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The do’s and don’ts that will get you hooked on solo camping

Natalie Compton's campsite on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Colebrook, Conn.

NATALIE COMPTON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By NATALIE B. COMPTON | The Washington Post | Published: September 24, 2020

At the beginning of summer, I went on a bike camping trip about 30 miles from my apartment to take the edge off of pandemic stress. I had not been camping in years and had never gone alone. Pulling off the experience made me feel like survivalist-show host Bear Grylls.

Because 2020 has kept one-upping itself with nightmares, a few weeks after that trip I temporarily moved to New York to help my family during a medical emergency. After months of juggling pandemic anxiety, caretaking and a full-time job, I had a break in my schedule to steal away for two separate camping weekends in the woods. Now I’m hooked.

Camping by myself is not my go-to way of traveling (though I do love traveling alone), but it’s been a perfect option this year. It’s a trip for people who fear catching or spreading the novel coronavirus, and those who want to avoid travel shaming.

I’m not the only one out there alone, either. According to data from the booking service Campspot, about 3,000, or 5%, of all reservations since April have been for solo campers. On Tentrr, a campsite booking service, “even though solo campers represent a small percentage of our overall summer bookings, they have doubled compared to last year,” says Stephen Krikelis, the company’s vice president of direct marketing.

After my three solo camping trips, I’ve compiled some tips for those who want to give solo camping a try, and because I am by no means an expert on the topic, I spoke with people for the best advice.

Do choose a campsite where you’ll feel comfortable

When I booked each of my campsites this summer using Recreation.gov and Hipcamp (essentially the Airbnb of campsites), I chose places where I would not be too close to other people but also would not be light-years away.

Amy Hardie, a program manager for REI Aventures who travels solo regularly, looks for less remote locations when she is camping by herself.

“It’s more just being able to have conversations [with other campers] if I want it,” she says. “Obviously it’s reassuring to know that there are people there in case something happens. But that’s not my main reason for it.”

Other things to take into consideration are the amenities. Are you comfortable if the place does not have a restroom? Does it have reliable cellphone service? Do you want to be at a campsite geared toward young families? Is it near hiking trails or places to swim?

Do embrace being scared

The most common question I have gotten about my solo camping trips is: “Aren’t you scared?”

Scared? Me? Yes.

I do not find camping alone to be scary. But once my tent is shrouded in darkness, and the sound of sticks cracking gets closer and closer, and I realize there’s just a flimsy sheet of nylon between me and the fictional ax murderer narrowing in on me, then it’s scary.

But you know who else got scared sleeping alone in the elements? John Steinbeck. In his book “Travels with Charley,” Steinbeck recounts his solo cross-country road trip with his poodle, Charley, in a camper truck. On one cold, damp night in Maine, Steinbeck found himself lonely and afraid.

“Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors,” he wrote. “I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid.”

If a 6-foot, 58-year-old World War II veteran could admit to being scared camping alone, so can the rest of us. Acknowledge the terror, suss out that it’s not actual danger and keep camping.

To further mitigate my late-night fears (and have some companionship), I borrowed my sister’s two small dogs for the second and third camping trips. Like Steinbeck, having dog company gave me comfort knowing they’d attack, or at least bark, at any threats.

Do pack for your safety

Before my first few camping trips, my main concerns were basic: forgetting the tent and sleeping bag, getting to the campsite. I was not looking at the big picture, like what special precautions I need to take when camping alone.

Knowing I needed some advice, Gregg Fernandes, the vice president of customer care and logistics at The Washington Post, reached out through email. His team, which is responsible for the physical security of all company employees, had compiled a list of safety tips for me.

Some of his team’s tips were straightforward: Wear broken-in, comfortable footwear; carry a knife; have a medical kit; never indicate to anyone you encounter that you’re alone; carry a portable charger in a plastic bag; have a working flashlight with spare batteries; check the weather the morning you depart; and bring essential gear and extra socks.

Other tips they listed I would have never considered: carry bear spray, a satellite phone, a heat blanket, a GPS unit and a physical map; pack enough food and water for at least three days past your anticipated stay; pack a flare and a whistle; make a paper copy of your passport and ID; ensure that you have a spare tire, jack and socket wrench in case your vehicle breaks down; and have your money stored in multiple locations.

At a gas station stop on my way to my third solo camping trip, my mind started to spiral with the what-ifs of not being prepared enough. Fortunately I could still follow a few of the tips, including filling up my gas tank at the last stop before the destination and getting multiple fire starters.

Do pack things that will make you happy

Make sure it’s not all business when you pack. While you want to prepare for safe camping, you also want to have a good time.

Hardie does not leave for a camping trip without her Kindle. “I can hold a lot of books in there, and it’s super lightweight,” she says, noting that more often than not, nature will end up being her entertainment.

For me, that’s packing good food and wine that will be fun to prepare around a campfire (or in the dark, huddled in my tent), and a book or two.

Do not camp secretly

Before you leave on a camping trip alone, it is best to tell loved ones where you’re going.

Security experts recommend telling at least two people about your plans, including your estimated departure and arrival times. Should something happen to you, they will be able to sound the alarm and send help more quickly than if they had to figure out why you’ve been missing for a week.

Huw Davies, regional security coordinator at Healix and HX Global, a company that specializes in security and travel-assistance services, recommends using the service What3Words to share your exact location using geographic coordinates, which can be particularly helpful if you’re away from markers such as street signs.

Do not camp too publicly

While it’s safe to tell your loved ones where you’re going, it’s not safe to tell strangers on the Internet.

Davies encourages travelers to post on social media after a trip, or at least to not mention the specifics of your location, or geotag your campsite if you’re posting during your trip.

“It’s just important to make a note of what you’re disclosing because it can have a huge bearing on people knowing your plans and make you vulnerable to attack,” Davies says.

A tragic example of this happened in 2018 when two Scandinavian hikers were killed in Morocco. Davies mentions that the hikers had been posting their itineraries on social media in the days leading up to their attack.

Do get weird

You’re out in the woods (or field or beach or wherever) alone; take advantage of that freedom. The idea to let loose did not hit me until my third solo camping trip.

One morning, I picked up an egg and threw it as hard as I could against a tree, then watched the yolk drip down the bark. After cooking dinner, I tossed a piece of bread into the fire to see how it burns. I whittled a stick (in a failed attempt to start a fire using only wood) then heaved it like a javelin into the trees.

Being weird is cathartic. Throwing things is cathartic. Just make sure you’re actually alone and not throwing anything that could hurt someone nearby or destroy anyone’s property. Once you’re done, be a good camper and leave no trace.

Natalie Compton makes a campfire on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Colebrook, Conn.
NATALIE COMPTON/THE WASHINGTON POST