Fear Of Loneliness – The #1 Killer Of Thru-Hiker Dreams

Hiking Alone

When I think back on my life, I can think of only one time when I was completely alone for an extended period of time – The Pacific Crest Trail.

On the trail, I went for three days without seeing a single human being or any sign of civilization, except perhaps faint imprints of a hikers trail-runners. No campfire smoke in distance. No low grumble of distant 747’s. No music blaring from across an echoing canyon. No Skittles left on a stump from a hiker farther along the trail. Absolutely nothing to tell me that an apocalypse hadn’t wiped the out the human race and left my solitary soul to wander the world alone for the rest of my days.

Three Days Of (Complete) Solitude

Fear Of LonelinessAfter day one I felt pretty normal – really good in fact. I was finally getting the solitude I had been seeking. The birds were chirping, trees rustling in the breeze, the sound of my feet crunching the rocks was pleasant and calming.

About halfway through day two I began to worry a bit. The soft sounds of nature receded into the background behind my mental chattering, which had amplified to fill the void. Songs I had once loved but currently despised began to play on auto-loop in my head. I talked to myself more frequently – out loud. Outbursts of singing became frequent. I no longer stepped off the trail to pee and I took less care to hide myself when digging a cat-hole.

When I woke up on day three and realized I was still alone, I felt extremely disheartened. I began to despise the birds, and the annoying wind just wouldn’t leave me alone. I walked with my head down, faster now to get to the next town more quickly, where I knew people lived and laughed and did other people things, for I had become lonely and longed to hear the sound of another human voice.

I felt like I was in a vacuum. The outside world ceased to exist and I was left to walk the world alone, forever.

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike – A New Level Of Solitude

In two months I will begin a thru-hike of the CDT and GDT, and due to the timing of that hike – beginning earlier than most other hikers to give myself a chance of completing the hike before snow falls on the Canadian Rockies – and the remoteness of the trail, I will be hiking alone for much of this experience.  (See my planned CDT To GDT itinerary)

Forget three days. Week-long stretches of complete solitude will likely be my new reality, with only once-per-week trips into town to remind myself that I am not alone in the universe. This psychological test will be a bigger challenge than any physical test I will experience on the trail. The physical tests I have mastered; I averaged greater than 20 miles per day over my 136 hiking days on the PCT. However, I have yet to test myself with loneliness for such an extended period of time.

How I Plan On Coping With Loneliness on the CDT and GDT – Embracing The Lonely Brutality?

There is a phrase often repeated about how to cope with the extremes on the Continental Divide Trail – “Embrace The Brutality!” The idea is that there is a lot to endure, and only when we relax and embrace the extreme environment on the trail, overcome fear, and know that we are strong enough to get through it, only then will we be able to fully appreciate the experience.

I will embrace this attitude as I seek to cope with loneliness on the trail as well.

Am I taking it too far by testing the limits of loneliness to such a degree, 167 days mostly alone on a thru-hike? I don’t think so, and testing the limits of loneliness is not my goal. If I could find a hiking partner willing to hike my schedule, I would love to have the company. But instead of letting it prevent me from a dream, I choose instead to see it as a challenge and find creative ways to deal with it.

Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better. – Henry Rollins

Fear Of Loneliness One of the things I regretted on the PCT was not having enough mental stimulation on the trail. I had a thousand songs on my iPod, but every single one of those songs quickly became over-played and I had no strategy to deal with that. I also brought no books, but was too exhausted after a long day of hiking to read anyways. The most I could muster after a full day of hiking was to write a page or two in my journal before letting sleep take me.

My goal on this trip will be to have access to more mental stimulation. I will load up audio books and eBooks on my smart phone. I have also signed up with a premium Spotify account so I can refresh my smart phone with new tunes whenever I have wi-fi access. I will also be writing daily in my journal, and translating these to blog posts when I get access to the internet. Regardless of how much “distraction” I bring with me, there is no doubt I will get to know myself more intimately than I have ever before.

How Have Others Coped With Loneliness On The Trail?

The short answer is, not very well!

I know a 2013 CDT thru-hiker, who has now completed his triple crown of hiking, who had a miserable time on sections of the trail, many of these sections he hiked alone. While others hiking the same trail during the same year had the best time of their lives – they were hiking in a group.

I know another 2013 attempted CDT thru-hiker who quit after about 850 miles because he decided to go southbound, solo, and got so lonely he decided it was not worth continuing.

I know that most hikers on the CDT tend to cluster in groups at the start of the trail. With less than 100 hikers attempting a CDT thru-hike every season, on a three thousand mile trail, if you are not starting with a group you are most likely in for a long solo adventure. The Great Divide Trail (GDT) is so untraveled that starting it alone pretty much guarantees that you will be alone for the entire trail.

Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter. – John Muir

Then there are the hundreds and thousands of people who will let the fear of loneliness beat them before they even step foot on the trail. Their dreams surface for a brief time: dreams of walking through pristine wilderness, conquering mountain peaks, observing herds of Elk and Antelope, and falling asleep under the Milky Way to the sounds of Coyotes whelping and under the watchful eyes of night owls.

They share this dream with their friends and coworkers, anybody who expresses interest, and one of the first responses, “Won’t you be lonely out there all by yourself?” leaves them feeling confused. Slowly the dream fades, the fear of loneliness overshadows all of the positives from such a journey.

What will happen to me on the trail this summer? Will I have the emotional self-sufficiency needed to not give in to despair? Once alone with myself for so long, will I be able to accept myself and everything that resurfaces during those long stretches of alone time? Will loneliness drive me off the trail before I learn how to cope with it, and before I reach my destination at Kakwa Lake? In two months I will find out.

