Conquering My First Solo Overnight

After deciding that I am, in fact, going to thru-hike the AT in 2023 (more on that coming soon), I realized that I would be doing it alone. Sure, I plan to start hiking northbound (“NOBO”) in mid-March, alongside hundreds of other NOBO hopefuls in a group affectionately known as “the bubble.” But at the end of the day, it will be my hike. Thus, I need the confidence to hike and camp alone. What better way to get that confidence than to go on a short practice hike?

The Plan

I would take 3 days to hike the AT southbound (“SOBO”) from Culver’s Gap, New Jersey, to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania— approximately 27 miles. I planned to spend the first night at a tentsite on the trail and the second at the Mohican Outdoor Center, an Appalachian Mountain Club hut and campsite about a quarter-mile down a cross-trail. Since my parents live nearby, they served as my transportation to and from the trail, including in the event of an early bailout.

I had specific goals I wanted to accomplish on this hike. The biggest (and arguably most important) was to experience backpacking and camping solo. If I hated it, I would have to reconsider my 2023 plans. I also wanted to gauge my hiking pace on a flat trail with a full pack. I spent many years hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, so most of my hiking experience is on trails with significant elevation gain and with only my daypack. Other minor goals included determining an appropriate amount of food per day and sizing up my gear to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what I might want to tweak for a thru-hike.

The Hike

Me, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the trailhead.

Day 1

The trailhead and the signature white blaze marking the AT.

At around 10:00 am, I set out for the AT with my parents and their two golden retrievers. We could not have asked for a nicer morning. It was about 60 degrees and sunny—very lucky for late October. After parking and finding the trailhead, we began our hike with a bang: we immediately crossed a major road and then tackled a steep uphill climb. Once we crested the hill and reached the ridge, we were rewarded with beautiful views of post-peak foliage.

We hiked together, chatting up some day hikers and bikers we met on the trail. The trail was fairly narrow, relatively flat, and covered in leaves. Though I was hiking slower than I was used to, my pack didn’t yet feel heavy and I was feeling energized and excited. After about 2.5 miles, my family and I decided to part ways. That moment felt a bit like a band-aid being ripped off—whatever security I had in hiking with familiar faces was gone. I reminded them of the plan, showed them on a map where I was planning to camp, and said my goodbyes.

What you get in the last week of October in New Jersey.

I pressed forward for another 5 miles, hiking a total of 7.5 miles on Day 1. I stopped a few times for snacks along the way. Around the 4-mile mark, my pack started to feel heavy. To distract myself, I listened to a few podcast episodes I had downloaded to my phone. After 6 miles, I started to feel hot spots on my feet. I stopped to apply duct tape, but I didn’t have time to properly rest and care for my feet. Daylight was slipping by and I wanted to be at camp by dark.

I hiked as fast as I could, stopping once at a stream to fill up on water, and made it to camp just as the sun set. With very little light left, I quickly placed my tent and set up my camp stove to boil water for dinner (spiced couscous with freeze-dried vegetables, for the curious). But the hunger didn’t come. Figuring I was too nervous to settle and eat a full meal, I forced down a candy bar and told myself I would eat a big breakfast in the morning. I retired to bed promptly at hiker midnight: 7:00 pm.

I slept rather fitfully. Every time I drifted off, I jolted myself awake. I did not feel threatened by anything outside of my tent (after all, I had set my bear cannister containing my food and smelly items a proper distance away). My sleeping bag and pad were surprisingly comfortable. Still, I could not settle. Eventually I fell asleep, only to be woken up by something brushing against the outside of my tent. Whatever it was, it sounded small. Deciding that it was small enough that I could scare it off if necessary, I fell back asleep. After that, I slept until the morning.

Day 2

I woke up to the sunrise. Here is where I say: I did it!! I spent the night solo in the woods. And I survived! And I actually felt okay!

Despite my promise to myself that I would eat a big breakfast, I couldn’t. Not only was I not hungry, but I felt repulsed by all of the food I did bring. Feeling anxious to get moving and get to the Mohican Outdoor Center by dark, I decided to pack up and eat a protein bar while I hiked.

