Bikepacking Solo Part Three: Facing Fears

Part Three of the Bikepacking Solo Series is all about managing fears. It’s clear that even those who go solo often still have to manage fears, from the fear of failure to the fear of ill-intentioned people. We asked our bikepacking friends about the fears they face, how they cope with them, and tips for others to feel safe camping solo. 

Make sure you check out Part One and Part Two of the Bikepacking Solo series if you haven’t already!

Isabelle Fisk on the Arizona Trail 300

Did you have fears on your first solo mission on the bike? What were they? Were there things you felt super confident about? What were they?

Annie Le: I was very naïve on my first trips. I had hitchhiked extensively and generally found strangers to be friendly and helpful. I always assumed, and still do, that if something goes very wrong I’ll be able to find someone to help. My rack broke early on and it didn’t take long before I had people helping me to bodge a fix.

Eliza Sampey: I didn’t have fears on my first solo mission on the bike because it was deep in the backcountry where I’m comfortable. But I did have fears on my first solo bike mission where I was traveling through more populated places (this was an international trip), and it was harder to know that I was completely hidden at night when I made camp. For me, the backcountry is my safety blanket. No matter where I’m at in the world, if I feel like I’m able to stay hidden from other humans, I feel safe and I’m super confident. When there’s a chance I might be spotted, I’m less confident. I’ve had mostly great interactions with other people in all my bike travels, but I trust other humans much less than I trust nature and myself. 

Irena Netik: I had fears on my first, second, third…. Still do somewhat. A little bit of fear is okay because it makes you aware and stay sharp, but you can’t let your fear dominate your head space. Most of my fears are quite irrational. I worry(ied) that someone would murder me and dismember my body; never to be found again. So that’s not exactly rational. Interestingly, my husband’s biggest fear about me going alone is getting hit by a car. That’s not something that I worry about since I hope that the driver will see me with my blinking lights on the front and back of the bike as well as a big reflective triangle strapped to my backpack. 

It’s hard to think of things that I am super confident about but I do feel that I have a lot of grit and the ability to suffer for a long time. In that regard, my safety margins are comfortable enough such that I have a little extra food, clothing and water, so that if things really went sideways, I could walk out, hopefully hitch a ride and get help. It wouldn’t be pleasant but doable and I probably wouldn’t die. I have confidence in my planning in general and my protocols that I have in place. 

I tend to over-plan and take the time to study the route prior to any trip. I put together a robust spreadsheet with route data. I have redundant maps loaded for navigation using my phone and Wahoo and extra battery packs. I have communication protocols in place either with my husband or a friend who receive my daily SPOT messages broken down into: 1) all is good/still moving; 2) camped for the night; 3) cannot continue/need help but not 911.

Isabelle Fisk: I absolutely had fears, and most of them were leading up to the ride. Once I was on the bike, I knew what to do. Long rides are no stranger to me, and my body knows what it needs. I can be confident that I can take care of myself: stopping when I need a stretch break, sleeping when I feel myself get too worked, pushing when I know it’s my best option, and eating… well, I’m still working on eating enough when I ride.

Janie Hayes: When I started the TransAmerica Bike Race in 2016, I was terrified. I had no idea what I was doing. I was worried about everything: bears, drivers, my own body, my mental capacity to handle the challenge, my equipment. My eagerness for the adventure luckily was stronger than my fear, but my catastrophizing brain was definitely in full activation. Pretty much the only thing I had confidence in was my ability to eat copious quantities of low-quality food from convenience stores. 

