Don’t let the fear of being on your own stop you from embracing travelling solo.
I approach the smiling man leaning gently on his door frame. His face is weathered by the mountain gales and a small toddler is cradled in his arms. “You need a room?” he asks. He casts his gaze behind me, and a puzzled expression clouds his face. “Only one?”. This is a common experience, not just on my solo trek in Nepal, but everywhere I’ve travelled on my tod: from the Scottish Highlands to Senegal. People can’t quite seem to fathom why I would travel alone, why I would want to travel alone, or how I could possibly do so, given that I’m a woman. “Gosh, you must be brave. I could never do that” people say. Well, I’m here to dispel that myth.
We’re afraid of being alone. Evolutionarily, it’s how we’re wired. If you’re wandering alone across the savannah, you’re more likely to get eaten by lions and your one-man wanderer genes are unlikely to get very far. Women are particularly scared of being alone, but I would argue this is learned rather than innate. Women are “vulnerable”, we’re told. Annoyingly, this is kind of true: but not always in the way you think. Sexual assault is a real and serious danger, however, in 90% of cases, the perpetrator is known to the victim. Statistically, you’re safer with strangers. I feel immeasurably safer alone in the Scottish Highlands than I do with friends in Glasgow on a Saturday night. Our brains aren’t very good at assessing these types of risks, so we must override them, again and again. I still get scared alone in my tent, but meeting this fear is part of what makes the experience so rewarding.
This fear stops many people from enjoying the benefits of travelling alone, of which there are many. Firstly, you’re rarely actually alone. I’ve made so many more friends travelling alone than I ever would travelling in a group, and moments savoured with fleeting connections are often the highlight of the trip. They include being invited into a woman’s home for homemade sticky toffee pudding when my tent nearly got washed away; a lift in a speed boat across the loch to cut off the 2-hour bog-slog all the way around; having a friendly face and a couch to sleep on wherever I may go next. I bet none of these things would have happened if I wasn’t alone, and being perceived as a “vulnerable” woman has its benefits: strangers offer you help and kindness, openly and freely.
Secondly, you can do what you want, when you want. No standing around in the club waiting for your friend to stop eating the face off a stranger so you can go home, no traipsing around art galleries you have no interest in and – my favourite part – you can stop for snack time whenever you damn well feel like it. I once travelled in a group of 7 (awful idea) and the only thing I wanted to do was climb a volcano. When we finally got around to it, my friends got tired halfway up and – with only one guide between us – we all had to turn around. If I was by myself, I could have spent the whole 6 weeks climbing volcanos, which I eventually realised and did just that. Since then, there’s been no going back.
Another great thing about travelling alone is you only have to put up with your own bad moods. Whilst hiking the Cape Wrath Trail, I would always overtake the same couple at that point in the afternoon when they were tired and hungry and domestic hell was about to break loose. One needed to stop, the other wanted to keep going. One needed food, the other was too cold to stop. One was basking in the gleeful exuberance of life, the other had blisters and diarrhoea.
But don’t you get lonely? I get asked this question a lot. The short answer is no. The honest answer is well, sometimes. But I also feel loneliness at home, with friends, in cafes, at the supermarket, even whilst being wrapped in a bear hug. Loneliness isn’t the same as being alone, and what’s so wrong about feeling lonely anyway? When you’re alone you have the space to look at it, dissect it, understand it and see it for what it really is: a feeling that comes and goes. But if you still don’t believe me, refer to point one: you will quickly find your people.
But isn’t experience better when it’s shared? Again, the honest answer is sometimes. Sharing experiences with friends and family is one of the most rewarding and uplifting aspects of life. Having said that, I also think there is great value to be gained from facing experiences alone. Other people can get in the way: as soon as you add words to a moment you’ve removed yourself from experiencing it directly. There is something raw and visceral and beautiful about being alone, particularly in nature. You don’t have to worry if your partner is enjoying it as much as you are, you can settle into your own little glow of self-satisfaction.
Don’t get me wrong, there are additional risks that come with travelling alone that you must think about. I never go anywhere without telling someone where I’m going and when I plan to be back. If I’m away for a while, I have a check-in person who I update on my whereabouts. In the 6 months I travelled around India by myself I never stayed out late or walked home alone. Ultimately, if the fear outweighs the fun – whether it’s real or perceived – there’s not much point in travelling alone. But until you give it a try, how will you ever know?