An Argument for Girls Who Sleep Alone in the Woods

One night alone in the woods empowered me more than any number of miles could

Woman resting in hammock at forest
Cavan Images / Getty Images

Right before and right after, it all felt sort of unremarkable: setting out on the Appalachian Trail just outside the town where I live, brand-spanking-new gear on my back, cell phone in hand (on Airplane mode, but I was very attached to that GPS). It certainly wasn’t the journey of a thousand miles; it wasn’t even the journey of 100 miles. It wasn’t even the journey of 10 miles.

It was the journey of about 4 miles. A generous four. 

In the summer of 2019, I had it in my head that I wanted to spend a few nights camping alone in the woods. It didn’t come out of left field (I’ve always liked camping, hiking, being outside), and those familiar with New Hampshire and Vermont will know that camping and backpacking trips are a dime a dozen around here, even solo ones. My friends didn’t blink twice when I told them I was going to spend a couple nights on the AT, just a few miles outside of town. After all, the world-renowned 3,000-mile trail is effectively our backyard. My very sweet, ever-concerned parents expressed mild confusion, though. They asked questions like: “Why?” And: “Why alone?” And: “Are you sure you have to do it alone?” They, like me, were probably bothered by the dull nagging of that slim chance a crazy-eyed, blood-thirsty, knife-wielding loony might cross my path at dusk. My boyfriend was also a little confused. “If you’re going to do an overnight camping trip alone on the AT, why are you doing it in Hanover? Why don’t you go to the White Mountains?” And then: “Do you have to go alone?”

My response was firm: “Yes, I do have to go alone because I just do.” I just did. At the time, I didn't have a reason other than that. And while I was grateful for their concern (I count myself infinitely lucky for having people who care deeply for my whereabouts), I was frustrated, too. If I can galavant to another continent on my own to write travel guides and hotel articles, why is it such a big deal—why is it any sort of deal—for me to sleep alone for one night in the woods on a hiking trail a handful of miles from my house?

As it turns out, that was a question I was asking myself more than anyone else. That year, I’d traveled to quite a few countries, some with group press trips (Hong Kong and Beijing) some on solo press trips (Scotland, Norway, Miami, the Cayman Islands), and one three-week solo work trip to Asia, traveling from Singapore to Japan to Bangkok. Soon I’d be heading to Mexico and then Germany in the late fall, again alone. None of these trips gave me more than a healthy dose of worry; I’m good at keeping my wits about me when I’m on my own in airports, foreign cities, public transportation, hotels. Being surrounded by strangers doesn't bother me. And yet, the snapping of a branch, when heard from inside my tent, is a heck of a lot scarier than hearing footsteps in the hall outside my hotel room. 

At the time of my night on the trail, I was writing outdoor gear reviews and used the overnight to do a roundup of essentials for solo packing. All that time alone on the trail, which by September was relatively empty since most AT through-hikers finish up their trips (especially the northern part of the trail) by the end of summer, seemed like an ideal way to get really familiar with the ins and outs of my new gear. By the time I was ready for a real backpacking trip, like a month-long hike on the AT or the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d be a gear pro. But I think I knew in the back of my mind at that point—before I encountered a chatty man at my first-choice camping spot, before my stove broke and I nearly started what could’ve been a really bad fire, before calling my boyfriend multiple times to get his opinion on how to fix said stove, before a few hours of insomnia wondering if I was about to be confronted by an axe murderer—that this little trail jaunt wasn’t about the gear, or breaking it in, or soaking in hours of uninterrupted time alone with my thoughts. It was about doing something that, beyond the typical risks of being alone in the woods, unnerved me. I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or claim anything, or reclaim anything, but rather gently unearth a desire to close my eyes and enter a REM cycle outside, away from people and houses and cars. Call it my corny "Wild" moment, but there is a reason Cheryl Strayed penned Emily Dickinson’s words into a PCT trail logbook at the start of her three-month trek: “If your Nerve deny you — Go above your Nerve.”  So I did.

