Nancy Eaton of Bethel celebrates her 50th birthday at 12,500 feet on the Colorado Trail, where she went solo backpacking in 2017. The veteran backpacker has noticed more women backpacking alone in the past five years. Photo courtesy of Nancy Eaton

Some among Maine’s intrepid tribe of women solo backpackers and campers say they enjoy being alone in the wilderness because it’s their only chance to escape the high-tech, cell-phone-dominated world. Others say it’s the best way to totally commune with nature.

Some just like the time alone amid the beauty and peace of the outdoors.

Sue Tibbetts came from an outdoor Maine family, where camping and fishing were a way of life. So today when the 64-year-old from Lyman can’t find a friend to go camping with, she doesn’t let that hold her back.

“When I can’t round up any friends, I just go,” said Tibbetts, while camping with her adult daughter, Kate, at Cobscook Bay State Park in August. “Usually I go two to three times a summer. One time, I camped alone at a state park on the way to a job interview.”

A good third of the thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail today are women – up from about 12 percent 40 years ago, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. And avid women backpackers have noticed the change in the backcountry.

Nancy Eaton stops for a break while solo backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont in August 2018. Photo courtesy of Nancy Eaton

For nearly 30 years Nancy Eaton of Bethel has been a summer caretaker at a wilderness camping site along the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts. The Gould Academy physics teacher said when she started the summer gig, she was often the only woman at the wilderness campground. In the past five years that’s changed.

Eaton thinks the increase in solo women wilderness travelers is partly because of social media, where more women share their solo backpacking experiences – and inspire other women.

Eaton – who has solo backpacked on the Colorado Trail, the John Muir Trail, the Long Trail and even in Norway – said there are many tips women wanting to try camping alone should know. But the main one she quickly offers: Just do it.

“Don’t listen to the people who don’t know what it’s like in the woods,” Eaton said.

Certainly, there are precautions women backpacking or canoeing or car camping alone need to take. The top tip from many women wilderness travelers is to leave a plan with a friend at home that includes the route and the time table, especially when you expect to return.

Another tip from solo women campers is to know your limits. Some recommend first trying a familiar hike you’ve done with friends to get comfortable solo camping. And many advise having a Plan B if things don’t go as planned. Be ready to take an easier route or a slower, safer approach to a task in the wilderness.

One common recommendation that is specific to women backpacking alone is to camp far from a road or town to avoid people who may not be hikers, and may want to harm others.

While hiking the AT in 2011, Paige Gregory did not want to pitch her tent until she was close to 6 miles from any roadway and as far as 6 miles from any towns. At that distance, Gregory, of Farmington, felt safe from any unsavory characters – and also found the solitude she wanted to journal about her trip.

“I was very strategic in planning my thru-hike,” Gregory said. “If someone saw me in town and knew I was a single female walking through the woods alone, I made sure I had enough time and distance far beyond the town.”

Wendy Weiger of Monson is shown canoeing from Allagash Lake to Chesuncook Lake in northern Maine in the summer of 2011. Weiger says solo camping is good for the mind, body and spirit. Photo courtesy of Wendy Weiger

Eaton agreed with that strategy – but also said out of literally hundreds of solo backpacking trips, she has had only one bad encounter on a trail.

One time while backpacking through the Presidential Mountain range, she stopped for the night at a cabin where the caretaker was off – and she found herself alone with a man who gave her a strange feeling. Another man stopped in and continued on. Before long, Eaton gave the man an excuse and also continued to the next hut.

“As soon as I walked into the next cabin, the man from earlier said, ‘I wondered when you were going to get here.’ He said if I hadn’t shown up, he was going to go back and check on me,” Eaton said.

One final recommendation veteran women solo campers offer is to find mentors in helpful, experienced wilderness guides.

Wendy Weiger, who runs the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s visitor center in Monson, said when she began to solo camp in 2005 and quickly decided to try canoe camping, she attended a canoe symposium in Maine, then one in Ontario, and then she joined a paddle club in Bangor to find role models close to home. She asked for their feedback when she wanted to try a canoe camping trip alone, and listened.

“I always abided by their advice,” said Weiger, 58, a Registered Maine Guide.

In the past 15 years, Weiger has paddled and camped alone throughout the Allagash Wilderness Waterway – sometimes traveling a week by herself. She always plays it safe, and – at 5-foot-3 – pays attention to her physical limitations. When she paddles on the large lakes of northern Maine, like Moosehead, she hugs the shoreline.

“If there is an area you’re not as strong, you have to think through that. And obviously prepare physically before leaving on a trip. It’s not just the gear – it’s conditioning. And, when I’m going to a place that has particular hazards – I do a lot of online research,” Weiger said.

With so much to consider, why would any woman want to solo camp? Why not share the work and responsibility for staying safe? Why not make it an easier journey?

“It’s a reset. I do it to get away from the chaos and the expectations of modern life with email and electronic technology. That’s not the kind of life I want to live,” said Gregory, 36. “It’s refreshing to be surrounded by the sounds of nature – it’s visually rejuvenating.”

Weiger, who studied medical research at Harvard University, agreed whole-heartedly and added that solo wilderness camping strengthens us physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that time spent in nature benefits us,” said Weiger, who is writing a book on the subject. “You use your brain and body in nature in a way that brings a lot of health benefits, that you don’t get looking at a two-dimensional screen.”

Weiger once spent four days paddling and camping alone on Allagash Lake in northern Maine without seeing another human being the entire time. She called that stretch of wilderness travel incredible, memorable, and life-changing.

“I do enjoy traveling with other people,” said Weiger. “But for me when traveling solo, it allows you to fully immerse yourself in the landscape. All your senses are flooded. And there is this incredible sense of freedom. There is nothing that equals the joy of when you are about to embark on a solo journey. I feel my spirit reaching to embrace the adventure ahead.”


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