A nice, wide, flat trail.

The first mile of Day 2 was the best, and my fastest, mile on the trail. The trail was wide and flat and the air was calm and cool. I even came across a large white-tailed deer! As I hiked on to mile 2, I realized I made a mistake and hiked about 0.5 miles past my planned water stop. Since I still had about 2 liters of water in my pack, I decided it wasn’t worth turning back for water. Instead, I’d continue on and fill up at a lake 5 miles ahead.

Mile 2 is also where I first thought, “Why is the trail here?” The AT had been running concurrent with a local trail until the AT split off and curved to the left. I followed the AT and was immediately confronted with a wall that I had to climb straight down. My disbelief about this actually being the AT was suspended when I saw a handful of white blazes on the rocks. After easing myself down the wall and walking about 100 feet forward, the AT met up with the local trail again. Why the AT could not have followed the local trail the entire way, I may never know.

Why??

Though I had duct taped my feet at camp before I left, it didn’t take long for my hot spots to become fully-formed blisters. After 4 miles, I felt blisters and hot spots on all sides of my feet, and by mile 6, it was unbearable. I was taking more frequent and longer periods of rest, but it was too late. I was very low on duct tape and swapping my worn socks with a fresh pair from my pack was no use. Because of the pain, my pace had slowed down considerably. Though I was pretty sure I could have made it to the Mohican Outdoor Center—about 10 miles from camp—I wasn’t confident that I could then push the final 9 miles to Stroudsburg. Therefore, I decided that I was going to call the hike. I arranged for my parents to pick me up at the next road crossing, approximately 7 miles from my campsite, where I then went back to their house for a hot shower and foot bath.

Reflections

In total, I hiked about 14 miles over the course of 2 days and spent one night solo in the woods. While I did not make it to Stroudsburg, I do not regret my decision to leave the trail early. In addition to learning that I am, in fact, capable of hiking and camping solo, I learned that I needed to address my footwear situation and plan ahead for blisters. Moreover, I accomplished my goals of gauging my hiking pace and the adequacy of my equipment and food choices. With these lessons learned, I plan to set out on a least one more shakedown hike before I embark on my thru-hike in March.

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Comments 18

  • Stephen : Nov 9th

    Use Leukotape for blisters, not duct tape. It is far superior and stays on a long time. You can even pre-tape where you get hot spots. You may want to consider swapping your boots for trail runners – they are lighter and dry out faster. Good luck!

    Reply
    • Elise Romberger : Nov 9th

      Definitely on my gear list for the future! I was hiking in a pair of trusty, two-year old boots that carried me through the Whites without a single blister. I’m not sure what happened this time, but I’m definitely now looking into new footwear options.

      Reply
      • Betsy Marshall : Nov 11th

        also consider a 2 layer sock system; the ones nearest your feet being thin and slippery- hose footies or even men’s hosiery (i.e. dress socks) 3 packs are relatively cheap (ross/TJMaxx etc), very light, and an insane variety of patterns to cheer you up! (also; local trail probably developed ‘organically’ to avoid said AT wall climb)

        Reply
      • Annette : Nov 14th

        Carry some mole skin for hot spots before blisters start. Try silk socks then Wool.

        Reply
      • Bill : Nov 15th

        good start, have you read Appalachian trials? You are a badass just for trying…do more shakedowns I would suggest in NH like weather, you know what I mean 6288… Will be here to serve you at miles in SNP trail magic

        Reply
  • Marcie : Nov 9th

    Very informative!!

    Reply
  • Mercury : Nov 10th

    Elise…..I’ve done alot of backpacking on and around the AT, Glacier, RMNP and several years backpacking and wintercamping in Alaska, CO and now MN.If I could give two words of advice, it would be flexible. Flexible with a strict schedule, mileage, itinerary and plans in general. Some days you will feel like going more miles, somedays you may want to linger at some beautiful tent site. Smell the flowers. And secondly…..get good boots. I have been a heavy backpacking boot guy my whole life. The AT is strewn with slippery roots and rocks….all out there to damage your feet and end your trip in a heart beat. Break your boots in so the beginning of your trip your feet are tough as nails and your boots are nothing close to being brand new. I hike with heavy Merrel Wilderness boots….which are borderline climbing boots. But anything with a heavy deep lugged Vibram sole that can be resoled. Stay away from glued on soles that come apart in the wet AT. ALSO a pair of canvas tennis shoes along….not a pair of toe less flip flops to change into when in camp. You will thank me. Good luck and have fun….looking forwad to hearing your progress.

