Layne is an avid camper and has taken many solo camping trips in North America.
A Safety Guide to Camping Alone for the First Time
I'm a woman and I like to camp alone. From an early age, I was taught to understand the dynamics of an environment—what's safe and what's not safe, how to check out my surroundings, who to trust, and how to engage with strangers. What I've learned throughout the years is that you can never be too cautious, but you can still enjoy time alone whether it be camping or traveling.
If you love camping and you just need to get out and away, you probably know what I mean when I say that I love camping alone. You may be living in the city, missing the smell of alpine pines. Maybe you simply just want to disconnect. Whatever your reason, there's a time in a person's life where they just have to get back to nature.
I started camping on my own when I was in my early 20s. Here are some tips I learned along the way—from having the right gear to knowing where to go and staying safe. I hope this helps you consider your next camping trip, especially if you are a woman or young adult venturing out solo for the first time.
This article can be adapted for anyone who is camping alone as we should all adhere to the same safety precautions.
Tip 1: Get Familiar With the Area
If you're camping for the first time on your own and are conscious enough to realize that heading out into the backcountry for your first trip solo will be kind of freaky—you're right. All those "noises" you hear at night are going to be a lot louder and lot freakier when it's just you out there.
Find a Campsite
I recommend finding a developed campsite for your first trip and checking the reservation schedule ahead of time. Be sure to reserve your site! Sites fill up fast and there's nothing worse than car-camping in a car full of stuff.
Pick a Safe Spot
Study the layout of the campsite and position yourself in a fairly populated area. Usually, you will get lucky and share your general area with some cool folks who either keep to themselves or become acquaintances.
Alone Doesn't Mean Lonely
I spent the first several nights camping up against the backdrop of wilderness in bear country. No, nothing ever happened, but I did sleep light. If you are in a developed campsite, it's easier to sleep well knowing that families or people are nearby. Give it a go at first before you tackle something a little more remote. It's also a good idea to go to a place you've camped at before, too.
Tip 2: Check the Weather
Nothing is more of a bummer than getting everything ready to go and then having extreme weather come in. Not to mention, if you're in an area of high altitude that is subject to snow or freakish events like flash-flooding (think Zion national park), you could really put yourself in a dire situation. Also, if you are ill-prepared in terms of clothing and layers, your first night might just be miserable, wet, and freezing.
Always watch the weather cycles days prior to venturing out. Some areas can be really changeable, so watch the trends at minimum a week before. A suspected rain shower that is due 5 days out may creep in early. You never know. I've been up in the Sierra Nevada only to be startled by a massive hail storm. Play it safe and check ahead! Don't get stuck out there in the backcountry. Weather.com offers a 10-day weather forecast. I use this site to track weather patterns before I camp.
Tip 3: Create a Float Plan
I call it a float plan—clearly it's not because we camp on land—but the US Coast Guard is big on "float plans" for good reason. Float plans are the common reason people can be found and rescued at sea if things go wrong. Let's adapt our float plan to our camping trip. Here's how:
- Tell someone reliable which days and times you will be gone and where exactly you will be.
- Let them know if you will or will not have reception.
- Give them a set time as to when you will be able to check in via phone, text, or email.
- Consider establishing a code word should something go wrong so you can text to them if in a weird situation.
- Provide them with your site host's information if necessary.
Tip 4: Don't Advertise That You're Alone
This is a tricky one because it is awfully fun to make friends while camping. I know. It's also fun to share a beer or be a good neighbor and share food, wood, whatever. Like-minded people who enjoy nature congregate to camp for good reason, so it's easy to make new friends.
Play it safe and don't reveal too much too soon. If in the nearest town, don't let on that you are camping alone and don't reveal your campsite or campsite number. You can lie if you have to—you won't be punished. Use excuses like, "I have to go pick up my friend," or "My friend is waiting for me" if you feel uncomfortable.
Can People Tell That I'm Alone?
If they really want to, yes. I've been in situations where I just got that "feeling" and decided to sleep in my car. You're totally allowed to do this! I've even put up a sheet in my car to give me some privacy and peace-of-mind. Always follow your gut instinct if you feel uncomfortable.
