Dealing with Paranoia on the Trail (or not)

The Nyctophobia (fear of the dark) is real

When I started planning my thru-hike it never occurred to me that one of the greatest difficulties would be getting out of my own head. I read multiple reviews on shelters, bags, sleeping pads, cook systems, EVERYTHING. But nothing I read prepared me for how the woods would affect my mental state. I am by no means a noob either; I grew up car camping with my family and go car camping with my friends often enough. But something that I realized on my last few shakedown hikes has been how utterly paranoid I am in the woods at night. I have noticed a pattern to it which I will describe below.

It all starts in the late afternoon.

This is when I begin looking for the perfect campsite. (In italics because I never find it.) I look for flat ground near (but not too near) water. It must have trees relatively nearby to hang my bear bag but not so many trees that I can get lost or turned around. This usually takes a few hours, and on more than one occasion I have nearly or completely finished setting up camp before deciding I should keep searching or turn back and use a better site I saw a mile back. This happens every afternoon/evening.

Then the sun sets.

You know how you used to be afraid of the dark but laugh about how silly that was? I do that. Everyday around lunch time on the trail regardless of how the previous night went I say, ” LOL that’s so dumb I’ll be fine tonight.” On my past couple shakedowns, I have prepared dinner after sunset because that’s just how it has worked timing-wise with the shorter days. The thing about preparing dinner after dark is then you have to find all your food and stuff it in your bear bag after dark. Then find a tree suitable for hanging said bear bag. GOOD LUCK. Throwing a rock tied to a string over a specific branch in pitch black is nearly impossible. It happens, it just takes a long time.

After hanging the bag its normally a pretty quiet night as I lay waiting (praying)  for sleep, lurching up at every twig snap and breeze rustling the leaves. Eventually I get so sleep deprived that I resign to die happily resting. I hear the “bears” coming to eat my entrails and angrily bury myself in my sleeping bag and await the sweet release of disembowelment. I wake up in the morning thinking, “Gee I only woke up a few times last night. Such a good nights rest.” When in reality I woke up so many times to look outside my tent that every deer within a mile radius had its own personal name and fabricated backstory.

So help me god if it is raining though.

My last shakedown was particularly interesting. It was a planned 3 day, 2 night stay in Shenandoah National park with my partner and a friend. We arrived at our trail head around 4pm because it had been a work day. So starting off in campsite anxiety mode (hurray!) However, the first night went really well, of course I woke up a lot and succeeded in pissing off my hiking partners but otherwise: great night, no major issues. Day 2 we hiked 22 miles and for the last 5 it was raining cold, windy rain. The kind of rain that just really wants to give you hypothermia. We stopped for dinner near a stream and there was a decent campsite nearby so we setup camp hung our bear bag and sat in our tents attempting to warm up and dry off. That was of course until the WITCHES  showed up. There were no witches (allegedly, i’m quite convinced something fishy was happening, my mate still won’t really talk to me though.)

Here’s what happened:

8 pm: Cue my over-active imagination: “there are 30 people outside your tent running in circles and banging sticks against trees.” It actually sounded like that. I investigate: every time I open my tent door all noise stops. Stepping outside:  it is just a rainy night. I go back inside and shut my eyes for a second. Queue what sounds like a herd of large creatures crossing the stream near our site. Go outside hoping for deer (fearing bears, or creepy pseudo-humans from the decent): look in the direction of the noise: nothing. COOL. I go back inside and consult the map.

According to the plan we had 10 miles to go tomorrow. I find a trail that leads to the park boundary that is about 3 miles from us. I pitch the idea among my hiking companions about packing up camp and taking a night hike to bail out. Though my persuasive skills were on point; I  was confronted with a solid maybe and a definite no. I say, ” cool I will pick you up tomorrow then because I can’t do this.” By the end everybody did  come with me but not necessarily because they wanted to. And we hiked 3 miles in the dark to our bail out point where I arranged for my trusted friend (read as mom) to get us. The night hike was actually pretty fun.

