Am I Mad To Take A Solo Wilderness Trip?

Solo Canoe Trip North Maine WoodsWhen I tell people I’m going on a solo wilderness trip, things could go either way. Either they get it or they don’t. And the ones that don’t – they really don’t. They’ll be asking me about wild animals and looking even more concerned that there won’t be any hotels and that I’ll get lonely.

Am I mad? This seems to be the $64,000 question that they don’t ask

Its easy for me to assume they don’t understand. They’re idiots. But that’s probably not true. We all still harbour deep seated fears of being alone and of animal attacks. And I guess heading off into the woods alone isn’t ‘normal’. Am I mad? Or just different.

What they don’t see is that the risks that pop into their minds when they think about it are actually the small ones.


If I were to do some sort of proper risk assessment, which I haven’t – this madness thing is starting to bug me now – things like drowning and hypothermia would be the biggies, the ones that were most likely to finish me off. Environmental risks but ones that ultimately I’m responsible for avoiding.

I don’t want to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp (or having a red hot fork poked up my arse by wailing, tormented demons, but really, I prefer the cloud scenario). Either way I’d rather not be there with harp/hurty arse thinking “Shit. I knew I shouldn’t have run the old Widowmaker with a loaded canoe”. Plus I’d hate for the first time most people hear of me to be on the TV. “Crazy guy dies alone in woods. Was he insane?”. You know the sort of thing.

Really, I’m not mad

That in itself starts to establish my sanity. This is a clear choice and it’s a choice drenched in logic. This isn’t something new. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, everything I’ve done in the past ten or so years has led me to this point. I’m not making some snap decision to go off and do something I have no knowledge or experience of.

I train myself. Much of it’s mental (anyone who knows me might think that it’s all mental but, hey, beneath the comfortable-if-a-little-too-well-upholstered exterior I’m like a coiled spring). Training and experience can reprogram much of what I was born with. It also allows me to get to know myself. I need to be able to step back from a situation and make decisions with a level head based on risks and an honest appraisal of my own strengths and weaknesses.

Absolute honesty is required and that takes some time to find. At my age I have a pretty fair view of my character. Gone is the hormone driven teenage posturing, followed by the trying to look professional twenties, along with the what the hell am I doing thirties. Now these layers have been peeled away to leave what is essentially just me. Your mileage may vary – this is just my story – hopefully it’ll take you less than forty years to realise what’s important.

There’s no room for my ego to come along for the ride

It’ll only get in the way and it might even kill me if I let it. But how can I ever know what I’ll do without trying it? Good question.

Sometimes all that’s left is to get out and do it. No theorising, no bullshit.

Just get out there.

Maybe you’re worried about sleeping out alone. Maybe you’re worried about travelling alone. If you feel like you have weaknesses then address them. Take some baby steps and see where they lead. I can promise you they’ll be some of the best steps you’ve ever taken.

I occasionally find myself reading a climbing book. Most talented climbers seem almost crazy but are regularly at a point where very few things matter, which interests me. The legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti wrote the following passage about his solo adventures:

“Confronting harsh conditions alone, without support waiting in the wings, taught me to make my own decisions using my own standards and, appropriately, to pay for them with my own hide. Although distressing at times, solitude was an invaluable and often essential finishing school. I learned to know myself better as I made these internal voyages of discovery. But more than that, I came to understand others and the world around me. During these solo adventures, the very silence sometimes stunned me: but by “silence” I also imply reflection – listening to my own inner voice.”

He hits the nail right on the head. This really speaks to me.

Everyday excess

In my everyday life everything is sort of just there. In the supermarket I can get almost anything I desire even though I already have enough stuff to start my own supermarket. I drive a car. I have a few insights into how it works but rely on fuel and someone else to mend it. I use computers but have no idea how they really work and couldn’t imagine how I’d begin to make one. I carry a device around with me that’s like a drug. It encourages me to ignore the humans around me and interact with other humans I don’t really know on the other side of the world. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s all fucking nuts.

When I go into the woods I take relatively few things with me. Simple, trusted things that I know are important. I carry with me the knowledge to mend most of these things or improvise if I don’t have the specific knowledge. A couple of ‘modern’ things, such as cameras, come along too but if they stopped working I really don’t think it would matter much. In fact I think it might even make everything more enjoyable. I travel by simple means. Very little can go wrong if I’m careful.

