The Challenges and Benefits of Seeking Solitude on the Social Trail

This friendship is a little different. You’ve hiked more miles together than days you’ve known each other, pushed through torrential downpours and blistering heat waves, chaffed and stumbled and huffed your packs over mountain ranges stretching beyond the horizon. Conversations regarding the color and consistency of your fecal matter have taken on a previously unknown intimacy. The name they answer to is the one you gave them. This is more than just a friendship, it’s a bond forged by footsteps. And then the inconceivable occurs. You wish you were alone.

The desire to seek solitude in our lives is just as natural (and necessary) as the need for friendship, and any hiker who suppresses this urge is failing to capitalize on one of the greatest opportunities provided by the trail: Alone time. Hiking the social trail in search of solitude may seem as antithetical as a breathable, water-proof rain jacket, but it is possible, and you’ll be much happier for the trouble. Here are a few thoughts in that direction.

It’s okay to disappoint

If and when you decide to break from a hiking group or partner you may face some resistance. They don’t want to separate. They’re hurt or scared about losing a beam in their support system. They’ll get over it. You didn’t step onto the trail to entertain anyone else’s expectations. First and foremost you are here for yourself, and that’s not as selfish as it sounds. The kind of confidence that is dependent on others is at best a flaky enamel, and you’ll both become stronger by the separation.

Friendship isn’t a ball and chain, it’s a reservoir

You don’t possess your friends. Friendship is something tapped into, an underground source. People are the wells. As long as the trail provides people, it provides access to friendship.

Goodbye is a good word

A late package. A rolled ankle. A date with a townie. Unexpected delays happen. People will come in and out of your trail life. Let them go in peace. You aren’t abandoning them. They can stand on their own two feet, as can you. Your stories will both continue, albeit at different paces. Besides, it’s a long walk, chances are your paths will cross again.

Be your own navigator

Every adventure moves to a rhythm. You’ll find yours out on the trail, but only by listening to yourself. Go ahead and share itineraries, crew out, and split a “ho-tee” (hotel room), but don’t let your internal navigator be overridden by the group. The trail is one mean, green dictator, but there are an infinite amount of ways to hike it. If finding yourself and gaining self-assurance seem like worthwhile goals, obeying someone else’s orders is no way to get there.

Become comfortable in your own company

Being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely. Learning how to be alone is a dying skill in our world of constant and instantaneous communication. The relentless need to be “liked” and “followed” creates what former Facebook president Sean Parker has termed a “social-validation feedback loop”, exploiting “a vulnerability in human psychology”. Solitude provides the space to regain one’s personal foundation absent the constant social buzz that wears like a horde of mosquitoes. If you learn one thing on the trail, learn to love yourself without the need for reaffirmation. It’ll save you a lot of trouble down the line.

Embrace your emptiness

One of the biggest deterrents of seeking solitude is the feeling of emptiness that can set in once all the outside noise fades away. We cover up that hole like an undesirable pit in the backyard, something we hope will go away while we’re inside watching Netflix. But emptiness is the hunger of the will, rather than a weakness of character. It’s true, what Marianne Williamson says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Embracing your emptiness is daunting because it means accepting responsibility for your potential.

At the end of the day you don’t have to forsake friendship in order to seek solitude. It’s the best of friends who lead us back to ourselves.

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Comments 5

  • jim : Jul 30th

    This just became my “Six official words of wisdom” for the trail. Thank you!!

  • Cosmo : Aug 3rd

    Can you really be alone on the AT? Aren’t you just substituting one group with another? It’s natural to form ties with the people you meet, and very unlikely you will hike, never mind camp, by yourself for any number of days—except in the most off-peak times/locations. Should there be a distinction between being by yourself (that is to say with minimal social interaction), and alone (seeing few if any other humans)?

    • jen : Aug 5th

      In July – August when it is really hot in the not touristy areas (like grayson highland Virgnia for example) I can go and be alone with no problem.

  • jen : Aug 5th

    Good Advice. As a section hiker I never get a chance to hike in groups or make friends as I go solo and usually never see the same people more than once.

  • Christopher : Aug 5th

    I didn’t want to feel chained to any one group. I hiked alone,but made many new friends along the way.


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