On Young Women Traveling Alone – Just Pack Up and Go

How I started Solo Backpacking at Seventeen

For the past decade or so, my dad and I have watched Lord of the Rings every year together. He would have to skip over most of the film’s scary parts for me when I was younger, so I never really understood the whole of it until five years ago. I eventually realized that at the heart of the story, Frodo and Sam were backpacking. I soon became preoccupied with the idea of trudging beneath thick canopies, sleeping under the stars, and catching incredible views with unlikely friends. My family and I often went camping, but this was a whole new level. By relying on solely the things you have in your pack and the willingness of your feet and mind you could go anywhere. Over the next three years I worked two jobs and saved enough money for gear. I also focused on growing up to an age my parents were more comfortable with me hiking alone, seventeen.

How is Seventeen Old Enough?

When I was finally ready, my dad drove me to a trailhead on the Superior Hiking Trail. I watched him go and I knew he wouldn’t be able to skip over the scary parts for me anymore. Somehow through a combination of backpacking documentaries and books, I had gotten my families support. This is by far the hardest hurtle if you’re a minor. For some reason I wasn’t as afraid of the woods as I thought I might be. Falling asleep wasn’t easy, but I learned to go to bed before the sun set and wore earplugs, which often led me to the best sleep I’d had in weeks.

How was the trip?

I had my share of highs and lows on that ten day solo trip. One evening while night hiking over an annoying amount of tree roots I sprained my ankle. The next day I got up and walked fifteen miles. It might not have been the best way to treat that injury, but I just couldn’t stop walking. Everyday there was something new and exciting. On the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking back to the comforts of home. Using a refrigerator instead of hanging a bag from a tree; or getting water from a faucet instead of slowly squeezing it out of a filter straight from the river.

However, I missed company more than anything. With limited cell reception, it was difficult to escape the solitude that many people were desperately looking for in the backcountry. I had to keep in mind that this was what I had wanted, wet socks and all. Lucky for me, those melancholy feelings were often redeemed by evenings around a fire with other hikers, who, like me, were just passing through. I made friends with some very cool people. I am happy to still be in contact with them a year later. One of the things I am looking forward to most about thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail next year is all of the opportunities I will have to make lifelong international friends. They make the hardships of the trail worth it.

What next?

After that trip, I went into my senior year of high school not really knowing what I wanted to do in the future, other than hike. I knew I wanted to go to college at some point, but I was still skeptical that it would pay off for me right now. Only 59% of full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2009 earned their degrees in six years. Of those 59%, 44% of college graduates went on to work in jobs that didn’t require a college degree.

On top of all of that, college debt is higher than ever before with the average class of 2016 graduate leaving school owing $37,172 in student loan debt! The statistics aren’t kind. It became clear to me that I would take a few years off to figure myself out. I knew that I would miss being in school, so I’ve come to believe that education continues past the classroom in many ways, including through the outdoors. What better place to study than the PCT?

Young Women are Safe in the Woods

Learning to trust my strength and intuition took a lot out of me. By the end of my first solo trip I knew that backpacking was for me. I have done several other solo trips in the year since and each night that I snuggle up in my tent I become more eager for my thru-hike. I’m proud of the tough conditions I can brave alone. Seventeen might seem like too young an age to travel without company. Especially a seventeen year old teenage girl. Many people are scared of animals or strange men lurking in the forest waiting to hurt a young, adventurous woman. Countless people have told me to conceal and carry with that fear in mind. But I have yet to feel unsafe on trail. I feel safer walking in the woods than I do walking in the city.

I knew I had skeptics, and I ran into a few of them out there. Many of the hikers that I met told me they would never let their daughter backpack alone. That was always hard to hear because young women should never have to miss out on traveling. At its very basics it will empower you, give you perspective and experience, and make you more interesting.

Living out of a backpack in the woods at such a crucial time in my life made me more independent. I learned new things every day, whether it was about myself or the environment around me. It gave me the courage to move out west a month after graduating high school, and to apply for a 2018 Pacific Crest Trail permit on November 1st. Walking 2,650 miles through challenging terrain will be thrilling. I can’t wait to join the ranks of solo female hikers and continue to prove that we can commit to such a huge challenge, alone.

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Comments 12

  • Sarah Southard : Nov 3rd

    Hi Liliana!

    Loved your post! As a fellow solo female hiker/ backpacker, I have received concern from family members and friends alike. Like you, I feel safer on trail than anywhere else. I think you’re smart to put off college for now. Follow your dreams, I will be 40 (!!) next year and am embarking on thru hiking the AT. I wish I had been as smart as you when I was your age! Have fun on the PCT, I look forward to more of your posts.

