Bikepacking Solo Part One: First Solo Overnighter

Many women identify traveling and camping alone as a barrier to entering the sport of bikepacking or bikepack racing. Regardless of gender, it can be intimidating to bikepack solo. We wanted to reach out to women bikepackers and get their perspectives on riding and camping alone. In this four-part series, we’ll share about the first time these women went on a solo overnighter, camping logistics, their fears and how they face them, and the benefits of bikepacking solo. We’re excited to share their insights!

In the first part of this series, we want to introduce you to 10 women bikepackers, some of whom have years of solo bikepacking experience, and some of whom just started their bikepacking journey this year. They share some of their thoughts and memories of their first solo bikepacking experience.

Photo courtesy of Leigh Bowe

What was your first overnight by yourself like? Where were you? Why did you choose to go alone? What kinds of things did you bring?

Annie Le: I’m not sure when my first solo camp was, but my first solo tour was in France. I chose to cycle to the alps to meet friends for a week’s mountain biking in Morzine. I took an orange survival bag to sleep in, a fleece blanket to keep me warm, a book for a pillow and a teddy with wings as my friend and guardian angel. I also had a long skirt and high heels in case there was any partying to be had. I didn’t really consider inviting anyone else, they could all afford the flights and transfers and didn’t see the journey there as part of the adventure.

Eliza Sampey: My first solo overnight was actually a one-night backpacking trip when I was seventeen. I had just graduated from high school, and moved from my Minnesota home to Colorado for college. I knew no one but was eager to explore my new mountain home, so I went out for a solo overnighter in a nearby wilderness area. I brought a sleeping bag/pad, no shelter, a bag of ready rice and some tuna for dinner (still one of my fave backcountry meals!) a water filter, and probably not enough layers… I don’t remember specifically as that was 23 years ago! 

I had a ton of fun hiking on trail and then off trail on a series of granite rock slabs, until it started to get dark and I realized I’d forgotten to pack a headlamp. I had planned on exploring until nightfall and then finding a place to make camp — oops. I frantically ran around trying to find the trail in the waning light, but couldn’t. This was long before GPS so I had a paper topo map and compass, but it was also pre-cellphone, so I had no light at all and was legitimately lost in the dark. 

I had a brief moment of panic until I remembered that I had everything I needed with me for a comfortable night out, so I just decided to bivy right there on the rock slab and find myself again in the morning. I ate my dinner in the dark and it was a beautiful, quiet night out there on the slab with billions of stars. I grew up in the woods so I wasn’t afraid of being out there alone as long as I had everything I needed to keep me warm and comfortable. In the morning it took me five minutes to find the trail as it was no more than 30 feet away from where I’d bivied. I felt silly, but this experience also taught me how empowering it was to be able to take care of myself out there by having just the basics, and the presence of mind to keep my head on and just be okay with being “lost” until morning. 

Irena Netik: My very first night camping alone bike touring was on the north side of Lake Superior, near Nipigon in Ontario, Canada. I was woken up in the middle of the night with lights, people talking and loud music. I was disoriented, took my knife and held it tight on my chest. Until I realized that these were just kids who came to party by the lake on a Saturday night, I imagined them stealing my bags from under the picnic table and dragging me kicking and screaming from my tent. I planned what I would do if they approached my tent. There was no one else around other than another woman camped on the other side of the field. I was scared. It took some time for me to get enough courage to look out from my tent and calm myself with reality. I was prepared to be alone but didn’t really plan on it. I was biking with my good friend, Jessica, across Canada and she decided to take a break in Thunder Bay while I was determined to continue. She flew to Ottawa with her bike, and we decided to meet in Montreal in a couple weeks, from where we would again continue together. You never know what will happen on a long bike tour and good communication is critical to ensure that everyone is getting what they want from the trip, you give yourself the flexibility to adjust and continue to have fun.

Isabelle Fisk: My first solo overnight was a bit of trial by fire: I raced the Arizona Trail 300 in October 2022. The race is self-supported, so by default I was mostly solo. I traveled fairly light, so I only carried a bivvy, pad, and sleeping bag. It was only my second time camping outside a tent and under the stars, too.

Janie Hayes: It took me a long time to remember the answer to this question, and when I finally did it made me laugh out loud. I think my first overnight of sleeping outside solo was about a week into the TransAmerica Bike Race in 2016. I had started the race with my husband Jimmy, but ended up alone after the first three hours (he wanted to stop to take photos of the Oregon coast and I didn’t, so I kept going and wouldn’t see him again until the finish). On the evening of day seven, I found myself at Old Faithful in Yellowstone as it was getting dark, and not about to pay for a hotel room there. So I found a soft spot of moss in the trees just off the road and slept there, cuddling my bear spray. NOT a good idea in grizzly country, and definitely not recommended for readers of your publication. :)  That said, I survived – and it probably “broke the seal” for me in terms of fear of sleeping outside alone.   