I think one of the major triggers for me may be sleeping on ground level where I can hear everything. I will be experimenting with different hammock setups in the coming months to try to remedy this. Another major obstacle, I think, is my trail diet. I need to add more comfort foods and take out most of the cup noodles and ramen. I will also be purchasing my back country kitchen setup over Black Friday so we shall see. This paranoia and resultant sleeplessness are things I really need to work on fixing if I am ever going to make it through my thru hike next year, Thanks for reading! if you have had similar experiences please feel free to share them in the comments section below!

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Comments 24

  • Scottie : Nov 19th

    The fear of the dark is a basic human extinct. Humans throughout evolution have struggled with the lessening of vision associated with darkness. In a world with predators we would rather have a safe distance between us and a would be predator such as a bear. Technology can help to ease some of the fear, for example there a mobile electric fences that can be setup around a tent to ward off animals. They are relatively inexpensive nowadays, lightweight and easy to pack. There night scoped. Good ole camp fires. You obviously you love the outdoors. You have real fears, which is only human. But invest some well spent funds into modern technology to help you rest on a dark and rainy nite.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      good incite! however i doubt an electric fence would ever be ultra light. :/

      Reply
  • ThruHikerWannaBe : Nov 20th

    Have you tried ear plugs? Like you, I seem to hear every sound nearby and, until I can identify it what’s causing it, I lay awake. Ear plugs are great because you don’t hear the small things.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      That actually sounds like a great idea. i may try ear plugs before i try hammocks.

      Reply
      • Moondance : Nov 21st

        I started using ear plugs because I couldn’t sleep with all the sounds at night (including snoring in shelters) and they really work great! Good luck!

        Reply
  • Puddle Jumper : Nov 20th

    I have to agree that Earplugs are the only way to go. They will eliminate most of the nighttime noise, but you’ll still wake up to the sudden disembowelment.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      ^ Actually LOL’d at this one

      Reply
  • CK : Nov 20th

    I actually listen to music as I lay there.

    If something is going to kill me in the woods, I might as well be listening to good tunes.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      music actually disorients me in the dark so not an options for a night time distraction sadly, for me anyways

      Reply
  • Isabelle Saint-Pierre : Nov 20th

    Funny, I am just the opposite; I sleep way better in the backcountry than I do anywhere else. Give me a nice warm bed and I struggle through the night. The sounds of a city drive me crazy and keep me up all night long, but then I have almost always lived in the country away from cities and spend about 6 to 7 months a year in the backcountry. For me, stumbling across other people is an exception! Away from the lights of a city, the nights are far more dark, which helps to see the stars!

    It will take some time, but you will eventually get used to the sounds of the night in the backcountry. As mentioned above by someone else, earplugs can help. Also, on the earplugs, if you are planning to sleep in any shelters on the AT, I would highly recommend having earplugs handy! Snoring, sleep talkers, and the like are things you’ll frequently run into at shelters. Even in some of the campgrounds, you’ll have those snorers who you can hear 3 or 4 sites away. If you are the type that wakes up at every little sound and you wake others…well…it’s not good.

    As for the perfect campsite, it doesn’t exist. Well, they do, but never where you need them or when you need them. Setting your sights a bit lower will make you a happier camper. Yes, there needs to be a tree to hang your bear bag nearby and the ground should be reasonably level, but that’s about it. If you are willing to dry camp you’ll have tons more options for sites too. On the AT water isn’t a huge problem in most sections so you’re never really too far from a water source.

    Eventually, you’ll get used to the sounds of the night. Rain can be relaxing, even thunderstorms are great too (just count one-one thousand, two-one thousand, etc to estimate how far away the storm is). Snow tends to bring a silence over everything, dampening the sounds, which is great too. You are far more likely to have problems with mice and other rodents at night than any other animals on the trail. Just keep food and scented items out of your tent and you’ll be fine. Oh, that also means no cooking in your tent! The odors get caught in the fabric and never really go away.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      WOW thank you so much. Yeah i figured i could probably force myself to get used to it, its good to know that one day i hopefully will.

      Reply
  • New Leaf : Nov 20th

    I am a lot like you. I get WICKED scared sometimes in the woods – especially when it’s foggy like the pictures you posted in this blog post – and will get into my own head too much and freak myself out. I haven’t ever slept in the woods, however I hike alone and it can be kind of eerie especially when the weather isn’t sunny. I don’t really have too much advice except maybe to try listening to music – which helps me when I’m kind of freaking out. If I plan on doing an overnight I will DEFINITELY be bringing ear plugs. I’ve heard that those are the best way to block out some of the creepy sounds in the night. Good luck and know that you’re not alone in your paranoia!