Bad habits

In every day life I find it way too easy to fall into bad habits. I don’t exercise enough, I eat crap, I buy crap, I get distracted by useless stuff. But strip away the ‘every day’ and step into a world that just leaves ‘life’ and it’s a whole different story. My environment is simple, my needs are simple and my aims are simple. Honest is a word that describes it well. It feels good. It feels natural. It feels like I’m close to my roots.

I relish the solitude of travelling alone. Even with the finest companion I’ll never experience nature in the way I’ve experienced it on my own. After a little while I naturally slow down to match the speed of my surroundings. There’s not really anywhere to get to. I often stop to sit, just observing and enjoying what’s going on around me. As I slow down, I start to see things I’ve never noticed before. This is when I feel the transition between our manufactured world and the real world, the natural one we seem to have abandoned.

The antidote

Solitude in this simple world is the perfect antidote to ‘normal’. With no useless distractions my mind works on what it should be working on. Profound thoughts pop into my head (well, a bit profound anyway). If there’s not too much work to do around camp I find myself resting more. Maybe even taking a well earned nap under that big old tamarack after lunch. Living life to my own schedule. Times like these are what the phrase “living like a king” was invented for.

But it’s not all relaxation. When I’m alone, the buck stops with me. If I’m cold it’s my problem, if I’m wet it’s my problem, if I’m hungry it’s my problem. The list is endless but done right or wrong, my journey continues towards self reliance. And self reliance is a very sweet thing to have.

So if you ever found yourself asking me why, this is what I’d probably liked to have said but didn’t. Who’s the mad one?


  1. Max says

    I imagine that coming back to civilization must be strange. Do you ever plan on leaving civilization for good?

  2. says

    Hi Max,

    Is coming back to civilisation strange? In a way yes and in a way no. What a great answer!

    I find it rather like two different parts of my life and I enjoy them both for different reasons. I certainly find simplicity appealing and this is something I’m trying to apply to my life in civilisation too.

    As for leaving for good? It’s certainly an interesting question. I only play at this stuff compared to anyone who lives without modern convenience 100% of the time. I’ve always come back so I’m really not sure if I could ever cut that tie.

    Would you?

  3. David Towlun says

    I just discovered your website and am enjoying making my way through it. I take solo canoe trips into the North Main Woods and enjoy the solitude. I find that in modern life, nearly everything has a design on your time and resources – whether it be your family, co-workers, email, bills, or even that guy in the car behind you who just wants you to get the hell out of his way. The most impressive thing I’ve encountered in the wilderness is its general indifference to my very existence. Most of the animals in this part of the country won’t attack you right out, so the only thing of any danger you’re really faced with is the weather and your own level of self knowledge. It’s the indifference of nature that is both terrifying and exhilarating. You’re not mad. You’re right on. Thanks for the posts.

  4. Jeff Kent says

    Hi Nick

    I don’t know you from a hole in the wall but I like your writing style. I’m a New Englander 100% and it is very true that people everywhere (not just around here) don’t get it. It used to be when I was growing up (late 70’s early 80’s) that the “weirdo/geek” stayed in his house and played video games and watched t.v. That was the kid that got the shit kicked out of him. Nowadays, if a kid goes outside and wants to play in the woods, he’s considered the weirdo. How messed up is that? Self reliance is a huge, lifelong endeavor. It helps people no matter what they are trying to do. I believe it gives them the strength to pursue their dreams and not rely on our little box mentality. We eat shit out of boxes, sleep on a box, live in a box and drive around in a box. How crazy is that? The woods will humble even the strongest soul. There’s something to be said for that.

  5. Jeff Kent says

    I’m a die hard New Englander. I’ll live here and roam these woods until they put me in a pine box if I don’t die having fun first. Everyone else is nuts. 25-30 years ago the kid that stayed in and watched t.v. and played video games was the nerd/geek and the one that had the snot beat out of him. He was the weirdo. Nowadays, the weird kid is the one that wants to go play in the woods while all his friends are inside playing video games and living a life of fantasy. How crazy is that? These next generations are being set up for failure by their parents. I took my son shoveling the other day and an old lady said she hasn’t seen a young kid wanting to shovel and make money in over 20 years! I’m just glad I have the ability to make change with my son and my daughter. Love your writing style.


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