The other day I posed on Instagram and Facebook that I stumbled across a waterfall when I got lost on one of my outdoor adventures. I was bushwhacking through thistle and sliding through moss, and at the end I stumbled across a beautiful waterfall. It was just the gentle reminded I needed that sometimes you get off your original path, and it can end up being one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen in a while.
After that story, I was a little surprised by how many people responded and asked if I would talk more about being comfortable hiking, running, and backpacking alone. One of the top things people say in my messages or my DMs is, “Natalie, I love your outdoor pictures, but I’m afraid of going backpacking alone.” I get a lot of questions about how I got started backpacking, and how I overcame the fear of backpacking alone. So, I decided I’d finally answer some of those questions for you all!
My Wild Spirit
I’ve always felt like there was a wild spirit inside of me. I was watching Legends of the Fall the other day (which is one of my top three favorite movies, and you should go watch it right now if you haven’t seen it already), and there’s this part that speaks to me. One Stab says, “Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends.” He talks about how one of the characters, Tristan, has a bear inside of him, and that’s what guides a lot of his actions. Sometimes I feel that way as well, like I am drawn to the solitude of the mountains. It resets me, and helps remind me of what’s important.
I love going with other people and making memories, too. But, there’s something about going alone. It helps to clear your head and makes you feel brave. However, I haven’t been doing this my whole life. I had never been backpacking until about four years ago. I had just read the book and watched the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon. I remember thinking it was so cool that she just went and hiked the Pacific Coast Trail. I had just gone through my divorce, and I needed to get away for awhile.
How it Started
My ex had my kids for the whole week, so I went down to REI and told them I wanted to buy everything I’d need to hike the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I bought a pack, water filter, a canister called a Pocket Rocket that you heat water in, and a sleeping bag — which was actually a junior size sleeping bag and I had to sleep zigzagged in it for the entire trip. Then, I bought a ticket to Atlanta, Georgia. I took an Uber to the trail head, and hiked about 150 miles in 10 or 11 days. It was so funny, because I had no idea what I was doing.
Something crazy happened every single day of that hike. The first day, I miscalculated how much I could hike each day because I didn’t account for the 30 to 50 pounds on my back. It was dark when I set up my tent, and in the morning I realized I had set up in an entire patch of poison ivy. Thankfully, I must have some immunity to it because I ended up being fine and I didn’t have a reaction. The next day, I hiked 2.5 miles in the wrong direction, which sucked because I was only averaging about 15 miles per day.
The third day, I hung my food in the trees to keep the bears from it. What you do is create a pulley system where you put your food in a bag, tie a rope to that bag, and tie a rock to the other end of the rope. Then, you throw the rock over a high tree branch. That night, the rope slid down into the Y of the tree, and I start tugging on the rope to get the rock unwedged. It came out, and the rock hit me in the forehead, I fell out of the tree, I landed right on my back with my headlamp shining into the black sky. I just start laughing (laughing is a weird tic I have as a reaction to bad situations), but I got my phone to check the damage since I could feel the blood dripping down my head. My head was bleeding, leaving me with a Harry Potter cut on my forehead in the rest of my pictures from the trip.
That was a crazy extreme experience for my first time. If I could go back, I would have done 4 or 5 days instead of 10 or 11. I kind of got lonely after a while. However, I decided I wanted to do it, and I did it. It’s sometimes as simple as that.
I didn’t take a gun or anything on my first backpacking trip for all of those days on the Appalachian Trail, but I do have one now. Back then, I didn’t own a handgun at all. Now that I hike more often, I either bring bear spray or a gun. I have a Ruger 357 Mag, but I do prefer my bear spray a lot of the time. If you ask 10 people, you’ll probably get 10 different responses on this topic, but I liked my gun because it was lightweight and didn’t have a hard kick. I’ve never had to use it, but I’ve shot it for fun.
I think bear spray can be more potent than a gun, and you can get it out faster. Oftentimes, to save weight, I only bring the spray. There have also been studies about it being faster to take out a can of bear spray than it is to get your gun out, get into position, and shoot. For me, I kind of joke that a pistol is more as a protection against two-legged animals, and bear spray is protection against four-legged animals. So, I only bring my pistol about 10% of the time. (Knock on wood), I’ve never been in a position where I needed it with people or animals. I am in the elements and in the wilderness, so that’s why I do have something. I have a pocket knife to gut fish, so I usually have that and my bear spray.
How I Started Backpacking in Idaho
I was dating a guy in central Idaho, and we were supposed to hangout one weekend. However, he cancelled on me because he had a friend coming to town. So, instead of sitting around at home and feeling sad, I decided to go explore since my ex had my kids. For me, I don’t like just sitting at home and watching TV. My personality is that I want to go do something if I don’t have plans or if I don’t have to work. I want to go to the mountains, go explore, or go somewhere I haven’t been before. Having that adventurous spirit is so helpful in enjoying the outdoors and backpacking.
