The Solo Wilderness Experience: Going it alone is Not a Bad Thing

Office Admin

March 25, 2016

When I see people walk out of the woods or trek down a mountainside or yank a kayak out of a river, I can’t help but sidle up to them and fire a dozen questions their direction. In fact, that’s how I recently ended up chatting with a hiker named Daniel inside a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store.

NCOAE Solo Backpacker

Daniel was standing at the deli counter, looking a little bit weathered, with a well-worn backpack, boots and a relaxed stance.

Me: “You through hiking”

Daniel: “Nope.”

Me: “You going camping?”

Daniel: “Nope.”

Then turning to me, he said he was on a trek from Asheville, N.C., to the coast, mostly on roads and sometimes the interstate. Seeing that I was still paying attention, he continued. “I just got back from over a year in Afghanistan. I’m walking to meet friends and visit family — but mostly I’m spending some much needed time alone.”

I get that. I tell him that’s fantastic.

Daniel gives me a puzzled look and tells me I’m the first person to tell him he’s doing something positive. Everyone else, he says, is telling him he’s wasting his time, living dangerously and achieving nothing.

I wished him well on his journey and we parted. But my limited interaction with Daniel reminds me of the importance of “solo” time on wilderness trips and the need to bring “solo” back to the frontcountry, where we spend the majority of our time on this planet.

One of the things we pride ourselves when it comes to the wilderness courses we offer here at The National center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) is that every student gets to experience a “Solo.” For most students, this is roughly 24 hours to be outdoors by themselves. Not only is this a time of solitary reflection, but it presents an opportunity to practice the technical and camp craft skills they have been taught, armed only with supplies to meet their basic needs. They know the expectations and boundaries for their “Solo.”

Here’s how the NCOAE curriculum documents how to explain the solo experience:

“Solo is an opportunity for NCOAE students to relax, sleep, eat and reflect. It is a chance to be quiet and to listen. It is a chance to learn more about self. During Solo, students will live simply in nature, learning lessons as human beings have done for thousands of years. And it is an opportunity to identify what one wants to contribute to the world or to experience a rite of passage. Solo occurs during the final days of the backpacking (the most remote) portion of a wilderness course. Students will soon be re-entering into society and within a week or so be back with family and old friends.

Anthropologists have found that across different cultures, rites of passage follow a three-stage process (severance, threshold and incorporation). In many ways “severance” began as soon as the student felt the call of this adventure. But for the time being, severance begins now.

The three-stage process includes:

Severance — the phase of preparing to leave everything behind, you are preparing to ‘let go’ of the old life, and welcome a new one.

Threshold — the time spent between “worlds.” For our students, the wilderness is their time between school, home, friends and family.

Incorporation — the bringing back of strength, knowledge and the tools needed to have a positive impact on their community.

When I listen to NCOAE students tell stories about their solo experiences, I know it has been a well-spent transformative experience — a time they will never forget and an adventure that will shape their relationships, decisions and the world around them for a lifetime.

Today, we live in a universe where there is instant and constant connection to everything. Walk down the street and people are staring at their phones, screens and devices. The world around us appears not exist. Many people don’t see the beautiful architecture anymore, or the diverse cultures, or even the hazards they may be walking toward. They are focused only on being “connected” to something that is beyond the experience of “now.”

People like our Veteran Daniel and NCOAE students have discovered the courage needed to step out, to be alone with thoughts, nature and personal experiences. The reward for this “solo” time is immeasurable.

As part of this blog post, I’d like to issue a challenge for you:

  • Find some time at least once a week to go on your own solo.
  • Eat lunch alone (devices off), go outside for 15 minutes and listen to the world around you, close the doors to your workspace and lay on the floor. 
  • Start small and see how you can expand solo time, keeping track of how you feel physically and mentally afterward.
  • We believe you will find you are having more success solving problems, having better conversations and feeling more focused and relaxed.
  • Send us a note, a drawing or reflection from your solo time.

Like I said at the beginning of today’s post, my curiosity often gets me in conversations with strangers. I often like to ask people, “Do you remember when you first learned to ride a bike? Or maybe reading their first book or playing a new game.

Most people tell me they do remember learning these skills. Then they go on to tell me who taught them. Maybe a patient father, a first-grade teacher or a kind friend.

But if I ask them who it was that taught them how to relax and focus, they often laugh and say, “I’m asked to focus all the time — by my teacher, my parents, coaches or my boss.”

Often our culture is asking for focus, but not allowing time for the practice of focus. With outdoor and experiential-based education, we teach about relaxation/focus and then we give our students the time to practice.

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About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the staff development director at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) in Wilmington, N.C., where he is responsible for the training and education of NCOAE’s field instructors. He is a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and has taught within the Durham, N.C., public school system. Stephen received his undergraduate degree in English from Framingham State University, and an Independent, alternative Masters in Education.

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