Katie Scott: I have a lot of fear when going out solo! Particularly when it’s overnight but even on longer day efforts I sometimes get really scared. One of my biggest fears actually comes from having a history of chronic illness/chronic fatigue. There was a time when if I over did something, even by just a tiny bit (I’m talking on the magnitude of like 20 minutes), I would get so fatigued that I’d be recovering for days after or even get stuck out. I remember having to call someone to pick me up from a walk because I was too exhausted to make it the rest of the way home. And one time, I was hiking in Arches and I went just a little bit too far and had to basically take a nap on a rock before I could make my way back to the trailhead. I am much healthier and way more resilient now, but I sort of have PTSD from that. My fear is “what if I can’t make it back?” or “what if I make myself sick by doing this?” Another fear I have is of making executive decisions/judgment calls without anybody else’s reassurance or input. I’m a pretty anxious person in general and really resist “messing up.” It can be hard for me to not have anyone to discuss a decision with or to even take the lead when I’m feeling unconfident. When I think about what I was confident about on these solo missions, I think that deep down, beneath the fear, I know that I can figure it out and that I am a very capable person.

Kristen Tonsagger: Every bump in the night is a fear – I think it’s very easy to psyche yourself out and think that there are animals or other people coming to get you. I always feel more confident when I pick a good spot that feels safe so my mind can relax. I feel super confident riding and pushing and being free to ride as far as I want and not deal with the stress of what your companions are doing and how they are feeling. 

Laura Heiner: I was terrified. I was mostly afraid of bike repairs, getting lost, animals and making a fool of myself. I was confident that I had the ability to ride long miles totally alone and stay happy and motivated.

Leigh Bowe: Yes!! Fear of failure is almost always my biggest fear. I have a brain that is driven by logic and data. I know that humans are actually the most dangerous predator that I’m likely to encounter. It’s been my experience that most humans are somewhat predictable and generally good people unless circumstance has caused them to be in a desperate place. The kinds of humans that I’m likely to encounter on a remote trail usually have the means and the backcountry experience to get themselves out there, so I usually feel quite safe in the woods. If I have to camp near a town or urban center, that’s a little scarier to me. I have bikepacked twice in brown bear country, which is an entirely different situation and requires more caution in regards to food storage. 

Photo courtesy of Isabelle Fisk

If you have experienced fear related to bikepacking alone, what did you do to overcome the fear and become more comfortable riding and camping solo? Do you have any tips or tricks for feeling safer camping solo? 

Annie Le: The more you camp alone the easier it gets. I do a lot of overnighters local to home in places I feel safe. I think forcing yourself to be rational about the risks and I give myself a talking to if I start to freak myself out about anything. Don’t read horror stories or thrillers before bed though! I find reading books about other travelers helps and makes you remember you are not the first to journey alone.

If there’s something specific that worries you, work out how to deal with it. For example, I have a fear of someone driving into my tent at night. So I can control that by camping places where a vehicle can’t get to me.

Eliza Sampey: The fear that I feel about other humans when I’m bikepacking solo is probably always going to be there for me, despite all the wonderful experiences I’ve had with people around the world as a solo bike or foot traveler. Honestly, I feel like it’s just a factor that solo female travelers have to contend with. I’m sure some people feel more or less fearful than others, and I probably fall on the “less fearful” end of the spectrum, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. 

The way I deal with it is to be strategic about camping: when I’m solo, I do my best to plan routes where I’ll be able to camp in the backcountry far from others, and ideally hide in the terrain features. I rarely if ever camp in campgrounds — that’s where humans and problem bears tend to hang out. I use a bivy sack instead of a tent when I’m solo to be less conspicuous; it’s also lighter/smaller, and I prefer to sleep under the stars anyways. If I can’t hide, I will camp in plain sight of *everyone* — like right in the middle of a town square or on the steps of a church (easier to do when not in America). I also remove my wheel axles so no one can wheel my bike away in the middle of the night if I’m asleep in a public place. 

