Solo Hiking: Empowerment through Preparation

He’s limping. I shake my head as if to dissuade a fly, and crush the panic building in my chest. He’s not limping. I shift my pack on my shoulders and we carry on, my attention acutely focused on his gait. It is hard for me to differentiate his normal goofy stride from something I should be concerned about as my left and right brains fight against each other.
He trots on, just happy to be on trail; doing what he loves most with who he loves most. But he is sporting a slight gimp, favoring a problem leg, and as I accept this fact, a crippling onslaught of realizations hit me in the gut and I stop in my tracks. He cannot come with me on this journey that we are training for. He cannot play his part of this great dream that I have built, though he is a weight-bearing pillar in its architecture.  For his safety, I must leave my darling love behind. For his safety, I must go alone.

My name is Danielle and I am afraid.

My name is Danielle  and I am a human. At least, I think I am. I’ve spent my life more or less repelled by this fact, always holding other people at an arms distance and taking the hard road every chance I get. The independent road. The true road. I’ve always fancied myself tough, a real go-getter. I’ve always thought I was a loner, and when it comes down to it I guess I am.

I was a hard-headed child. I selected my friends carefully, judging the worthiness of their hearts and souls harshly to protect myself as best I could. As a teenager I guarded over those I cared about intensely, never allowing the roles to be switched. My time and energy has always been important to me, entering into romantic relationships were only ever for my own personal strength and development. To me this was independence.

I’ve swung back and forth between cold indifference and intimate loving care for other people. But in the long run I’ve always relied more heavily on my four legged companions. For emotional support, for mental support, for physical security and greater situational awareness. When I set out to lose 122 lbs., it was responsibility toward my Charlie that I relied on to keep me active.

When I developed my dream to pack the two of us up and through-hike the Colorado trail, I didn’t realize how very much that dream revolved around him as my partner. I lost almost half of my body weight with him at my side so that we could go on this grand adventure together.

He has a mild orthopedic deformity that I will write about in detail in the near future.  After consultation with several vets, specialists, and canine orthopedic surgeons, it was determined to be safe for him to attempt the nearly 500 mile journey. Recent evaluations of his performance during training have told me otherwise, and my obligation to his health cannot be ignored.

My initial reaction is sadness for him; that he will miss out on so much fun. That he will have to go for so long without me. That he won’t get to experience all the wonder that he could. Of course I intend to have him along for short sections, but on the whole he will be absent. As time has passed since I accepted this, layers of my subconscious defenses are peeling away, and I have become more and more aware that I am afraid to go without him. Hiking solo with your dog is entirely different than hiking solo.

I rely on him for more of my safety than I had ever guessed. He has always been there, silently protecting me as I protect him. His presence alone is a deterrent to a great many evils. His advanced senses have always been there to warn me of danger.  At night, the rise and fall of his ribs under my arm is the greatest assurance. It is not just a feeling; I genuinely am much safer with him there. Fears are rising to the surface and I must face the facts.

My name is Danielle and I am not half as independent as I once thought.

These fears have brought problems to my attention. Problems have solutions. I will continue on, and achieve my goal. Life is about gaining experiences and learning lessons, it is about growing and expanding your mind – and I am excited to continue down that road. I am no less heartbroken to leave my best friend behind, but fear will not hold me back and I know that he would encourage me onward if he could.

Life has slowly taught me that not all humans are bad. I am now more comfortable putting stock in others. I’ve allowed friends to care for me. I’ve fallen in love and willing sunk into it despite my previous ‘decision’ not to. But the reality remains that, on the whole, humans are our greatest threat. I do not fear an angry mother bear half so much as I fear the man who tells me I have pretty hair. I do not fear a surprised rattlesnake half so much as I fear the ambiguity of a stranger’s intentions. I know what to expect from the wild, and why. I do not know what to expect from people, and I will never understand why.

I do not write this to instill fear. I write this to instill awareness. You deserve adventure, and wonder, and love. If you will reach forward and have the courage to seek out your dreams, you deserve to experience great things without fear limiting you and holding you back.

How do you go about that? By being prepared. Knowledge really is power.

The steps I’m taking to further empower and prepare myself for solo hiking will involve practical improvements on basic skills. I’m taking steps to improve my skill sets in all areas that I might need, to include leveling up in backcountry survival skills, first aids skills, and self-defense. Humans may be the greatest danger out there, but realistically the odds are far more likely that I will meet harm from slipping on a rock, or doing something stupid myself.  Best to be over prepared in all arenas.

Backcountry Survival

Improving outdoor and backcountry survival skills is something everyone who gets into the wild, accompanied or solo, should do. Even if you feel confident in your knowledge, taking a class before a big trip is highly advisable. Freshening up on your skills increases the likelihood that you will use them successfully and with a clear mind in an emergency situation.

Solo First Aid

Of extreme importance is familiarity with first aid. I don’t mean cleaning a cut and throwing a band-aid on it. If you aren’t prepared to splint your own broken ankle or tie off an extremity as your own blood is pouring out, you aren’t prepared enough to venture out alone. Be ready to address life threatening wounds, or don’t go. Your family deserves the peace of mind that comes with your preparedness for solo adventures. Research the area you will be exploring and develop a functional knowledge of what plant life may come in handy to help pack a wound or draw the swelling out of a bite.

Self Defense

Nothing will give you greater peace of mind when you are solo than the ability to properly handle an attacker, human or otherwise. Know how to handle situations with local wildlife should things get ugly. Knowing how to utilize the equipment you have to make yourself look bigger to a mountain lion, or what to do when you offend a moose, so on and so forth.

Knowing how to defend yourself from human attackers, even if they are much larger than you, will quell an insane amount of fear and uneasiness. First, you must ask yourself, How far am I willing to go to protect myself? You are not just protecting your body. You are protecting your mind, your heart, your soul.

Are you willing to go so far as to end a life that is deliberately after yours?

As far as I’m concerned, those who set out to do harm to others for their own satisfaction have forfeit their lives, and have earned every bit of retaliation that they receive, and often more. You need to be honest with yourself, and prepare for the worst. Again, know how to use what you have as  tools. Your fuel canister, your knife, your trekking poles, your bandana, your teeth. Do what you have to get back to those you love safely.  I recommend taking courses in Jiu Jitsu or Krav Maga above other modalities.

Again, the likelihood of encountering one of these situations is low. But you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be as prepared as possible before a solo hike.

Do some research and find classes in these subject areas near you!

Amidst all the seriousness, don’t forget to reap the rewards of feeling like a serious solo badass.

As for me, I can’t wait to greet that trail, “My name is Danielle, and I am not afraid.”

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