Life

Tips From An Expert For Your First Solo Adventure In The Backcountry


Getty Image/Sarah Grothjan

Sarah Grothjan loves nothing more than escaping the confines of her Portland life for the backcountry of the Great Pacific Northwest. Grothjan worked as an award-winning journalist before focusing her writing prowess on the natural world. These days, she’s focused on her own platform — blogging about her outdoor adventures, the reality of life as a solo outdoorswoman, and sharing practical advice for hitting up remote locations.

Over the years, Grothjan has taken on solo travel in the backcountry of America’s wildest regions. This inherently comes with risks. Packing in water and filtration systems, rationing food correctly, and staying safe from animals and, well, other humans are all facets to making sure a backcountry excursion will be fun (and safe). As much as we’d all like to think we can just pick up, hit the road, and figure things out as we go, sometimes we have to be prepared and think ahead a bit.

After all, the very joy of the natural world is that it’s wild and unpredictable. Danger is, to some degree, implicit.

We caught up with Grothjan recently when she was back home in Portland between hikes. So we picked her brain about hitting the trails, staying safe, and sharing stories on Instagram.

Solo travel feels like it has become a movement with a clear focus on woman safely getting on the road. How do you feel about the female solo travel movement?

I love the momentum that solo female travel is getting right now. I don’t even know if it’s new. I posed that question to a few different people, “do you think this is something that’s more recent, or are people just talking about it now finally?” Either way, I think there needs to be more conversation around it.

I’ve used writing and connecting with people online to have these conversations, and I still find that a lot of females have reservations about going outside — whether that’s road-tripping solo across the US, road-tripping solo in a different country, or backpacking solo. I think there are still some dangers when they’re thinking about the human element. So I totally get where they’re coming from, and I think there needs to be more of a conversation around how to keep yourself safe.

Do you feel it is the sort of thing where, “I know I’m going to be okay,” or do you feel that more information is needed and that reassurance is needed from the travel industry?

I feel safer, at least, in the backcountry than I do in my safe old Portland neighborhood. So I like to talk to women about that. I like to empower them to feel comfortable going outside, to talk about the gear they might need, and to feel empowered to go outside alone. But, with road-tripping, that’s a whole different thing. Even for me, I just started road-tripping solo. That was my first long solo trip, and I was curious about different resources to stay safe. So I still think there’s more needed. I think there still needs to be more of a conversation around it.

What do you think is the most important discussion to have right now around solo travel?

I think etiquette needs to be discussed — and that’s actually a piece I’m working on right now. How can you treat solo female backpackers? How can you treat solo female hikers? Solo female road-trippers?

What’s a hard and fast rule?

One thing I always say is, “Don’t call it out.” I hate when I’m on a trail by myself and someone goes, “Oh my God, are you alone? That’s so cool.” It is super cool, and I’m down to have that conversation. But, calling so much attention to it … I do like to stay a little bit under the radar. I’m not sure if every female feels that way, but for me personally, I like to stay a little bit under the radar when I’m hiking and backpacking solo. I don’t really like when people call out so loudly the fact that I’m going out there alone.

Right, I totally feel that. How do you decide where you’re going to go? What are you doing at home in preparation?

First off, I’m just thinking of the basics of my gear. Do I have everything I need? I have a little Google Doc that I pull up every single time I go anywhere. It has a whole list of gear, anything that I might need. Then, depending on the time of year or where I’m going, there are certain things I don’t bring. It’s a full, comprehensive list. So I lay everything out on my floor in my apartment and then pack it one by one, and make sure I have everything.

I live in Oregon. So where I decide to go backpacking-wise, I mean, I just kind of daydream these things up all the time. I honestly don’t let anything hold me back, because again, I do feel safer outside than anywhere else, even in the city. So there’s nothing that’s really going to hold me back. I love a very simple old-growth forest as much as I love a mountain vista, so I go on a variety of trails. It’s just kind of whatever I’m feeling. Sometimes I want to plan something bigger and I drive up to northern Washington and go on a backpacking trip. Sometimes I like to just stay within my area and drive like an hour away, and then go on a hike. I don’t worry too much.

You’re very online when you’re in the backcountry. What safety measures are you taking out there?

I am very present online. But something I do is I never post anything in real-time. So anything that I post online, I’m usually not there when I’m posting it, even if it’s a story. I never post, “Hey, getting ready to go on a trail in Mount Hood National Forest” when I’m unpacking my car. I post it a little bit later. I usually don’t even give trail names on my social media. Utah is probably the most specific I’ll ever get. Or, I’ll post Oregon or Washington.

I like sharing what I’m doing, but I just have to be careful.

It’s this sort of thing where we can quote statistics showing it’s way more likely that any of us will experience crime or violence at home or near home far more than on the road. Yet people are often more afraid of being somewhere foreign or wild. But that doesn’t mean things don’t happen out there, too.

I mean, you still have to be cognizant no matter where you are, right?

Yeah. I think we’re just conditioned to think of those things. I mean, even though the stakes are higher of being attacked by another person within the city that I live, than probably outside in the backcountry, I’m still conditioned to think of those that I’m safer at home. The point I always like to make though is still the human element. I have to think about a guy following me into the backcountry more than I think about a bear or a cougar. I feel more comfortable dealing with those things, or not dealing with those things, I should say, than anything else.

If I’m worried about something, it’s always the human element. I’ve had situations that were less than ideal.

