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Why Camping Alone Can Make You a Mental Winner

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Why Camping Alone Can Make You a Mental Winner

Why Camping Alone Can Make You a Mental Winner
November 01
20:20 2018

LAST NOVEMBER I spent a night shivering on the ground, huddled against a hubcap-sized stone that held a trace of the day’s warmth. I had hiked alone into Harriman State Park, about 40 miles from my Brooklyn home, and in an effort to test the limits of ultralight camping, I’d packed skimpily. My sleeping bag was too thin, and instead of a tent, I carried a feathery hammock that allowed the freezing air to circulate beneath me and steal warmth from my shivering muscles. About 3 miles from the nearest road, I dropped to the dirt, swaddled myself in the hammock, and slept in blinking intervals waiting for the sun to re-emerge. It was an amazing trip.

I have friends, and a wife, who find it peculiar that I count this experience a triumph, but during my hike out the next day, after surviving what had briefly felt dangerous (it wasn’t, really), I was overcome with optimism. While resting by a creek and drinking campfire coffee, I burst out laughing. A hammock? What the hell was I thinking!?

“Mistakes you make by yourself carry heightened consequences,” said Marco Johnson, a senior instructor with NOLS, a nonprofit wilderness school, of solo camping. “On one hand, it can be incredibly tiring”—you need to pack slowly and contemplate each item more carefully, for instance—“but on the other, it can be powerful and liberating. You can come back from a trip, look yourself in the mirror, and say, ‘Look what I did by myself.’”

While my backcountry experience pales next to Mr. Johnson’s (his solitary trips often last weeks), my cuddling-a-rock odyssey wasn’t the first time I was friendless in nature. Three years ago in the Adirondacks, where four nights alone proved too many for me, I returned starved for human interaction. Still, the experience gave me the profound gift of a quiet mind for a few days and access to that headspace when I need it. My tumultuous inner monologue—what I thought was the sound of productive thinking—was replaced by soothing waves of consciousness that came to shore at predictable intervals.

Solo camping isn’t just recreation for me. It’s a therapeutic exercise. We humans have a complicated relationship with solitude. I’m known to pull up Twitter or Facebook any time I begin feeling self-reflective or lonely, but after long stretches of isolation, I’m better able to deal with short, day-to-day doses of it. And if being alone for a couple nights is a type of bitter medicine, then trees and rivers are the sugar that make it go down easy.

You come back from a trip, look yourself in the mirror, and say, ‘Look what I did.’

“There’s something special about nature that has these far-reaching consequences on our emotional and social well-being,” said Jessica Andrews-Hanna, Ph.D., a researcher of cognition and mind-wandering at the University of Arizona. “Everything is homogenous and quiet. You’re often consumed with the present moment.”

That’s why Keith Moon, a climbing instructor in North Conway, N.H., spends several nights a year camping solo. “Meditation doesn’t work for a lot of people—it’s too passive,” he said. “But being alone in nature has a similar effect. It’s changing your headspace without you even realizing it.”

When I have time to plan, I still prefer trips with friends. But unaccompanied hikes give me license to set off spontaneously when the mood strikes. Once, on a work trip to Salt Lake City, I packed a small bag and hiked into the Wasatch after my last meeting. The morning before my flight home, I woke to a fir- and spruce-filled valley, and I returned to New York feeling like I’d been on vacation rather than at work.

Finding Your Inner Grizzly Adams: Survival School

Finding Your Inner Grizzly Adams: Survival School

If you get lost in the woods, a few survival skills could mean the difference between life and death. WSJ’s Jeff Bush takes on the wilderness and learns how to start a fire without matches and build a shelter with nothing but his bare hands. Photo: Jeff Bush (Originally published Oct. 12, 2016)

If you’re considering a solo adventure, Mr. Moon has a simple piece of advice: Start small. Instead of four nights in a remote area, look for an overnight hike on popular trails, where, reassuringly, you’re more likely to encounter help. And along with your mission-critical tools, pack backups in case one fails. Besides your lighter, for instance, carry a 25-pack of UCO Stormproof Matches ($8; ucogear.com), which spark even when soaking wet. And since you absolutely need to see, the Waka Waka Power+ is a combination flashlight and power source that can supply 200 hours of light on a single charge and juice up your phone on the go. Pair it with a reliable headlamp, like Black Diamond’s Revolt ($60, blackdiamondequipment.com), which is waterproof and power agnostic, running off either AAAs or a rechargeable battery.

Finally, take this critical precaution: Pack a basic first-aid kit—antiseptic wipes with gauze and tape for wounds, plus ointment and patches for blisters. And make sure to jot down an itinerary. “Before I leave, I still write up a trip plan and leave it with my wife,” said Mr. Johnson. “And she’ll ask: ‘What is my freak-out time? At what time and date should I be worried?’”

Of course, most tragedies aren’t actually tragedies at all. They’re minor inconveniences. You scrape a knee, or sleep on the cold ground. And in the end, you emerge stronger for the effort.

A Phone That Always Has Service

Why Camping Alone Can Make You a Mental Winner

Beyond letting you ping emergency-response authorities with an SOS button, the waterproof Spot X can send and receive texts, run 10 days on a charge and plot a GPS map that someone back home can monitor online. $250; findmespot.com

To save yourself some gastrointestinal anguish in the back country, pack a Lifesaver Liberty. The bottle eliminates viruses, bacteria and pathogens, so with a couple pumps, you’re free to drink river water with impunity. $100; iconlifesaver.com

A Space-Saving Tent

Why Camping Alone Can Make You a Mental Winner

The free-standing Marmot Tungsten UL one-person tent provides 20-square feet of sleeping space. Thanks to ultralight nylon and polyester fabrication, and its aluminum poles, the tent weighs less than 3 pounds all in. $259, marmot.com

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