The solo trekker
Go where you want, when you want, at the speed you want. Solo trekking can be a rich and fulfilling outdoor experience, but is it for you? Find out with Fjällräven Guide J.R. Harris.
In August of 1987, Fjällräven Guide James Robert Harris (also known as “J.R.”) had no intention of being a solo trekker. Instead, he was leaving for a three-week canoe trip on the South Nahanni River in northwest Canada with best friend Ken Pepper. But Ken never showed up to the airport. On the morning of departure, he had a heart attack and passed away. Ken was just 44 years old.
“I was devastated,” says J.R.. “After the funeral, I decided to confront my sadness by trekking alone in the Adirondack Mountains north of New York. I wandered aimlessly for about 10 days. Although I was deeply unhappy, I remember feeling better when I came home.”
It was J.R.’s first multi-day solo trek. Not only did being alone help him deal with his pain and grief, but he discovered that he liked trekking on his own. Being by himself didn’t bother him. On the contrary, he looked forward to doing it again. That following summer, he planned his first entirely solo trek in Glacier National Park, Montana. After that, he trekked Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
“I was out for three weeks, and it was an amazing trip,” remembers J.R.. “For the first time, I did all the planning and logistics myself. I was excited and looking forward to being out there on my own, but in a way, I wasn’t completely alone. I carried memories of Ken – and a piece of his gear – with me. On that trip I saw glaciers for the first time, and wild animals like grizzlies and wolves. There were other people along the trails, but mostly I was alone and enjoying it. To be honest, I wasn’t too surprised that I liked it so much. I live alone and I’ve always enjoyed being by myself.”
Now 79 years old, J.R. was born, raised, and still lives in New York City. His first experience with nature was at age 13 when his parents signed him up for the Boy Scouts, and (against his will) sent him to summer camp in the Catskill Mountains, northwest of New York City. When he arrived, he got to see the entire sky, from one horizon to the other, for the first time in his life, without skyscrapers blocking the view. While at camp, he learnt the basic outdoor skills required to survive and thrive in nature. When it was over, he immediately wanted to return the following summer.
“Not everyone is comfortable with being alone in nature,” muses J.R.. “Many experienced trekkers tell me they would never go into the wilderness alone. They’re not afraid. They simply want the companionship. Someone to talk to and share the experience with.
That’s not me. Although I’ve enjoyed trekking with friends, going solo is the ultimate experience. I am more in contact with myself, and it makes me more aware of my surroundings. I feel my senses sharpening to the point that I know for certain I’m appreciating things far more than if I had been part of a group.
When I’m alone, I don’t compromise. I go where I want, when I want, at whatever pace I want. I eat when I’m hungry, rest when I’m tired, and don’t have to appease, agree, or consult with anyone else. My life is entirely mine throughout the entire journey.
It may seem unusual to some people, but that’s the way I like it. There is a difference between aloneness and loneliness, and I’ve never felt lonely when alone in the wild.”
J.R. says there is an adjustment period at the beginning of a long trek when you mentally and emotionally leave your regular existence behind and start embracing your current lifestyle. He calls it “detachment” and it’s the time when the world you leave becomes irrelevant, since you are completely cut off from it. You walk in solitude and adjust to your new surroundings. To circumstances that are completely different from your everyday life.
“How you adapt to nature varies from person to person,” explains J.R. “How isolated you are, and how long you’re trekking both play a role. Some people, like me, embrace the transition, because we look forward to leaving home and returning to a simpler way of living. But simpler doesn’t mean easier. It’s more physically and mentally demanding than your normal life, but it’s a welcome change if you like exploring the edges of your comfort zone. Even fear.”
Harris has had to confront and handle fear on numerous occasions. He jokes that he has been scared so many times over the years that if there was a Ph.D in fear, he would have enough experience to write a doctoral thesis. But he has learned things about himself in moments like these:
“You should never be afraid of being afraid. Fear is a part of life, and can be very healthy, especially when you realise that in a life-threatening situation, it’s possible to rise above panic and maintain control of rampaging emotions. That’s what being fearless really is: not the absence of fear, but the acceptance of it. It’s a good lesson to learn, because – and I know this from experience – you’re never too old to get scared.”
It's been 35 years since J.R. did his first solo trek, and since then he’s discovered faraway places in over 50 countries by simply putting one foot in front of the other. Now he is an Emeritus Member of the Explorers Club, and on the Board of Directors and Chair of the Club’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. He’s also been busy sharing his experiences, which you can explore on his www.jrinthewilderness.com, by reading his book “Way Out There, Adventures of a Wilderness Trekker”, or checking out the short film “Born Curious”.
J.R. has no intention of retiring from the trail, because an immense curiosity has always been his driving force. In fact, J.R.’s still eager to discover what looms around the next bend. And will most likely do it alone.
J.R.’s first-time solo trekking tips
“I never advise, nor encourage, anyone to go out alone. In fact, I tend to discourage trekking solo, as do most organisations and agencies. You must be confident you can manage adversity on your own, and if you question whether going solo is a smart thing to do, it probably isn’t. That’s my disclaimer. So, if you remain seriously curious and eager, here are my five tips:
- Understand that going solo can be immensely mentally and emotionally challenging. Especially if you’re not used to spending time alone. Be prepared for this.
- Ensure someone knows where you’re going and when you’re expected back.
- Make your first solo trek short, one or two nights maximum, to see how you react.
- Don’t go too remote. Pick a route where you’re likely to see other people, even if infrequently.
- Carry a personal locator beacon device to communicate with if you find yourself in trouble or just need to connect with someone.”