The ideal solo paddling and camping experience doesn’t come easily but is possible. PHOTO BY DARREN BUSH
The ideal solo paddling and camping experience doesn’t come easily but is possible. PHOTO BY DARREN BUSH
The image is archetypal. A rustic figure stands at the edge of a stream, one foot up on a boulder, sporting high leather boots, a red flannel shirt, a pipe clenched between teeth, a wistful yet peaceful look on his face as he looks out over the water. A red wood and canvas canoe sits on a gravel bar with two well-used and weathered paddles, a small campfire in the background, coffee percolating in an old granitewear pot.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Ah, solitude. Peace and quiet. Not another person within 50 miles. Bliss.”
Everyone loves the idea of a solo trip, whether it’s in a canoe, kayak or by foot or bicycle. I say “the idea” because sometimes we become nostalgic, longing to be the confident man or woman in the Theater of the Mind.

In my experience, a lot of people talk about solo tripping; few actually do it. That may be a blessing in disguise. Nothing is more miserable than a poorly prepared adventurer with the wrong gear in the wrong place with the wrong skills. 

I call it the three-legged stool of success. Then I add a fourth one (more on that later).  I’ll be talking about this in a paddling context but it’s true of most any outdoor adventure.

Leg One: The right gear
There’s a tendency to think “right gear” means “expensive gear” or “most elaborate gear.”  There is a correlation between the quality of an item and its price, but that isn’t the metric to use. It’s the right gear; the stuff that fits the scale of where you’re going, what sort of water you’re going to encounter, what fits you and fits your budget.
 
The big things are important, such as the right boat is key to success. That said, a leaking dry bag has the greatest potential to render you miserable. The little things are as important (or more important) than the big things.

I’m not going to provide you with a gear list here, as each person has different wants and needs. Some like to pack heavy and bring the dutch oven. Some folks saw off the handle of their toothbrush and drill holes in what’s left to lighten the load. The point is to have a list, and not just one. I have one for early spring or late fall trips and one for summer overnights or longer outings. What I take depends on where I’m going and when.

Leg two: The right skills
My friend Tim, a licensed Maine guide and primitive skills instructor, has this motto: “The more you carry in your head, the less you carry on your back.” Gear does not make up for a lack of skills.

I once saw a person at a winter pool session all gussied up: His PFD made him look like he was ready for Armageddon, he carried flares, dye markers, two knives, a strobe on his back and who-knows-what was in his pockets. I was praying one of his dye markers wouldn’t blow up in the pool and turn everything a wonderful chartreuse green. A British friend leaned over and whispered, “Don’t mind him. He’s all kit and no clue.” 

“Good kit” is good, but without the skills to use it, it’s of negative worth. It just might give you the false confidence to go someplace you shouldn’t.

Skills aren’t learned overnight. They take time and patience, instructors and mentors and the ability to absorb over time the skills that distill from the heavens like dew. If you can roll a kayak in a pool, that’s awesome, but the ability to roll in a river is by no means guaranteed. Starting a fire in the fireplace doesn’t mean you can start one in the wind and rain.

My advice: start now. Sign up for a Wilderness First Aid class, a great place to start as you will be safer yourself and a big help to people who are not prepared. Go tripping with people you trust and find mentors. There are always people wiling to share their knowledge.

Leg three: The right place
A few years ago a well-to-do young man from a major midwestern city came into my shop and said “I want to paddle to New Orleans. What should I buy?” After visiting with him, it became apparent that he had no camping or paddling skills.

Well, aside from failing the right skills and right place criteria, at least he was willing to max out a credit card to get what would have been the right gear. He left with a few books and some advice: Get some time on the water before buying a bunch of gear, then plan a trip carefully. Maybe start small. A trip on a local river with one overnight stay might be a good place to start.

It was hard to talk him out of following his dream, but I have no regrets. He may be alive today because my staff and I told him he needed to get some smaller trips in before attempting a big one.

The fourth leg
So let’s assume you have the skills, gear and a suitable route that’s within your skill level. Great. What’s the fourth ingredient? It’s all between your ears. 

People go on solo trips (especially solo wilderness trips) for a variety of reasons. Peace and quiet is awesome. You may go a day or two or more without hearing any other human voices, even your own, if you choose to take a monastic style trip. You’ll be alone, just a paddler and his or her thoughts. 

Some folks go out on solo trips as a way to heal from a painful event in their lives, to get in touch with their inner selves or to be coddled in the loving arms of Mother Nature. It’s true that many of the best times of my life have been watching a glorious sunrise or a meteor shower. I’ve experienced sublime, perfect weather, the sun just warm enough and the breeze perfect to blow away mosquitoes without causing my wet clothes to fly off the clothesline.

I’ve also experienced the other end of Ma Nature’s temper tantrums. Foam blowing off the tops of whitecaps from winds gusting from 30 to 40 mph. That and unseasonable rain and sleet keeping me cooped up in a lean-to, the canoe rolled against the open face. I was definitely not being coddled.

Nature won’t heal you, only you can do that. Nature can provide a great backdrop in which you can experience wonderful insights, but the mental work is yours to do.

Some people go solo tripping in order to prove something, to conquer nature. Thanks to TV’s “Survivorman” and his ilk, many feel that nature is something to be tamed or beaten. Here’s a fact, gentle readers: Mother Nature always bats last. If you go into a solo experience trying to conquer the natural world, you’ll lose.

Finally, some folks go to bond with others. I partially agree here. Before I married my wife, we spent some time camping so I could see how she deals with no make-up (she still looks beautiful) and annoying pests (no problem) and possible discomfort. She emerged the clear choice. Thirty years later, zero regrets.

That said, canoe-camping trips can also drive a wedge between people. Friends who go on a trip together may soon learn that their buddy, who can always be counted on for a laugh, can’t be counted on to do the dishes. And if you learn that two days into a seven-day trip, you’ll start trying to figure out how to dispose of his body with just a multitool.

The point of all this is to show that nature is just a canvas upon which people can paint their own pictures or stories, and a solo trip allows you to be the artist and the lone one.

I can and have spent hours drawing giant figures on sand bars and enjoying the hissing sound a stick makes when dragged through wet sand. I’ve curled up next to a small campfire and slept under the stars, barely sleeping because of a pair of angry beavers slapping their tails in the water all night. And I’ve eaten some amazing camp food fit for a king. 

While I love tripping with friends, I’m to the point where I love solo trips as much as any other. Why don’t you build your self a three-legged stool and throw a fourth leg on it for good measure?

Darren Bush is owner and chief paddling evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin. When not eating, sleeping or working, he’s likely paddling or making something with his hands.