And there I was in the summer sunshine, driving my little, under-washed but deeply loved, dark blue 2003 Volkswagen Golf—“Wolfgang”—to the trailhead. I twisted to and fro up the road, a blur of earthy tones whirring past, the scent of pine whisping in through open windows, and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City” blaring through my scratchy speakers.
Here I was. Ready to take on the trails, alone. On the outside, I looked like a solo running aficionado —head to toe in Salomon gear and a look of determination in my eyes. But on the inside, my stomach was flipping upside down and backwards. Out here on my first backcountry day alone.I was eerily uncomfortable out here, at the mercy of the trail before me.
What would the next 30 KM have in store?
What would I see? And, who would I be?
But most importantly, how did I get here, ready to take on this trail, alone?
As a preface, I am no stranger to the outdoors—I grew up tackling multi-week ocean kayaking and bicycle touring trips with my Dad, but had not yet ever embarked on my own, solo adventure. The courage required to trail run solo had always been just outside my grasp. But in this moment, at the trail head, there were a few elements at play:
- A little heart. I was partway through a five-month leave of absence from work, after losing my little Sister. I was convinced that if I could not find happiness in the outdoors—the place that had always been my refuge—then there would be little hope in starting to trickle it down into the areas of my life that we desperately searching for it.
- A little fear. I was training for a 5-day ultramarathon. As a newbie in the trail running community, I was nervous to run with others, because I was afraid of being judged (if only I knew what I knew now—that is, just how welcoming the trail running community is!). With a daunting distance just six-months away, I had no choice but to get out there and get running.
- A little necessity. With only two weeks’ notice, I signed up to take on the West Coast Trail, 75 KM on BC’s beautiful West Coast. This would be my first trek, out in the wild, alone. So, I decided that I would need to squeeze in one or two solo test runs, beforehand.
And so began my solo trail running journey! A year and a half later, after spending hundreds and hundreds of solo kilometers in the front- and backcountry, I’ve been gifted some of my most cherished—and most challenging—trail running moments.
But even being an adventurer since a young age, it took the perfect storm to give me the courage to get out there. This goes to show how challenging it can be; how there’s a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps us away from running solo. So, I started to ask myself, how did I ease into running alone? What worked, what didn’t, and what keeps me coming back, by myself, time and time again?
This article lays it all out, in two parts, with the hope that you too, can get out alone:
PART ONE: tips and tricks to help you “ease-in” to solo trail running.
PART TWO: how to prepare well, stay safe, and savour it!
PART ONE: Easing Into Solo Trail Running.
We’re not all ready to jump straight into the deep-end and that’s okay—each of us are at different places in our own, unique trail running journey. For me, moving further along that journey was about two things: choosing the right trail and dipping my toes in, first.
1. Choose the right trail. There were four “trail levers” I could adjust when choosing where to run. I’d flex one or two of these levers at a time until I become more comfortable adventuring solo. For example, if it were a popular trail, I’d increase my distance. If it was tough, technical terrain, I’d make sure I was more familiar with it. Here are the levers:
- Familiarity. Your familiarity with the trail not only reduces nerves but can also increase your safety. Some questions I ask myself when assessing familiarity are: Is this trail my weekly group run? If not, have I run it before? Or, is it a brand-new adventure? How closely have I studied the maps and am I comfortable with all the turn offs? Do I know where the water sources and amenities are, and where I could get help, if needed?
- Popularity. Will there be people out there? How frequently might I see them? Nothing puts the worries at bay like seeing a fellow runner or hiker, even just once in a while! Popularity, though, can be more difficult to assess—and could vary greatly by the season, weather and time of day. If your trail requires a trail pass, or if it’s closer to a major city it’s likely a busy one. And if you go mid-morning to mid-day, there will likely be more people.
- Accessibility. Is the trail close to home? Is it front or backcountry? Are there multiple access points to shorten the trek if it gets unwieldy or if you simply need a break from the stress of doin’ it solo? The road there—is it paved? Dirt? If your vehicle breaks down, what will you do? The more accessible the trail, the easier it is for you to get there—and back home—safe and sound, and the more likely it is to minimize time if you require search and rescue.
- Distance, Duration, Terrain, Elevation. These ones are grouped together, since they’re inextricably linked, and are easier to assess. A trail website like AllTrails, friends’ Strava routes, and good old trail books can be helpful in gauging these ones. Keep in mind that it’s all relative to your previous experiences—what may be considered short or less challenging for another may be outside of your comfort zone!