I wanted to visit the Sawtooth mountains, but I’d never been there. So, that night, I went to a local bookstore, bought a book on how to hike the Sawtooth mountains, read up on it, woke up the next morning, packed up, and left. I just did a one night overnight hike to Alice Lake, which is one of the most beautiful places ever. In fact, if I ever get to do a retreat there, I’d take people to Alice Lake since it can easily be a one day hike and doesn’t have to involve an overnight stay. Again, my first backpacking trip in Idaho was a quick decision, and I just went out and did it by myself.
Backpacking and Hiking Tips
One great tip if you want to go backpacking and you bought a book to help you, is to take photos of the important pages in your book instead of bringing it along and adding more weight. If your phone dies you might be screwed, but I have a portable charger and I take minimal photos so my phone doesn’t die. Scott Merchant was the author of the book I got for the Sawtooth trip, and I’ve bought almost all of his trail books now, though I think he just covers Idaho. However, you can just go to your local bookstore to find trail books for your area written by people who are really avid hikers. I find that these resources are better than what you’ll find online.
The app called AllTrails is what I use to find hiking trails all the time. It’s what I used to find the waterfall trail the other day. I use it to find running trails, since I sometimes get bored of running in neighborhoods or on sidewalks, even though I know I’ll probably be slower on a trail if there’s rocks or it’s slippery. People on the app post photos and give reviews, which is really helpful. However, the reviews aren’t as great for mountain hiking.
It’s easy to feel intimidated by starting out backpacking, but you learn as you go. Now, I have a system where I know how much food to bring, I filter water instead of bringing it, and I know what not to pack. For instance, I used to bring lip gloss, but now I’ll just bring a brush since my hair gets so matted. I also always bring dehydrated meals. One time I banked on the fact that I would catch fish to eat since I’m a pretty good fisherwoman and I usually catch fish. That time, I didn’t catch any fish, and didn’t have enough dehydrated meals, so I had to ration my food. I learned my lesson.
I also bring fun things, such as what I call a hydration drink. It’s basically a Snapple bottle filled with whiskey. Once I get to a stopping point for the night, I fill up a glass with the whiskey, filtered lake water that’s ice cold, and a slice of lemon, and it tastes amazing. Though, everything in the mountains tastes amazing. I also try to leave one or two cold beers in my pickup for me to drink once I’m done hiking. If you don’t drink, you can do this with soda, or any other beverage. You’re dirty, tired, sweaty, and gross and it’s so nice having that cold beer to drink once you’re done as a reward.
I almost never backpack in shorts because my thighs chafe together, even when I’m at my skinniest, it’s just how my body is built. I also pack two really good pairs of wool hiking socks. I got mine from Costco. Having sweaty feet can cause blisters, so I sometimes switch them out halfway through the day and then dry them on some rocks by the fire at night — one time I burnt a hole in one of my socks by the fire.
Oftentimes if you’re not sure where to get started, reach out to your state’s forestry service. Usually the people who work there are really passionate about getting people outdoors and can give you advice on where to day hike, or overnight hike.
You can drive to Yellowstone, the Tetons, or Niagara Falls, and it’ll be beautiful, but you’ll also be surrounded by thousands of people. There’s a lake in the Sawtooths called Redfish Lake, and I joke that it’s like Disneyland in the mountains because there are so many people there. Most states have paid campgrounds and those are fine, but there are so many people. So, why not explore further and find a good piece of ground and pitch your tent there? Granted, Idaho is special in that 70% of the state is public land. When I lived in Texas, everything had to be leased, and I realized I had taken Idaho’s public lands for granted.
The point is, you can find some of the most beautiful places that you’d never be able to see otherwise if you are always too afraid to try. I’ve never gone on a trip and regretted the adventure, even when something goes wrong, like that time I got a flat tire in the mountains. Know that you might run into trouble, but if you have a good attitude about it, you’ll see some cool views, meet some cool people, and have a story to tell. If you sat at home or just watched TV all day, you’d never be able to experience these things. It’s way different seeing it in person instead of seeing other people’s photos on Instagram, or watching YouTube videos, or watching a documentary on Netflix.
Most of us have that spirit of adventure inside of us. I know I do, in fact, I think it’s stronger in me than it is for most people. I need the adventure in order to recharge. If you’re always afraid to try, you’ll never get to see the beauty in those experiences. I never want to look at my life and realize that I always said, “I’ll do it next summer,” and then never did it. Of course, if you have kids, things are a little different. For instance, I can’t take my kids backpacking. Instead, I can camp with them at a lake and stay on the riverbank and pick huckleberries and find hot springs. The key is to do what you can with what you have, and adjust as the seasons change.
The biggest thing is just to get started. Don’t put it off and keep saying you’ll do it next year, do it now. If you have kids, you only get 18 summers with them until they are gone, and I try not to waste any of them.
If you have any more questions, always feel free to reach out to me. If you do decide to take the leap and get out in the mountains, I’d love to hear about your experiences and see your pictures!
Thanks so much for reading!
P.S. If you’d rather listen to these tips than read them, I also talk about it on my podcast! You can listen here.
Also, here are some of my YouTube videos about backpacking and hiking!