New Hampshire was entering early September when I set off on the trail, and it’s a time when we get hot, dry days and crisp nights and everything is still lush and blooming. Mosquito season was waning, the humidity had dissipated, and there was not a cloud in the sky. My boyfriend, Ben, dropped me off in the afternoon on a Friday behind the Hanover Co-op where the AT trail leads hikers into the woods toward the Velvet Rocks shelter. It’s a pretty quick walk to the shelter (these small lean-to structures dot the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine), and from there the next shelter is just under 10 miles away. I figured I’d sleep my first night around Velvet Rocks, and then rise first thing and enjoy a good 10-mile day to Moose Mountain Shelter. 

Alas, I arrived at the Velvet Rocks shelter around 4 p.m. and dropped my bag, excited to have the place to myself and get into my gear and a good book. It wasn't even 10 minutes before I heard leaves crackling and twigs snapping and around the bend came a middle-aged man who looked like he'd been hiking for quite some time. He said hello, asked if I was northbound or southbound, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. He was chatty by my standards (and I am a talkative person) and perfectly nice by anyone's standards. But in my mind I was repeating the phrase please don't unpack, please don't unpack. He did, and naturally the small voice at the back of my mind asked, "you're not seriously going to sleep alone at this shelter with a total stranger and no one else around to diffuse your nerves?" Unfair, no, for me to question the intention of a total stranger, who gave me no reason to assume I should worry?

At that point I was tired and a little annoyed so I packed up, saying that my "trail break" had been relaxing, and continued on, entering a significantly steeper and forested stretch of the trail that had my legs working so hard that it wasn't until dusk I realized I should check my map to see how far off the next shelter was. The woods had gotten dense and it had been a solid two hours of heavy breathing since I'd passed a young couple, the only other hikers I saw that day aside from Chatty Man. Just as I was beginning to panic about sleeping in this incredibly dark, wooded area, I stumbled across a big, pastoral field—seemingly not private property but to this day I'm still unsure—where I set up camp and proceeded to break my stove and almost start a devastating forest fire. With no stove, I ate cold, wet, crunchy noodles, called Ben several times to ask about the stove, the big field, if I was trespassing (how would he know?), and to arrange a morning pickup. I nursed my beautiful new blisters and watched a herd of deer grazing in the field as the sun set, and reasoned that one night might be enough, for now.

Eventually the exhaustion from walking several miles with a heavy pack on my back did wear me out, and drowsiness settled over my body, and I stopped flinching at every snapping branch or rustling of leaves. I thought about morning, when I'd find dew on my tent and likely wake to a peachy, glowing light and the kind of quiet you can only find in the very early morning.

When it comes down to it, there is a reason for any woman’s fear of being alone in the woods. There is a reason a snapping branch can yield a full-body paralysis, or passing a man, even if he is sweet and harmless, can change a carefully-crafted camping plan. The plaguing thought that I, and I’m certain many other women, endure of what if I’m the victim who makes the next headline exists because of those victims, who surely had similar thoughts yet soldiered on. I did take some comfort in the fact that data from the Appalachian Trail Club shows there have been 10 murders the past four decades, implying that people are a lot safer out in the woods than say, on a highway, or in a crowded city, or, unfortunately but often, even in their own homes.

A quick 24 hours on the Appalachian Trail definitely didn’t prepare me for the long term through-hike journey on which I do plan to embark someday. But it did show me something about the small wins, the walks that look unremarkable but are indeed a sacred privilege. Yes, I was a mere 5 or 6 miles from the center of town, and a mere 10 or so miles from my house and roommates and boyfriend. Yes, I broke the one piece of equipment that I needed to prepare food. But one night alone in the woods left me a more confident woman and traveler, valuable skills for which there is only one source: me. I'm ready to go above my nerve again, wander a little farther next time, and bring more practiced camp stove skills to the trail soon.