The open road is calling. Can you hear it?
I can hear it loud and clear. It calls to me from every book, blog, map, photo and travel show I see. It speaks to me through Google Maps quite often showing me skinny, scrawling ribbons of dirt in lonely places I would love to visit. I think of all the great things to see along the way, all the unique places to stop, all the promises of adventure and I just want to get out and drive. But how far am I willing to go on my own?
My wife and I like the road. We’ve put nearly 30,000 miles on our Subaru since we got it just over a year ago. Not drive-around-the-world mileage but still quite a bit. We love to pack up the dogs and some camping gear and go see what we can find, always making sure we’re open to surprises and plan changes (Bedrock, New Orleans). But I have more flexibility in my schedule than my wife does, more opportunity to get out (usually) and the road calls to me more often. That was part of the reason I got the KLR, to increase my enjoyment of the solo travel I end up doing sometimes.
Solo travel has some inherent dangers above and beyond the potential pitfalls associated with travel in general. And when alone in the middle of nowhere, the “usual issues” can have more severe consequences. Simple things like injury, mechanical problems, running out of fuel, dehydration and getting lost all become just a little more worrisome if you’re going solo. You’re out there without a net, without a ready support system. Help can be hours away sometimes and getting to that help can be problematic. But is solo travel really more dangerous that traveling in a pair? In a group? Aside from a rescue scenario where more hands make the work possible, I would argue it’s really not that much more dangerous. You really just have to be more aware of your limitations and be better prepared to handle situations that can come up. But how far should you push your limits?
The allure of traveling to far off places, of exploring the unknown, is nothing new. Humans are a species of curious and creative explorers that find great satisfaction and reward in seeking out the wonders of the world. We are seekers by nature, travelers by consequence and explorers at heart. The sedentary nature of our recent domestication is not normal for us, and many of us refuse to live that way. That’s why travel is so important. By foot, peddle, paddle, four wheels or two we need to get outside and seek the dusty, quiet corners of the map where human voices are rare and alien.
These places challenge us. They challenge who we think we are, what we think we can (or can’t) do, what we think is possible.
Often it’s these remote places that can pull us out of our comfort zones. Comfort is a four-letter-word that breeds complacency, stagnation and mediocrity. Life should not be comfortable, clean, easy, or safe. There’s no room to grow, improve or develop yourself in the confining space of comfort. That only happens when you can face challenges, push past your pre-conceived limitations and explore your potential…all things that take place outside your comfort zone. So how far is too far? When does challenging yourself become putting yourself in danger? Where do we draw the line?
The reality is that you will never know where your limits are unless you go beyond them now and again. You should push your boundaries occasionally, draw those lines and then choose wisely when to cross them. There is a difference between taking calculated risks and acting recklessly. Reckless action is taking unnecessary risk without caution or thought to the consequences. We have to understand the difference, especially when traveling alone. Because that’s where we draw the line, somewhere between risk and recklessness.
So traveling alone, how far will you go?
I look for that shaky ground just on the other side of comfortable and just shy of dangerous. The trick is to venture cautiously into new territory without getting in over your head.
Tools For Solo Travel
Probably the single greatest tool a solo traveler can possess is the ability to constantly practice solid Risk Assessment. Risk assessment is about situational awareness. It’s about understanding where you are, identifying potential hazards, evaluating the risk associated and then determining how to eliminate, avoid or manage that risk to keep yourself safe. Ask yourself, “If this goes bad, how bad will it be?”. The US Military uses an “Individual Travel Assessment Worksheet” for assessing risk whenever personnel are to travel alone. It allows them to document the departure and destination points, the state of the driver and their ability, the state of the vehicle and it’s ability, when the trip is to occur and how long it should take, possible stops/breaks and a list of potential hazards that may be encountered. All important things to consider AND communicate to those that will be expecting your return.
And that leads to the second greatest tool for solo travelers: Communication. As a hiker and backpacker that has often gone out on the trail alone, I have learned the value of communicating your travel plans with someone back home. Making sure you tell someone where your’re going and how long you expect to be gone is important but there’s a lot more valuable information to pass on. I found a great form online for providing detailed information about your backcountry travel plans [download here] that is designed specifically to provide key information to rescue services in the event that something really does go wrong. It includes things like vehicle identification, clothing, supplies you’ll have with you, purpose of the trip, proposed check-in times, and a lot more that can be used by rescue personnel to trace your whereabouts. Going out on longer trips I will fill out this Trip Plan Form, attach a copy of the planned route and leave this on my desk at home for my wife. Handing this form over to rescue can easily and quickly clear up an hours worth of questions that she’ll likely not have the answers to.
Last, but not least, in this list is Preparedness. Simply stated, have the skills and tools in place to manage the risks associated with your chosen activity. Most of this is pretty basic and universal like first aid, repair kits, etc. but if you are traveling someplace where help is less available you might consider some basic survival gear as well like firestarters, flashlight, knife, and whatever else is appropriate where you are. Be familiar with your gear…practice with it, know how to use it, know how to fix it, replace it when it’s worn out. Sharpen your skills…practice, study, take some classes. Have the right mindset…part of your preparedness is being in the right mindset, keep a good attitude, stay positive and stay focused. All skills in the world will do you no good if you give up.
Solo Travel really is not much more dangerous than traveling with partners, except that the responsibility is all on you. There is no back up, help is not necessarily close by and you are at the mercy of your own resourcefulness. But if you can pay attention, avoid reckless behavior, leave your plan with someone at home and prepare yourself for the challenges of the road then you have all the pieces in place to come home from your solo trip safe and sound.