Tip 5: Protect Yourself From Strangers and Wildlife
I encourage self-defense and being prepared. When I was in my early 20s and in the backcountry, I was terrified. It wasn't necessarily the wildlife I was afraid of but strangers. In order to feel safe, I made sure I had a few safety devices with me whether it was a bear I encountered, a mountain lion, or a suspicious person:
- Air Horn: I use a marine air horn by SeaSense. I find it to be reliable and loud because it is used for maritime purposes. Nothing is more interruptive than an air horn—that goes for targeting people and wildlife. This is a great alarm system. You can hear it for miles and it's good for an emergency situation.
- An Axe: I've retired this item—it was my Dad's and felt like a good-luck charm. I do think it's still a useful tool should you feel threatened or need it for general purposes like pounding down stakes in high wind.
- Bear Mace: Bear mace is also great to have. I've never had the intention of using it on bears but figured I would probably use it in a self-defense situation.
- Blinding Flashlight or Head Lamp: I'm talking about a truly blinding light—one used for inspections or the high beam on a headlamp. You can stop an animal in its track and blind a person from approaching. This is a great tool to have on hand and you will use it daily for general purposes.
If you are even more concerned about your safety, you can take it a step further depending on what you are comfortable with. I do own a taser but I rarely travel with it. I usually keep it in my car when I'm driving back roads. My car is at 240k miles so I have to hope sometimes that it'll complete the job at hand. You never want to be stranded and in a vulnerable situation.
Safety Tip: Camp With Your Dog
Nothing makes for a better alarm system than your dog! If you are lucky enough to have a beautiful canine companion in your life, consider bringing your tent buddy with you. You will, of course, want to make sure dogs are allowed in the area and plan appropriately for your dog's adventure and safety well ahead of time.
Tip 6: Prepare Yourself Mentally
If this is your first time camping alone you are going to hear noises and you're going to freak out. That's just how it goes. You may hear rustling from the wind, lapping at the lake, small critters crawling over branches at night. This happens. You may not sleep well your first night either—this is common.
I've found that it helps to prepare yourself mentally for sleeping. This means being as comfortable as possible when you get in your bed. Make sure you are bundled and warm, position all your protective tools by your side, and do a last-minute perimeter check before retiring for the night.
I always like to position my car keys, my air horn, and my cell phone (if I have service) in the pocket of my tent or in a safe space that I can reach while laying reclined in my sleeping bag. Stay organized and make things easy.
Tip 7: Embrace the Change
Nowadays, we are so caught up in our technology and constantly being engaged in the digital world that we forget what true silence is. It can seriously cause one to panic! But true silence is golden and helps to refresh the mind! The best advice I can offer is to enjoy every minute of your independence. Listen to the sound of the birds in the trees, feel the fresh air, and appreciate being alone but not lonely. Trust me, it will do your soul good.
Tip 8: Treat Yourself the Way You Deserve
Just because you are out camping doesn't mean you can't enjoy your creature comforts. When I go out camping, I like to plan my meals. I think ahead to the kind of weather I'll be facing—whether I'll want something warm and filling or cool and refreshing. I also am sure to treat myself with something towards the end of the night, like a sweet snack or a beverage. This is best enjoyed while sitting at a fire.
Tip 9: Make Your Checklist and Check It
Because you'll be on your own, make sure to pack the essentials before taking off. Here's a basic breakdown of what you might want to pack:
- Weather-appropriate clothes (day-wear, evening-wear, sleepwear)
- Toiletries (go for eco!) and ladies plan ahead; I opt for earth-friendly products
- Tent, sleeping bag, pillow, ground pad, ground tarp
- Firewood (purchase locally—do not bring outside wood into protected forests, you risk spreading disease)
- Matches or lighter (lighters are more reliable) and a fire starter if you aren't comfortable stoking a fire from scratch
- Protective tools for self-defense (mentioned above)
- Headlamp (a must)
- Adequate food (coffee drinkers don't forget filters)
- Portable propane burner (compact)
- Washable and reusable cooking travel kit
- Hobby items (ukulele, book, etc.)
- First aid kit
Tip 10: Enjoy Being Present
Trust me when I say this, when you get back to your daily grind you will miss that cold weather, those crackling twigs in the middle of the night keeping you awake, and the dirt on your shoes and in your clothes. Never take your time in nature for granted. Remember to stay safe and enjoy the present moment.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Layne Holmes
Alison Monroe on August 18, 2020:
Superior advice! It's okay for a woman to go anywhere alone. In fact it's often necessary.