Other than humans, I generally don’t feel afraid of any other aspects of going solo. I feel that I am a part of nature and the landscape, not separate from it, and so I don’t feel afraid of the creatures out there as I’m just one of them. I feel competent on the terrain I’m riding, and if it’s questionable or highly consequential, I get off and walk. I know how to take care of myself in the backcountry under any conditions, I do my best to be prepared, and I’ve built the confidence to know that I will be okay when the unexpected happens even if it isn’t ideal. I can do basic bike repair in the field, and if it’s something I can’t fix, I’m not afraid of a long walk while rolling or carrying my bike and gear. I am highly allergic to hornets/wasps/bees, and so that’s something I have to consider, and it’s probably the thing I’m the most afraid of out there whether I’m solo or not. But I carry Benadryl, a couple epi pens, and an inReach Mini for emergency situations; fortunately I’ve never had to use these on a backcountry trip, but I certainly could someday, and being solo vs with others wouldn’t really change the outcome of that situation; I’d be doing my best and hoping for the best either way. 

At the end of the day, I ask myself if my desire to do the thing is stronger than my fear about worst-case scenarios that might happen while doing the thing. So far over 23 years of bikepacking and backpacking solo, the answer has always been yes. 

Irena Netik: I stopped watching crime shows and started to wear ear plugs when I sleep.

My husband set up a self-defense (aka knife fighting) class for me several years ago. At that time, he was quite concerned about two women going on a bike tour. He researched available classes and set it all up for me. Knife was not supposed to be involved but after the first class, I came home and to my husband’s surprise, I announced the type of switch blade I am getting as well as a dull practice blade. I learned some skills from the class but the most important thing it gave me was confidence and awareness. Years later, I still bring the knife with me and place it next to me in the bivy or tent. I think it has turned into more of a “safety blanket”.

Along with the knife, I also used to bring pepper spray with me. Although it was a small spray bottle, it was annoying to carry and to fit into my feedbag. In 2021, when I was riding in the Utah Mixed Epic, I ceremoniously threw it into a garbage can in Panguitch, at about the half-way point, and I actually thought to myself, “I am done being afraid”; “I’ve got this”. This sounds like a silly mind game but so much of our fear is just in our heads.

I don’t share my exact route or where I plan to camp when making conversation in a small town where I stop for resupply. Although if I have been alone for a long time, I am usually desperate for human conversation and do love chatting with the locals. Nevertheless, I try not to tell people who I meet and talk with that I am traveling alone.

If a car pulls over, rolls down the window and asks if I am okay or what I am doing (usually friendly), I do my best to show confidence, strength and enthusiasm and ask them questions and where they are going. I try to make sure that my camping spot is generally not visible from the road or trail and tucked behind some bushes or tall grass. I try not to camp near a town. Being in the woods is safer!

Isabelle Fisk: I carry an inReach mini, and sometimes for longer things I’ll carry pepper spray. A year and a half ago, I was nervous to even do a day ride by myself. But it gets easier and now I find so much joy in it. Also, if you plan to camp somewhere and you arrive and you hate how it feels, you are fully in control: you get to decide if you stay, or keep moving until you find somewhere that feels good! And talking to yourself, to the birds, to the spider who just crawled across your pad… that feels really silly but helpful, too!

Janie Hayes: Like I said, I’m certainly not an expert in this arena. That said: If you have an inkling to do it, just be curious. Also make it manageable for yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to adventure. But it’s good if you have some idea of what you are trying to learn or how you want to grow as a person. Some good ways to ease in, I think: first of all, don’t do what I did. Second, there’s no problem with riding five to ten miles from home and camping in a friend’s yard. Or a local park. It doesn’t have to be some epic adventure. Equipment takes some time to get used to, and the more fun that experimentation is, the more you give solo camping the experience to serve you and meet your needs.

Also, remember that many people have gone before you and had incredible experiences. Feeling safe is important, but nervousness doesn’t always mean you’re unsafe. Remember that our human brains tend to overestimate fear, and underestimate our abilities to deal with fear. This is an evolutionary mechanism, it’s natural and not specific to you. But you don’t have to be over-involved with the feeling, is I guess my point. Plan wisely. Recognize and accept your fears. Also understand that while fear can serve you, it may not be the clearest depiction of reality.    

