No one likes to talk about it (or even admit they’ve experienced it), but it’s real…very real! Something about hunting and the outdoors tends to bring out our most puffed-out-chest, manly-man, I-can-handle-anything versions of ourselves, and so we minimize those parts of us that feel like we can’t handle anything. And because of that phenomenon, no one wants to talk about how frightening it can be to find yourself alone in the backcountry. All by yourself, not another human for miles, just you and whatever you can’t see out there in the dark…I don’t care who you are, some part of you is going to be afraid.
I’ll never forget the first time I ever went truly solo on a backpacking trip…let’s just say that after the sun went down, I was anything but manly. (If you want to hear the story, you can watch me tell it below…trust me, it’ll make you feel much better about any fear you may have dealt with)
Now, that story happened on my first solo trip into the backcountry…surely, as the years have gone by and I’ve been on plenty of solo excursions, that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, right? Doesn’t the fear eventually just disappear? Well, you would think so, but I have found it likes to linger for a while. And since there aren’t a ton of people talking about this stuff, it can catch a guy totally off-guard when he gets out there for the first time. I’ll never forget the heart-breaking email I got from a guy who poured months of planning and money into his first-ever solo hunt, got out there the night before opening day, and had an intense wave of anxiety wash over him that had him back at his truck driving home that very night.
Listen, I’ve been there, and I don’t judge anyone who finds themselves in that boat. Fear and anxiety are very real, and they drive us to do things we don’t necessarily want to do (honestly, that’s why God built them into us in the first place). But, I don’t want to see fear hold anybody back from chasing their dream. So, even though I still wrestle with this when I’m all alone in the backcountry, let me offer a few tips I’ve been using that help me settle down and get some sleep. Because let’s face it, if fear keeps you up all night or convinces you to hike out of there…you’re not going to be all that successful as a hunter.
Tools of the Trade
There are more than a few different items you can utilize that will help you sleep better and be more at ease in the backcountry, so spend the little bit of extra money or the extra couple ounces in your pack if it means less fear and better rest.
Good Sleep System
As far as I’m concerned, sleep is the best remedy to fear. If you can fall (and stay) asleep, fear is irrelevant because you’re not conscious to realize you’re afraid…it’s science. And once that sun starts to peak over the horizon, it’s amazing how fear disappears altogether. We’ll talk about ways to get to sleep in a minute, but even if you use a bull tranquilizer on yourself (which I don’t recommend under any circumstances, for the record), it won’t make much of a difference if you’re sleep setup is so uncomfortable that you wake up to change positions every hour anyway. A decent pad and a warm enough sleeping bag are necessities!!! We can have a whole conversation about the pros and cons of different pads another time, but if the one you’re currently using has you up half the night…get a different one.
Okay, while I don’t recommend tranquilizer darts for yourself, I have become a big believer in a little bit of chemical assistance when falling asleep in the wilderness. Plus, after a long day of hiking and hunting with weight on your back, you could probably use a little bit of a pain killer as well. Why not take this particular Advil that will both reduce the inflammation in your knees and back, while also making you just a bit drowsy? If something crazy does happen that you need to wake up and deal with (you know, your worst nightmare…a mountain lion riding a bear to come and kill you…or maybe that’s just my worst nightmare), the PM part of these pills is essentially just Benadryl. That means it’s potent enough to help you drift off to sleep, but not so intense that you’ll be unable to function if the situation calls for it. Ever since I tried them for the first time on a hunt, these are always in my med kit in the backcountry.
A BRIGHT Flashlight
Most hunters utilize a headlamp as their primary lighting source in the backcountry, because many situations in hunting call for the hands-free ability to see what you’re doing in the dark. The problem is that most of these are designed for close-range illumination, and don’t do much to light up the woods 20-30 yards away or further. If you are hearing some terrifying sound out there and want to check it out, your headlamp won’t help unless you move towards said terrifying sound. That’s why I also always have a small, light, but extremely bright flashlight with me in the tent. If things get weird in the middle of the night, I can throw that beam way out and see if it’s that pesky bear-riding mountain lion.
Okay, this is a must-have for a lot of guys whenever they head into the wilderness, but I also know guys who have drunk deeply of the “ultra-light kool-aid” and choose to leave a sidearm at home in the interest of shaving weight. Here’s the truth: I have carried a pistol on every day of every hunt I’ve been on for at least the last seven years, and I’ve only ever used it once (to humanely dispatch a wounded deer at close range). However, I can tell you that every night in the field I have placed it (and my flashlight) right next to me in my tent, and I certainly sleep better knowing it’s there.
I almost didn’t include these in the list, as I have never used them. Personally, I think I wouldn’t even be able to fall asleep knowing that I couldn’t hear what was going on around me. But, I know plenty of guys have actually found much better sleep by popping earplugs in, and just accepting that if something sneaks up on them in the night, it must have been their time to go. To each his own, I suppose.
Okay, that’s the gear side…not super expensive, not a ton of extra weight. But, to deal with fear in the backcountry, we need to throw a bit more than stuff at the problem.
Be Predator Smart
For one thing, most of us who find ourselves in the backcountry for a typical hunt will actually be the most dangerous thing in the woods at that point (which is part of the mental game we’ll talk about next). But, we can’t ignore the fact that certain hunts in certain regions will carry the risk of other predators who just may (in certain circumstances) pose a threat to humans. Simply taking a few precautions and being smart about your camp setup can help keep you out of danger and put your mind at ease.