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      Full disclosure: i used found these pictures in the public domain and used them. THey are very similar to the days i was hiking though. And thank you. Glad im not the only backpacker dealing with this.

      Reply
  • Holly : Nov 20th

    The most helpful thing for me has been routine, reflection, and sheer exhaustion. After dinner I make a strong cup of sleepy tea and drink it until I’m ready to brush my teeth, hang bear bag, and crawl into bed. If I’m feeling spooked, I’ll either ask my hiking companion to keep my entertained for a bit, or I’ll journal. Through journaling, I’ve discovered that what makes me anxious isn’t the dark, it’s my sense of weakness and insecurity. Processing that while hiking the next day really helps (I’m strong, look how steep that hill is I just climbed! I’m smart, I chose the right path when the map was unclear! I’m intuitive, I sensed that snake before I saw it! Etc) At some point though, the body needs sleep whether or not the anxious part of your brain agrees.

    I keep 3 emergency xanax in my pack, although I’ve only ever NEEDED them once (skulls at a campsite are spooky, there’s no way around that). Even though I don’t take them and they are years past expiration, I trust that if I truly do have a panic attack in the woods, there’s something to knock me out – that’s oddly comforting. 😉 I also carry melatonin, which helps me fall asleep quickly when I’m too in my head. Some trips I’ve carried Rescue Remedy (homeopathic anxiety remedy), but find I don’t use it.

    Good luck! It may take time, but find the root and work through it.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      Emergency xanax is a great idea. My body reacts very strongly to medication though so i may avoid everything save for ibuprofen on the trail.

      Reply
  • Jean : Nov 20th

    Instead of using a bag to hang out of arms reach out bears, try an ursack that you can simply tie to a tree (it’s made of kevlar). It will save you some time in camp, and make the “perfect campsite” easier to find!

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      i am actually going to be getting a bear canister (fingers crossed) for black friday.

      Reply
  • Betsy "Ziptie" '16 : Nov 20th

    Virginia in the fall was lovely – and bloody creepy! I was doing a flipflop, so I was hiking that section late Sept/early Oct. A lot of eerie mist, crashing in the trees, branches falling (I got hit by one once). It freaked me out.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      IT IS CREEPY! nobody with me would acknowledge it but im glad im not the only one who thinks that in the world.

      Reply
  • Noelle : Nov 20th

    I am absolutely sure I don’t like the dark (walking outside two steps across the well-lit back porch to the outside garbage can makes me uncomfortable). Last year was my first backpacking trip in many years and there actually WERE 18 people walking around our tents and talking, but at least we sort of saw them coming before they got to us (night hikers during a full moon going down a trail that was right next to our campsite). On our second trip last year I didn’t know how to stake out my tent guylines correctly, and BIGFOOT (read, the wind…but probably actually Bigfoot) was scratching on my tent most of the night. And I thought I heard something walking slowly outside my tent, and also someone whispering on the side where my friends weren’t. I did not sleep well. And no earplugs for me, I want to be able to hear Bigfoot when he comes to get me, and besides, earplugs make my head feel like it can’t breathe. So I don’t have any good answers at all yet. It’s a process.

    Reply
    • Jacob Mason : Nov 21st

      ^i feel for you completely. Thats exactly how my brain works around bedtime.

      Reply
  • Ruth Nasrullah : Nov 21st

    I can’t believe you forgot about the serial killer lurking in the woods!

    Just kidding – but seriously, if people don’t stop asking me about that mysterious man in the woods who kills for fun I will start to actually believe it.

    Love this post!

    Reply
  • Tracey : Nov 21st

    I get spooked so easily!

    This past summer I was testing my camping gear in my parents backyard – their fricken cat pounced on the tent two feet up (or about the height of a murders hand) – I don’t think I screamed so loud in my life.

    Imaginations run way too wild in the dark/wilderness!

    Reply
  • Christine Taylor : Nov 21st

    I thru hiked the AT in 2016. I heard a lot of people with these problems. I don’t watch scary movies. I think that helps.

    Reply

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