2. Dip your toes in, first. Here are tactics I’ve used to help me wade-in—some of which I still use today for backcountry and more “adventurous” routes, or on days when I’m feeling a little “off” or nervous.
- Run the route with a friend, first. This helps with the “familiarity” lever in the section above. Running your intended solo route with a friend one day, and then coming back solo a week or two later can help extinguish some of your concerns around navigation and trail conditions—so that when you go back to complete it solo, there’s fewer unknowns.
- Run a trail race, solo! This is a great way to take the plunge a bit more quickly. Running a trail race solo almost guarantees that you’ll have sections you’ll be tackling on your own (especially if you’re a mid- or back-of-the-pack-er, like me!). No doubt, it’ll still be uncomfortable, but knowing that there’s an aid station ahead, plenty of other runners on the same route, and that race organizers are awaiting your arrival, can help keep nerves at bay.
- Ask someone to stick around near the trailhead. On days where I wasn’t feeling as comfortable, my husband would hang out in the park and read while waiting for me to complete my run. This worked well in the summer months (and even on some of the dreary days, sorry Marshall!) as it helped to know that I would have company on the car ride and that there was someone close if I didn’t arrive back on time.
- Just get out there! When all else fails, sometimes a full-blown cannonball into solo trail running is the only option. So, fret not, prepare well, and make a splash. Sometimes, the best moments are the ones where we surprise ourselves.
PART TWO: Be Prepared, Stay Safe, and Savour It!
There are hundreds of moments spent evaluating risk in the outdoors: bears, cougars, rising tides, slippery scree, rock-covered-ridges, hand-pulled cable cars, strangers, nights alone, inclement weather. As a soloist, there are no second opinions. Your choices are yours, alone, to own.
This risk is often daunting enough to keep someone off the trails for a lifetime! But, with a little bit of preparation and know how—you’ll not just get out there safely, but be able to enjoy it, too! The following list includes 5 things to consider before hitting the trails.
1. Research the park and conditions. Depending on which park the the trail is located in, there may be restrictions you need to be aware of. For example: does the park require a pass or reservation? Are there trail condition or wildlife warnings? any closures? what time do the gates open and close?
The best, most-up-to-date resources on this information can be found on regional parks websites, like BC Parks or Parks Canada. If you have specific questions about conditions, it can also be helpful to post in a local trail running online community or Facebook group, like Ladies of the Trails—who’s members likely have pictures or recent knowledge from their own runs.
Once you’ve honed-in on your desired park and trail, it’s important to check the weather conditions and ask yourself a few questions before committing to your outing: do you have the experience and capabilities for this weather or temperature (could apply to both hot and cold!)? How might you need to adjust what you bring? Will the trail look different if it’s rained or snowed? Will sunset feel earlier when you’re in the trees? Here are weather resources to kick-start your planning:
- Windy.com: Outdoor Weather Map
- Mountain Forecast: British Columbia Mountain Weather Map
- Avalanche Canada: Backcountry Avalanche Conditions
2. Revisit your wildlife knowledge. The more often you read about how to handle and survive potential wildlife encounters, the more likely you are to be able to flex the correct response in a time of need. Out here in coastal British Columbia, it’s important to be aware of what to do if you encounter a black bear, grizzly bear, or cougar on the trail. Here are some resources:
- For BC Government-recommended, high-level resources about all types of animal encounters: Staying Safe Around Wildlife.
- For more detailed information on how to handle different types of encounters with different types of animals (including bears, cougars, moose, and deer): Be Bear Aware – Bear Encounters
- For comprehensive details about bear safety and awareness from the BC Forest Safety Council: Bear Safety Resource Package
Another aspect of handling and surviving encounters relates to people—you never know who you will meet on the trail, so it is worthwhile to have tools and resources available. This may come in many forms, for example: taking a self defense course (for those in Vancouver, the VPD Women’s Personal Safety Team hosts these), being extra observant and trusting your gut, and taking action when needed. Action might look like joining in with a larger group, or as one woman shared with me, saying “two more runners behind me” when passing someone that makes you uncomfortable.
3. Leave a trip plan. This is always a priority and applies to everything from a jaunt in the woods to a full day in the alpine. Your trip plan should be shared with someone who will be awaiting your call and will notice if you don’t show up on time. If you live in BC you can use the Adventure Smart App to create and send one to your family and/or friends. Here’s what your plan should include:
- The exact route you plan to take (on a map with trail names), as well as possible detours you may take if the weather turns, or if you decide to take a detour. When you’re out there, stick to this route as best you can, without putting yourself in danger to do so.
