by Rebecca Sperry
We're excited to feature Writer + Hiker Rebecca Sperry for this week's blog!
Hiking has been a way of life for me, for over six years now. Looking back at everything that I’ve accomplished over the last six years, the over two-thousand miles that I’ve hiked solo, hiking almost 50% of the trails in The White Mountains, and most recently, hiking through cancer treatment, I find myself in awe of where I started compared to where I am.
Every year, I’ve stepped up my game, set grander goals for myself, and although I may not always meet those goals, I am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone as a solo hiker. Most recently, attempting to hike all of the trails in The White Mountains in a set amount of time (something that has never been accomplished by a female before) and then hiking through cancer treatment (which I’m convinced alleviated and minimized some of the side effects of chemotherapy) are two of the things that I never would’ve imagined myself doing even just two years ago.
As a woman, solo hiking is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. From the moment I stepped on trail back in 2015, on my first solo hike, I was hooked. The rush I got from not only summitting my first mountain solo, but being able to proudly proclaim to anyone who asked me, "Are you hiking alone?" that yes, I was - this is something that I can’t recommend enough. It wasn’t just that I was able to prove to myself that I was strong enough physically and mentally to take on something I never imagined I’d be able to. That first solo hike gave me the courage and the curiosity to want to know what else I was capable of.
On the other hand, as much as I can’t seem to get enough of the solo hiking experience, my mental health diagnosis of a Panic Disorder with Generalized and Social Anxiety plays a huge role in how my hikes look. Over the years I have learned techniques that work best for me in alleviating and managing my anxiety while hiking. Although everyone is different, and different things work for different people, in this article I will outline some of the strategies that have worked and still work for me in managing my anxiety in the backcountry, as a solo hiker.
How I Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks While Hiking
As a forethought, I want to stress that I am not a licensed psychologist and although these are things that work for me, they may not work for everyone. I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking professional help if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or concerned about your own mental wellbeing. Just like with hiking, you want to make sure that you select the “gear” - or in this case, coping strategies - that works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all with managing anxiety, just like with the gear you carry while hiking.
I find that being around people when I’m having a panic attack is a huge trigger. I prefer to be alone when I’m having a panic attack because the sense of other people “watching” makes me feel even more trapped and heightens my anxiety. On the other hand, my mother prefers to be around people when she’s having a panic attack because it helps her calm down and distracts her. I highly recommend working with a professional to come up with strategies that will work for you and trying them out before going into the wilderness solo.
Understanding what anxiety and panic attacks are was the first step in helping me to better manage them. The root cause of anxiety is an antecedent or trigger. Oftentimes, once you’ve experienced one panic attack, the fear of having another one is what begins to be the trigger. Determining what triggers you prior to going hiking is important because those will likely be things that trigger you, as well, while being in the wilderness. I’ve found that the more I am in my own head, or the more that I focus on how I feel physically, the more likely I am to have a panic attack. My phobia of throwing up plays a huge role in my anxiety, as well, so the more I focus on how I feel, the more I tend to think I feel sick. Finding things to distract me from hyper focusing on how I feel while hiking has been my number one way to alleviate anxiety in the backcountry.
Distractions/Changing Your Focus
One of my favorite ways to manage my anxiety while going solo is listening to music or podcasts. I started off listening to them aloud on my cell phone and eventually was able to transition to listening to them through earbuds. Now, I almost always listen to something while hiking not only because it helps keep my anxiety at bay, but because I enjoy listening and believe that music enhances my wilderness experience. When my anxiety starts to really peak, though, I turn to podcasts to bring me down. In fact, I will often listen to podcasts of other hikers telling stories of their scariest times on trail, because it reminds me that if they could get out safely during a scary experience, then I can too.
I’ve found that the more time that you spend in the wilderness solo, the more comfortable you become out there. I didn’t start off feeling at ease every time I went hiking, I had to build up my own exposure over years going solo. In order to develop a sense of safety and peace in the wilderness, start by hiking solo on trails that are heavily trafficked. Continue to expose yourself to longer and longer hikes, and if it’s something that interests you, venture onto less traveled trails, as you feel comfortable. I started off hiking trails that are heavily used and although I prefer the more wilderness experience, not everyone does. The most important thing is that you are having the experience that you enjoy.
Hiking in different weather conditions is another way to build your level of comfort solo hiking. When I first started going on longer hikes, I would be terrified to hike when there was low visibility or any sort of weather. It was inevitable that I would have to face my fear of hiking through an eerie cloud at some point, and the more I forced myself to do it, the less afraid I became of these experiences. The same applies to hiking in colder weather or winter hiking. My first year hiking, I remember telling my husband and mother that I never intended to hike in winter; that people who did that were just being dangerous. The following year, I was buying winter hiking gear and setting out with a friend to try my hand at winter hiking. I have hiked every winter for the past five in a row now, almost exclusively solo. The best teacher is experience, and the more time you spend solo hiking, the more you will see that it’s just like hiking in groups, only in my opinion, better.
The most important thing that you should do, though, before hiking solo, is educate yourself about what you need to carry in order to take care of yourself in the event that something goes wrong. Knowledge is power just as much as experience is the best teacher. When I think back to what I wore and carried on my first few seasons of hiking I cringe. Now, I know exactly what gear I need for each hike and season, something that not only makes me feel more at ease, but keeps me safe in the event of an emergency. Looking into a wilderness navigation course before going solo, educating yourself about the Ten Essentials and Leave No Trace Principles are the first places I would start, as a new hiker.
Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Around
The more time I spend solo hiking, the more it feels like second nature to me. I can’t even count the number of times that I had to turn around on the trail out of anxiety, or the number of times that I didn’t even make it out of my car because of anxiety. But, each time I had a bad or stressful experience hiking I learned from it. Don’t be afraid to turn around if you don’t feel safe, don’t be ashamed if you can’t get up the guts to get out of your car at the trailhead. The most important thing is that you are trying. Make mini goals for yourself, and be proud that you are even considering going solo, especially if you are a female, because even in the twenty-first century, this is still something that isn’t encouraged enough.
We all have to start somewhere. But what’s most important is that we start, anxiety or not.
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