    Reply
  • Windy Robotham : Nov 10th

    My husband and daughter used to get horrible blisters. We hike in trail runners. We layer injinji toe liners under darn tough socks. No more problems with blisters!

    Reply
  • Patrick : Nov 10th

    Maybe the difference with the blisters is the added weight on your feet from the heavier pack.

    Reply
  • [email protected] : Nov 10th

    Congrats, my dude! You gotta start somewhere and it sounds you started well. The longer miles and stays will come. Soon you and Nature will learn to embrace each other deeper, for longer.

    AT class of 2022

    Reply
  • Bluewhale : Nov 10th

    Elise (my youngest’s name BTW). I agree with the advice you’ve already been given. Only thing I can add is that calories are critical. You can’t get very far without them. Look at finding high calorie sources that you like. My son and I years ago did a quick shop for freeze dried food before an overnight. We ate dinner and breakfast and continued out climb out of a valley. We were stopping constantly and had no energy. Turned out the dinner and breakfast were each about 300 calories.

    I’m looking forward to following you in 2023.

    Reply
  • David Rollins : Nov 10th

    Well written! Appreciate that.

    Reply
  • David Firari : Nov 10th

    Great article! Congrats on getting the first solo night out of the way. I likely won’t get a solo night before my NOBO thru-hike in ’23 so I’m glad to know it went smoothly for you.

    Excited to follow your journey on here and hope to see you out there. Happy trails!

    Reply
  • Greg : Nov 11th

    My brain does a similar thing with food on days over 5 or 6 miles.

    At first I was worried about bonking, but I have found that a bit of zero sugar jerky is palatable enough and keeps me going.

    My very unscientific guess is that something in me balks at the high carb stuff when my output is low to moderate.

    A more intense day, where I have thrown in some bits of running, have me gorging like a high school athlete.

    Listen to your body. Try some more efforts similar to your AT plan, see if you are hitting the dreaded bonk stage. Everyone is a bit different when it comes to food, experiment to find what you like.

    Reply
  • Hawkeye : Nov 13th

    Use a liner sock with a hiking sock with a shoe a size larger than your regular shoe. Carry less food, it takes awhile to get an appetite and you don’t want to finish with food. Keep training with a weighted pack.

    Reply
  • Greg : Nov 14th

    I don’t have any additional advice but just wanted to pass along a word of congratulations. Thanks for sharing your your experience of what didn’t work as well as what worked. Hopefully this will encourage other hikers to do more practice/shakedown trips.

    Reply
  • Melissa : Nov 16th

    I second the advice to size up on your shoes because your feet swell as the day goes on. I hike in Altras which have a wide toe box so your toes don’t squish and rub. Since switching to them I’ve had zero blisters. Your feet will make it break your hike!

    Reply
  • Big Daddy D : Nov 18th

    There’s no one way to hike the AT. Keep doing shakedown hikes, it’s good practice. Get yourself some trail runners, stay away from Altras, there garbage, fall apart within weeks at $180 bucks a pop. Injinj toe sock liners with darn tough socks seem to be the best. On the AT a liter and a half of water is plenty, camel up at fill ups. Don’t pack to much food, it’s heavy. Don’t pack your fears. No micro spikes, 5 pairs of socks, 5 layers of cold weather clothing… get a good puffy and a good 10° bag/quit and make sure your sleeping pad has a high R value, 4.5 or better, extremely important for March! Ditch the bear canister and bear spray, unneccessary no matter who says different. Carry a small thing of mace for humans, much more dangerous than black bears. I could go on ad nauseam… remember, never quit on a bad day, 80% of a long distance hike success is between the ears. Have fun!!
    P.S. the bubble sucks

    Reply

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