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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