- Three times of day: (1) expected start time—which you should confirm when you reach the trailhead, (2) expected finish time, and (3) “get help” time—this is the point at which it is likely that something has gone wrong, and you may be in serious danger.
- A list of gear you’re taking with you. This allows your family to have understanding of your preparedness and ability to weather the elements, if you are out of reach for a prolonged period.
How can you take this to the next (and even safer) level? Bring along a device, such as a Garmin InReach, which allows you to use satellite technology to send and receive messages, navigate your route, track and share your journey and, if necessary, trigger an SOS to get emergency Search and Rescue help. It is an investment, no doubt, but our Vancouver North Shore mountains are rugged, backcountry terrain—it is worth every penny to be safe rather than sorry.
4. Pack The Essentials AND more. When you’re out there alone, you need to make sure that you are knowledgeable and well-equipped to keep yourself safe. More than this, you should also be prepared with the right gear to help someone else if they are in need. When in doubt, it helps to use the newspaper test to assess preparation, packing, and actions. Simply ask yourself, “if something went wrong, would I be disappointed or embarrassed in myself if the headline was related to insufficient gear or poor judgement?” This usually helps to move decisions from “grey area” to black and white territory. And more often than not, it means packing a little more gear (and weight!) or deciding to be a little more cautious—but allows us to adventure safely, for yet another day.
SO! What do you pack? There are a number of lists detailing the “Ten Essentials” that should be taken with you when heading out onto the trails. Rather than repeat the items here, I’ve collected a few lists for you to check out:
- For the basics: Adventure Smart: The Ten Essentials
- For a little more detail: Run Like A Girl: The 10 Essentials + More
- For the winter season: Winter Conditions Gear Checklist
The Ten Essentials are the bare minimum for staying safe in the outdoors. Bringing them along though, does not necessarily mean you will be as comfortable as you could be. Our rule of thumb is that to truly enjoy the outdoors, we need to make sure that we are (1) Warm, (2) Dry, and (3) Well Fed. That’s it—the trifecta of outdoor-enjoyment. Taking extra care and attention that all three of these are satisfied helps in your preparation, but also helps troubleshoot while you are out there.
5. Make it fun! There’s so many ways to add a pinch of fun to your adventure. You’ve worked hard to get out onto the trail, so it’s important to enjoy yourself! Here’s a few ideas:
- Pack your favourite Summit Snacks. When my Dad and I went on adventures in my younger days (and now, too!) we were always sure to have a treat for each day of our trip. It is a much-loved tradition that I can’t help but continue. So, grab your faves—nothing’s better than something salty or sweet at the summit. And the best part about snacking while solo? You don’t have to share!
- Bring along a mini tripod to capture your solo moments. For epic solo shots (like the ones in this article!), turn your iPhone to video mode and swap the settings to 4K and 60 frames per second. Take a video of you crushing some technical terrain and screenshot frames of it when you get home. My current tripod? The Joby GripTight—tiny enough to fit in the front pocket of my trail pack and flexible enough to attach to rocks, trees, and sign-posts.
- Pack another method to capture memories. What I realized on a solemn evening on the West Coast Trail, was that the consequence of a solo journey is that it is condemned to fade over time, betrayed by the limitations of our own memories. Because of this, it can be lovely to capture our memories as we go. Maybe this means a set of watercolour paints. Or maybe it means a journal—how you capture the moments that stand out is completely up to you! Even noting down simple lists of “funny” thoughts or conversations can bring the memories pouring back afterward.
And that’s it! Now that you’re ready to get out on the trail solo, don’t forget to breathe in, breathe out, and soak it in while you’re out there!
It’s here. You’ve packed your bags. You’ve made it out the door. To the trailhead. Up the mountain. And now you’re at the summit. ALL ALONE! Wild. Even when it was uncomfortable, when you could have turned around, you persevered. So, inhale the crisp, mountain air and exhale the fear and judgment that previously convinced you, that you couldn’t get here. This is your moment to step into yourself as a beautiful, bold, audacious being who is ENTIRELY capable of being out here alone.
So, soak in the sunshine (or the rain!), keep soaring through those trails, and savor the sweetness of knowing that this is you. Irrespective of the path that led you here, you did it. This is what you love. This is what energizes you, as a human. This is your best, most authentic self. Out here, all alone.
Best wishes from me, to you, for endlessly beautiful solo moments on the trails.
If you have any questions drop them in the comments below!