the work.
There is an unwritten rule when backcountry camping to be very respectful of the privacy and solitude of other campers. So, when the wind practically pushed me right into someone else’s camp site I was more than a little embarrassed.
I can only hope I provided at least a little bit of entertainment as I grunted my apologies and paddled hard into the wind.
As strenuous as that paddle was (it left me sore and achy for the rest of the trip) the hardest part of the journey actually came on Day 2: Project Do Nothing.
After swimming and paddling and making breakfast I found myself pacing around my campsite looking for something to do. Is that the best spot for my tent? Should the tarp be angled more in case it rains? Is that really the best place to hang my food bag at night?
Eventually, I had to accept that this was going to be the biggest challenge of the week: to just stop.
Once I sank into the truth of this, my week unfolded beautifully before me: I swam, I paddled, I was stalked by my own dog who looks like a wolf, I read a whole book.
10 Lessons Learned
Upon reflection, I have made a list of the top 10 things I learned from my first solo camping trip:
- No nap beats an afternoon nap in a tent while it rains gently outside.
- You WILL have long, out-loud conversations with your dogs (or a volleyball named Wilson in the absence of pets).
- Campfires are actually much better with company. Even silent company.
- Patience and fortitude are your best friends on a camping trip.
- Finally working up the courage to sunbathe naked will guarantee the arrival of the first human being on the lake in three days.
- Dogs do not understand why they can’t walk–or pass balls to you–through the mesh of a bug tent.
- All food tastes better when camping, even things you wouldn’t dream of eating at home, like instant pasta side dishes and dry packaged ramen noodles.
- Your feet will not be clean until your fifth or sixth shower after returning home.
- One instagram post will use up 25% of the battery life on your iPhone when you have poor reception.
- We humans are all vulnerable, squishy, and precious people in a vast, vast world, and it is wildly humbling to be reminded of that.
On the last day of my solo camping trip people suddenly started arriving on the lake (see #5). They came with their coolers and their kids and their conversations and their laughter. At first I was disappointed to have to share my lake with other humans, but then I discovered that I liked the sound of other voices in the distance. Maybe I’m not such a curmudgeonly recluse after all.
So here I am, back to civilization with neighbors above, below, and beside me, in a perfectly climate-controlled space with not a bug in sight. But all I want is to be back on my island with epically dirty feet, practicing the fine art of doing nothing.