    “Froggy”

    Reply
  • Ruth Anne Collins : Nov 3rd

    I agree! I’m many years your senior (53) and still get odd comments about how dangerous it might be hiking alone. I love hiking alone, and like you, meet many wonderful people on the trail; and I feel safer hiking out in the woods than walking about in some towns. I do pay attention to “vibes”, and expect you do too. Best wishes to you on your trek. What an adventure!

    Reply
  • Clicks!star : Nov 3rd

    Thank you for writing common sense! I hate the victim mentality that’s become so pervasive in our society. You’re right – if you want to perceptions to change, just go do it!

    Reply
  • Eliza Swackhamer : Nov 3rd

    Hi!

    I absolutely loved your post! I am hiking the PCT this year as well and I will be turning 17 when I am on the trail. I’d really like to get in touch with you, feel free to email me!(:

    Reply
  • Carole Hallman : Nov 4th

    so proud to see a young woman following her dreams without fear limiting her.

    Reply
  • Dixie : Nov 7th

    Love, Love, Love your article! I can hardly wait to see more of your adventures…also…
    Do you keep a journal when you are exploring or perhaps make sketches of God’s beauty you get to see?
    When I was 22 my ex husband and I camped and backpacked the Boundary Waters…it was work..it was September
    And it was close to bears getting ready for winter hibernation…and yes a bear walked around our tent…we couldn’t build a fire…it rained for 3 days…rrrrr…I am so proud and excited for you and you focus on your adventure…wish I could do it again, but life takes turns…not able to walk like I use to due to 2 strokes…I have learned to walk again, and maybe some camping in The future again WHEN I gain strength to do it again….so blessings to you as you explore..
    You will be in my thoughts and prayers…and a FYI…I went to school with your Mom….I know she is very proud of you…I know I am too!

    Reply
  • Helen Wills Brown : Nov 7th

    You are a remarkable young woman—wise beyond your years. I wish you a safe and fulfilling journey full of discovery and happy adventures.

    Reply
  • Linnea Hallman : Nov 8th

    So inspiring to read your post Lili! I wholeheartedly agree with all of your points. Next time you visit Sweden we’ll go explore together! Take care, kram kram.

    Reply
  • Frozenmac : Nov 8th

    Liliana! Looking forward to following your adventure on the PCT! When I thru-hiked the AT at age 26, I got a lot of the same sentiment; people in town would often ask me if I carried a gun. The sad thing is, there doesn’t appear to be an upper age limit to people giving women unsolicited advice on what we should and shouldn’t be doing in nature. I say the best way to encourage other women to solo hike is to be out there hiking, and smile wide when you meet little girls out with their families 🙂 Happy trails! -Mac

    Reply
  • Doctari : Nov 17th

    OK, don’t hate me yet:
    I think it is harder for a female to do a thru hike. Not because they are “delicate”, Or “weak” Or any other stereotypes. But because of the perceived “Limitations” others have, even other women. A long distance hike is mostly in your head after the first few weeks,,, OK, during the preceding months too. All a hiker, male or female needs to hear for the 100th time, “Oh sweetie, you aren’t going to make it because (insert demeaning thought here)” And I have seen females get this countless more times than I ever do,,, Probably 50 to 60 or more times more than males would even tolerate. (So I appreciate you not killing those ignorant! I’m not sure I would have the strength not to). So when I see a female hiker, I’m overjoyed because I have a hint as to the extra burden from outsiders they are carrying.
    My friends don’t do that to me anymore, because I Subtly told them I did NOT appreciate that. I have a letter to friends and family “I’m going to do a long hike / thru hike, Do not say anything to try to make me not go, you will no longer be considered a friend.” I also add things like” NO I won’t be carrying a gun! NO I’m not worried about getting eaten by a bear! NO, NO, NO, AND NO! So maybe that will help you.
    Hang in there, you can do it, those who think you can’t are losers (Yes, even your [& my] well meaning family).

    Reply
  • Juliana : Nov 18th

    I really enjoyed your post and I look forward to reading about your experiences next year. Have fun!

    Reply
  • Sydnee Tigert : Nov 19th

    Hey Liliana!

    I’m a solo female from Portland and I’ll be doing a NOBO thru-hike in 2018 as well! I hope to run into you out there! And as for the solo female stuff, we’re out there undermining that stereotype every day, and that makes us badass.

    Reply

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