Would you venture out for a solo multi-day hike knowing that you will likely not see another person for several days or longer?



Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It

HI! My name is Russell Mease. I am on a mission to challenge conventional wisdom and question existing paradigms, while stumbling my way toward a more balanced, lifestyle. Thank you for reading.

9 responses on “Fear Of Loneliness – The #1 Killer Of Thru-Hiker Dreams

  1. Saina

    Wow. Interesting article! I don’t know you personally but I really think that you will be fine. I think, even if you do despair for a while, you will come out the other end more in tune with yourself. You already have an inkling of what it will be like from your previous experience with it.

    I’m planning on hiking the PCT mostly solo next year so enjoy hearing about the mental, as well as the physical, challenges that lie in store for me and appreciate your posts. I don’t think this will be one for me though. I have an uncanny ability to entertain myself for weeks without needing to socialize. That perhaps is because, by the age of 8, I had already lived in 4 different countries with 4 totally different languages, most of which I didn’t even have time to learn to speak properly before moving again. My family told me I didn’t speak a word for almost a year after moving from Sweden to Finland. I think that silence and just observing everything around you first brings you loneliness but then something shifts and you become more in tune with the universe as a whole. I remember feeling completely alone and going through phases of blind rage at not being able to communicate with another person. But then I became my own greatest friend since I didn’t have anybody else that understood me as well and I think I could actually enjoy my own company at that point. In fact, I crave my alone time now if I go through stretches without it.

    I guess that’s why religions practice monastic silence and similar type practices and I truly look forward to hearing your realizations as you go through the experience. I think it will be very enlightening and, if you’re going through some serious mental crisis, just remember that we, your readers, will be here for when you need to vent about it. Wishing you luck on your upcoming trip! Keep us posted. :)

    1. Russell Mease Post author

      Thanks for the vote of confidence Saina! I think I will be ok, but my mind is always active and when it has nothing to focus on, I can go a little stir crazy. I am sure I will have plenty to say about it once I am out there. Good luck on your PCT planning and let me know if I can help out.

      1. Saina

        ummm… yes. If you don’t mind, I will most definitely take you up on that offer of help!! :) It seems the more I look into the logistics of it all, the more overwhelming the thought of it all becomes. A part of me wants to just say “Screw it” and take what seems to be the consensus of what I would need to survive and then just wing it but the more neurotic side of me wants everything prepared as perfectly as possible which, from everything I’ve read and people I’ve talked to, seems to be an unreal ideal. lol

        1. Russell Mease Post author

          Have you joined the PCT Class of 2015 Facebook Page yet? Definitely do that, and even join the 2014 page also so you can read up on the discussions people are having who are planning a thru-hike in the coming years. The Yogi PCT Handbook is helpful to get your mind around all the logistics. Joing the pct-l email list also – it’s a forum to ask questions to people who have hiked the trail (though FB pages might be a better option). The pcta.org website is also a great resource that will give you all sorts of great links on how to prepare for a thru-hike (such as where to find water reports, planning resupply packages, etc…) Just enjoy the planning and start early. It’s not too overwhelming if you just do one thing at a time.

          1. Saina

            Thank you so much for the advice! :) I’ve been stalking most of those sites/groups already but haven’t joined the 2015 which will be good. I hate planning since I start over thinking everything and there are so many various options for gear, etc. I’m a doer in that sense and logistics overwhelm me when I have no idea what I’m in for. hahaha. Think I’ll get the Yogi handbook this weekend now.

  2. Casey

    This is a fantastic look into the state of panic that seems to set in whenever anyone is confronted with truly being alone with themselves – and nothing to distract them from examining who they are.

    I think part of that fear is because – deep down – a lot of us know we’re really not happy buying into the American Dream, driven by fear and longing to fill those uncomfortable mind-silences with bigger cars, new jobs, and fancier earphones … and we know that once we really turn off all that background noise and learn to know ourselves, there’s no going back.

    1. Russell Mease Post author

      One of the the most common questions I was asked when I announced my plans to hike the PCT in 2012 was the “alone” question. I think as a culture we are not taught how to be happy entertaining ourselves and being content being alone. And then you talk to people from eastern cultures and they are really baffled! (I have a chinese step-mom and this kind of thing just blows her mind!)

  3. will

    hey morrisey – i stayed at your place in portland before starting my SOBO cdt hike. just found discovered blog.

    one of the things i enjoyed the most about the cdt was being alone almost the entire time. aside from a few weeks at the start (with train and others) and a week in new mexico i was solo. i only saw one other group of SOBOs from montana to northern new mexico.

    as the loneliness factor was what i was most apprehensive about before starting, i was surprised how much i enjoyed it.

    regardless, last year it seems that northbounders were much more numerous and grouped together more tightly. who knows how it will be this year.

    anyway – i dig your blog and good luck on the CDT -> GDT. I really want to hike the GDT….. jealous!

    1. Russell Mease Post author

      Will! Great to hear you had a great hike. Train was the one I was referring to who quit after 850 miles. I guess he just wasn’t up for it and missed people back home. I know quite a few who are hiking this year, and they will likely group up but most are starting at the end of April – a month behind me. I am looking forward to the solitude though I know that sometimes I will be very lonely.

      Any plans on visiting Portland again? You have a place to crash if you need one!
      Russell Mease recently posted…Mt St Helens Winter Summit: Islands In The SkyMy Profile

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