Katie Scott: I think the biggest thing is to just keep doing it. I’m not an expert and I’m still getting a lot of practice with this. I was recently talking to my friend about one of my solo backpacking trips. When she asked me if I was scared being out alone at night my response was “oh yeah. I was terrified like most of the time that I was out there!” I reflected on that, asking myself why I do stuff like that if it’s so scary to me and added, “I guess I just want to do it really badly though.” 

One thing that helps me feel better is planning all my bailout options ahead of time. I started carrying a Garmin inReach and that gives me some peace of mind as well. If I notice myself getting really nervous I do try to take a pause and remind myself that if I’m acting from a place of fear, I am more likely to make mistakes or bad decisions that could get me into trouble, so it’s actually imperative that I calm down as much as I can. I think this is about taking responsibility for my own mental state- another thing I am still practicing. 

Kristen Tonsagger: Again, I think the night in the tent when you can’t see what’s out there is always when my fears creep in. Riding through the night can be fearful, but I sing out loud and sometimes play music to help me feel like I’m not alone and that whatever is out there is scared off by my awful singing – ha! Also, finding a good spot to lay down where I feel safe and protected helps, but it’s not always the case when racing. On a tour, it’s much easier to find that perfect spot and feel comfortable. When it comes to maintenance or mechanics, I feel like being a smart, smooth rider helps me not make mistakes to cause mechanical issues, so whenever I get frustrated or tired, I remind myself that it’s okay to get off the bike and take a few minutes to walk and collect yourself instead of pushing and doing something stupid. Fear of breaking something or doing something detrimental to the bike is in the back of my mind, but positive thoughts breed positive outcomes! I have never had an encounter with another trail user to deter me from solo expeditions, but I know it can be a barrier for other women. I think generally bikepackers and backpackers I’ve encountered have also been solo, so we are both respectful of each other’s mission, and it can feel like you aren’t alone when you meet someone like that on the trail.

Laura Heiner: The more you do it, the easier it becomes, so the best thing to do is start doing it. My first big realization is that this isn’t a female issue. Men have most of the same fears too. Second, I started by just night riding local trails and roads alone in the dark. This is really scary at first and soon you realize, it’s not that big of a deal. Another good small step is to ride in a group, but sleep a little away from the others. It helps to start getting you used to being alone.

Then started by camping in towns. I hide in the park or behind a building. For me, that felt less scary because technically you’re not isolated. When I camp solo, I hide myself and my bike. I don’t tell anyone I pass on the roads or towns that I’m alone or where I plan to sleep. I always carry pepper spray. I always bring a SPOT tracker. When I know I’m ready to sleep somewhere, I roll quietly into that area with my lights off and quickly set up camp.

Campgrounds aren’t necessarily safer for a solo female. If a situation feels iffy, go on down the road and get in a hidden spot. If the campground has a host, sleeping close to them is a good choice.

Leigh Bowe: Because my biggest fear is fear of failure, my biggest tip is to start small. Get comfortable with your gear. Practice riding with everything you need, but maybe sleep in the back yard the first time or just out-and-back somewhere close to home so that you can easily bail if things get hairy. Have a positive mind-set and reshape “failure” as a “learning opportunity.”

You can also distract the paranoid mind with a good audiobook or podcast. 

Mary Ehlers: People suck! As much as I would love to say I’m more fearful of animals or lightning, I’m not. But it doesn’t stop me either. I don’t want to be scared to try something because of that fear. I’m a true crime fan and it happens everywhere. In the city, the small towns or national parks. I can’t run from it so I listen, learn, observe. I’ve learned to be mindful and know it’s good to be fearful which reminds me to be alert. 

My two big tips: I don’t tell people where I’m camping and I never tell people I’m traveling alone. 

Stay tuned for Bikepacking Solo Part Four: Benefits of Going Solo!

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