How so?

Guys trying to hit on me on the trail. That is just not the place to do it. That’s why I want to write about and talk about trail etiquette. Like, “Do not hit on this solo female backpacker! Give her her space. Say hi, sure. Don’t catcall on the trail.”

…I can’t believe that’s even something I have to say.

It sounds like you’ve had a few uncomfortable moments?

Yeah. I went on a hike in Salt Lake City and it was so funny because there were two guys: One who did everything perfectly, and one guy who did it so wrong. The one guy was like, “Hey, girl, what’s your number? What’s your name? Oh my gosh…” just saying all these inappropriate things. I’m like, “Okay, this is so uncomfortable.” We were the only two people out here in the middle of nowhere. Then, there was another guy who I bumped into. I was walking along and looking down at my feet to make sure I didn’t trip on any these jagged rocks. Then, when I look up, I see him and he kind of startled me, because I thought that I was alone. He just stopped, stepped off the trail, gave me some room on the trail, and just waved his hand, “Hi.” I could see his hands. He was making eye contact. He just gave me a smile and little wave and made some space for me on the trail.

I passed him and it was fine. I felt totally comfortable.

“Hi. All good? Bye.” feels like the way to go in that situation.

Yeah. When guys’ eyes are wandering up and down your body, or they’re making comments, or they’re not making room for you on the trail, that’s not okay. And that’s not good trail etiquette.

I’m from the Olympic Peninsula and I’ve spent some serious time up in the high country there. You get this weird feeling when you bump into somebody sketchy up there. Yes, you’re in the high country. Yes, you’re surrounded by empty space. But, then it feels like there’s nowhere to go because you’re both in the same, empty space.

It’s sort of like this huge open space suddenly feels like the most confined room imaginable.

Absolutely.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Let’s say you’re going out for a two-day hike. What do you bring with you for food and water? Are you planning on gathering water and filtering it? Are you bringing enough water with you? Are you bringing food with you? What’s your plan?

So as far as water, it kind of depends on where I’m going. But, typically, I try to filter some and then bring some of my own. But, just for weight, if there are water sources and I’m confident that they’re flowing, I do like to filter a lot of my water. If I’m going somewhere more desert-like, then I obviously have to bring a lot more water. If there’s snow then I like to melt and boil snow.

Then, for meals, those also kind of vary. If I just want to get out of town or it’s kind of just last minute, I always have a bunch of backcountry pantry dehydrated meals. They’re super high sodium, but if I’m just wanting something quick, I have those to throw in my pack. If I plan it a little bit more, it’ still pretty basic. I’ll just bring little packets of salmon, some instant brown rice, and some hot sauce — always little packets of hot sauce!

If any of your friends go to Taco Bell, just have them grab you a few. Or a Taco Time.

Taco Time, nice.

For my lunches, I bring tortillas, because they don’t get smushed. I bring dry salami and Laughing Cow cheese. It’s not the most nutrient-dense meal, but it works. It’s carbs, protein, and that stuff keeps for me in the areas that I most often backpack in the Pacific Northwest. Then, my snacks are dried fruit, some bars. I typically bring RX bars and Larabars, which are my favorite. But, I can’t bring Larabars too much, because I just can’t ration them. I just eat them all at once.

Do you feel that delay posting your hikes and backpacking online hinders your ability to enjoy the outdoors? Or is it helping you dive deeper into the experience?

I think I’m able to excel in many ways because I am online. It is such an easy way to share what I’m doing, to have conversations that I feel are really important with people in (kind of) real-time. As far as the fact that I do have to delay things, I don’t think it hinders me because I do like to have a balance of truly being present in the moment. Knowing that I’m not going to post anything right when I do it, allows me to be more present and not to feel that pressure. But, I mean, there are some hikes where, honestly, I don’t post anything about them because I’m still like, “Okay, I need to find that balance of getting back to why I started this in the first place.”

It was about relaxing for a moment where I am off the grid.

Right, you need to save something for just you. That sort of leads me to my next question. There’s a sense in the backcountry community of not advertising or showing people the special places or best places, especially online — basically so they don’t get overrun. How do you feel about that?

I do feel a certain responsibility to not just blast every sacred place out there. For the most part, I’m always open to talking with my close friends about the places that are really special to me. I definitely have a few of them in particular that I will bring my really close friends to. Still, I try to abide by “leave no trace” and part of that is about not posting where I go on these backpacking trips. I want to keep these places sacred and not advertise them to everyone. I try to abide by that.

It’s sometimes a hard balance because people will comment and ask me, “Oh, where is this?” Or they’ll DM me and be like, “Oh, where’d you go? Where is this?” And I try to be respectful while still abiding by the rules of “leave no trace.”

Exactly. You know if you blow up these spots, the next time you go up, the dynamic might have changed.

Yeah, exactly. Some of these places are so beautiful because they’re so remote and not that many people know about them. You can definitely see the change. In Washington, they’re adding more permit systems to everything because so many people are going because they’re finding out about these spots through social media.

Social media is beautiful in that we can share and encourage people to go outside, but we don’t all have to go to the same places. Like I said, I get the same enjoyment from just a very simple old-growth forest, that I do from mountain vistas. I think a lot of people kind of forget that you can get the same relaxation and outdoor fix from both.

You don’t always have to be going to the most Instagrammable place. You can just go through a local forest walk, make a camp, and still get the same benefits.

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