Most of us have heard this before, but if you’re in an area that has the potential for bear activity, don’t bring food into your tent with you. A bear wants nothing to do with a sleeping human (we aren’t typically on their menu), but he will certainly be interested in that open bag of beef jerky lying on top of your pack right next to you. It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to find a tree a fair distance from camp (most recommendations say at least 200 ft. from your tent), and hang your food (or even your whole pack) at least 15 ft. off the ground. This will not only keep bears out of your food, but if they do follow their incredible noses to your beef jerky, it’s not leading them right into your camp.
Check for sign before setting up camp
No one would intentionally set their camp up right in the middle of a field of bear scat or on a well-worn game trail filled with mountain lion tracks, but it can happen pretty easily if we don’t take a look around first. Whenever I pick a campsite, I always take a quick lap around the surrounding area looking mostly for tracks and scat. You probably don’t want to camp on an active game trail anyway (since that could disrupt the animals you’re actually trying to hunt), but you definitely want to keep an eye out for predator sign. If you do find that your first choice of camp spot seems littered with bear scat, it’s worth moving at least a few hundred yards to a new location (if it were me, I might go a quarter mile or more for added piece of mind). I’m not saying a predator can’t travel that far, but if you are finding tons of sign, it’s a good indicator that you’re in that animal’s living room…I’d rather stay in his backyard if I have to be on his property at all.
Beating Fear in the Backcountry is 80% Mental and 40% Physical
The movie Little Giants? Anybody??? 1994’s greatest family film about pee-wee football starring Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill??? Okay, maybe it’s just me…but you should check it out! Anyway, the point I’m making is that dealing with this fear is almost entirely a mental game. Yes, there are some physical things that can help (which we discussed in the first section), but if you can get your mind under control, it’s going to be so much easier to rest easy out there.
I’m a man of faith, so I do a lot of praying in my tent while I’m trying to fall asleep. This helps me focus my thoughts, reminds me that I’m not in control, and generally gives me a sense of peace. And I’m not praying these frantic, “God, please don’t let a bear attack me” prayers…I focus more on asking Him to help my mental state, to quiet my mind, and to reduce my anxiety. I pray for my family back at home, and pretty much anything else that crosses my mind. Often, I fall asleep in the midst of prayer (thanks, Tylenol PM), and I wake up feeling fine. Wherever you stand on the whole God thing, finding a way to control and focus your thoughts while lying there in the dark will help. But personally, I say give prayer a shot…what do you have to lose?
There are a few things I like to remind myself while trying to sleep in the backcountry. If I’m not in a predator-heavy environment, I tell myself repeatedly that I’m the most dangerous thing out there right now. I am big; I have thumbs, weapons, and training; and I can handle anything that might show up that night.
I’m also a firm believer in statistics, so I often can calm myself down reminding me of what is true instead of what I feel. For instance, in the last 20 years, there have been only 25 fatal black bear attacks. Of those, a whopping ONE was in the state I live and do most of my hunting in. And mountain lion attacks are so rare that I can’t even find recent statistics on them (an average of 5.6 per year throughout North America from 15 years ago). In the places I typically hunt, that’s as dangerous as it gets. I should be more worried about some rancher’s cattle stomping through my camp in the night than a predator eating me like a burrito in my sleeping bag. While it may feel like every bump in the night is something dangerous, statistically speaking, it’s almost definitely not.
The Ability to See
This may bleed over into the gear conversation, but I think it’s more a part of my mental game. I have discovered that part of the anxiety I can experience is the inability to see what is around me once I’m zipped in my tent with the rainfly on. If I hear something in the bushes or walking by my tent, I would have to climb out of my sleeping bag, unzip the door, and if it’s on the other side of my tent, climb out and stand up to see what’s out there. On a cold night, that seems like way too much work for peace of mind, so I just lay there waiting for it to eat me (it never does).
That’s why if the night is warm enough and rain doesn’t seem likely, I’ll leave the rainfly off altogether. For my particular tent, this leaves me surrounded by mesh with a 360-degree view if I’ll just raise my head a few inches. If I’m awakened by some rustle in the bushes, I can grab my flashlight, sit up, look over, and see what’s up. Most of the time I don’t even see whatever is making the noise, but simply seeing that it’s obviously nothing I should be concerned about helps me take a deep breath, lie back down, and go to sleep.
Wrapping It Up
Guys, it is okay – and quite frankly, totally normal – to experience some fear and anxiety while camping solo in the backcountry. I have found it lessens a bit over time, but at least at this point in my experience, it doesn’t totally go away. But, with a little bit of preparation and a few mental tools at your disposal, it doesn’t have to keep you out of the field. You may have a few nights of less-than-great sleep as you get used to it, but at least your adventure won’t be ending prematurely.
If I could give one piece of practical advice, it would be this: if you’re going out for your first solo trip, camp far enough from the truck that you’re stuck there for the night. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but I think it’s the best way to get through this. I know that first night when I was freaking out, I would have absolutely hiked out in the dark had I been closer to my rig. But, the fact that I was 7 rugged miles from anywhere helped me feel “stuck,” and forced me to power through the night no matter what. Worst-case, you endure a long, sleepless night, and hike out in the morning. But, once the sun is up, you won’t be scared anymore, and you’ll probably think, “I made it through that night, I can make it through this next one” – which will keep your adventure going. Fear is normal and fear can be good, but let’s learn how to manage it in the field so that we can spend the daylight hours doing what we love.