Katie Scott: My first solo overnight (backpacking) was during the 2017 total solar eclipse. I was on the Collegiate West portion of the CT (Colorado Trail). The first night I hiked in with my then boyfriend but he had to go back to work so he turned back to the trailhead the next day and I kept hiking on for three more days. We did get to watch the eclipse together with some of those special glasses. It didn’t go completely dark where we were, but it did get darker and I remember everything felt more still for a few minutes and even the birds got quiet. I had done a fair amount of backpacking before, but only in groups in which I was not responsible for making any judgment calls, so I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. I felt like I was making a lot of guesses. My intention for the trip was to make it ceremonial because I felt the eclipse was a special opportunity for that. I remember I brought a candle and a journal and each night I sat outside my tent, getting really cold, sitting in front of this little beeswax candle I just stuck into the dirt and watching it burn in a space of inner reflection/meditation. I was in such a meditative space during much of the hiking too. At one point, when I came across some folks on dirt bikes who were stopped in the trail, it was so jarring- I felt like a wild animal. I continued on walking past them a ways, trying to appear calm, but then they started their engines and I felt so bewildered that I literally started running down this hill off the trail and hid behind a tree until they all passed! On the last night, I camped in some prime moose habitat and early that morning I was woken up by the sound of clomping hooves right next to my tent and then (presumably a giant moose) ripping and munching on some grasses. I was so scared! I was just thinking, dear god! Do not move or breathe or it’s going to freak out and charge you! I laid there for what felt like an hour, barely breathing while this moose just munched away before it finally left. I finished at the top of a pass that intersects with a road where my mom was going to pick me up. Before she arrived I had time to scramble up a peak above the pass and when I got to the top I felt like I was on top of the world- happy and free. I saw where the CT continued on past where I was ending and I remember feeling so intrigued and wanting to see what was beyond. I felt so powerful and just giddy finishing that hike. I think it gave me a lot of confidence. It felt really great having my mom support me by picking me up at the end too. That trip felt like such a journey!

Kristen Tonsagger: My first solo overnight bikepacking trip was on the Colorado Trail in May 2018. I was preparing for my first CTR (Colorado Trail Race) and up to that point I had never done a solo overnighter despite the bikepacking experience I had to date. I had my husband drop me off at Waterton Canyon and my goal was to make it to the end of Segment 3 and camp. I brought all of the gear I would need for the race so I could get used to carrying everything myself. I was also testing out a bivy for the first time, as well as no sleeping pad, so wanted to make sure I felt comfortable and confident using that sleeping set up. 

Gear List: Bivy, Sleeping Bag, Pillow, Puffy jacket, rain jacket/pants, head lamp, SPOT tracker, first aid kit, toothbrush, repair kit. I brought my water filter, bladder, lunch, dinner, breakfast and snacks. I didn’t bring a stove as my goal was to complete the race without one, so I didn’t want to rely on the comforts of hot meals, coffee, etc. on my trip.

Laura Heiner: My first solo overnighter was a self-supported race, called the Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400, in Idaho. Even though I knew the area well and knew other bikers would be on course, I was very nervous. I had done many rides with others at this point and wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of taking care of myself out on the course. The first night I ever slept alone I was in a park bathroom. I even took my bike into the stall with me.

I was ultra-light, so I was carrying a simple sleep system: sol bivy, 30 degree sleeping bag & pad and tools, food, clothing, navigation (Garmin), phone, water filter.

Leigh Bowe: I went through a bout of depression while pursuing my undergrad two decades ago. One day I craved some solace. It happened to be the dead of winter in Wisconsin, but no matter. I pointed the car south and drove to Wyalusing State Park and car camped on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. There was no one else there and I remember feeling so peaceful. I must have brought some food, and it’s highly likely that it was typical bikepacker/college student fare (packaged junk food). I certainly didn’t have a campstove. I do recall that the air mattress was one of those old blowup vinyl kinds I had for sleepover guests. I didn’t even have a sleeping bag, just several heavy comforters and my usual pillow. I did have a tent, though I don’t know where it came from or any details about it. I can recall that I slept well. I vividly remember the morning after waking up to pre-dawn stillness. I went for a walk on the frozen, mighty Mississippi and listened to all the creaks as the ice shifted and adjusted to the rising sun. It was a little unnerving, but I knew that ice fisherman would drive on the frozen river, so my rational brain helped me overcome this fear. This little adventure proved to be good medicine for my depression at the time.

The next time I solo camped was on a sidewalk, on the San Francisco Bay. I had just graduated with my BSN in nursing and was hitch-hiking up the west coast. I was into the Beatniks and fancied myself a free-spirited vagabond. I went on to solo backpack around Iceland (while on R&R from Baghdad) a year later, and eventually to solo bikepack during several races and ITT’s over the next couple of decades.

Mary Ehlers: My first solo night bikepacking was on the Great Divide. I was scared of everything that could go wrong yet, excited about being on my first solo adventure. I love the idea of doing things at my pace, no one to hold me back and no pressure to keep up with someone. I wanted to challenge myself in ways I never do. I’m a nervous person by nature and solo bikepacking has forced me to push outside my comfort zone in uncomfortable situations. 

Stay tuned for Bikepacking Solo Part Two: Camping Logistics!

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