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.
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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