May 13, 2016
By Casey Adams
In honor of Hike Like A Girl weekend in May, we had a conversation with Shelli Johnson/YourEpicLife.com, about her personal experiences hiking as a woman alone and with groups of women. The lessons and the value of hiking like a girl are timeless, so read on for inspiration, no matter when you go hiking in Wind River Country!
Did you have fears of hiking solo when you first started, and what were they?
I started hiking seriously when I was 20 years old—some 27 years ago—and yes, I was afraid of hiking alone. I was frightened by all that could go wrong in the wilderness. The stakes in the wilderness are so much higher than they are in civilization, especially when out there all alone.
But I think this question is interesting because when I first started hiking, I had another fear. I was probably more afraid of being alone than I was of hiking alone, if that makes sense.
What did you find was the reality surrounding those fears?
I’ve come to believe that fear is not bad, just something to take seriously and to not ignore. Fear narrows our focus, and in the wilderness, this can literally save a life. So my fears about the wilderness and all that could go wrong haven’t vanished. I did get myself some skills, though, which means I’m better prepared than I used to be. I took a NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School] course and became a Certified Wilderness First Responder, and I now have years of experiences that continue to inform my safety. I always let my husband (or someone) know where I’m going, and when I expect to return. I carry bear spray, and I pay attention. I use an InReach personal locator beacon so my husband can track my whereabouts on my longer treks, and I can send a text letting him know where I am at, what time I expect to return, etc.
The other fear—of being alone—is gone. Over time, the more I hiked alone, the more comfortable I became. I have fallen in love with solitude, even if it was not on purpose. I lost my Division I basketball scholarship in year three. At 20 years old and a long way from home, I was devastated. I found myself without a map, so to speak. And even though the basketball players remained my friends, I was on a different course, and so I started spending more time alone.
At first it was hard and uncomfortable. I was afraid people would think I was a loner or lonely. I find this is the case for many who are not accustomed to spending time alone. It can be uncomfortable at first. Now, I yearn for solitude. When I don’t have regular times of solitude, I feel off center. I hike about 1,000 miles a year, and 500 of those are alone. It’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with. When we’re in solitude, we can hear our thoughts, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. It can be a sort of reckoning, which is hard, but it is also one of the reasons I argue for its importance. When we’re alone, and our mind is set free to wander, we have new insights and inspirations that we might not have had.
Socrates said, “Know thyself.” One of the best ways I’ve come to know myself, and to discover new things about myself, is by being alone hiking up or down some trail, lost in my thoughts, and available only to me.
What did you learn/gain personally by hiking like a girl?
That I am more capable than I thought I was. At everything. I’ve learned that I can go farther than I think I can, and this of course has translated to all areas of my life and my work. I’ve learned how to be self-sufficient and how to survive in the wilderness. These are powerful abilities, not only in the wilderness, but in life.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is not weakness but courage. I know myself. I know who and what are most important in my life, and much of the credit for this clarity goes to my time spent alone, examining my life while wandering through the woods.
What is special about hiking with only women in the Wind River Mountains, specifically?
There is so much that is special about sharing the trail or an epic adventure with other women.
Women tend to want to support each other. They seldom compete with one another. Women tend to put others first. They have such empathy for one another. In my experience, women want to help each other succeed.
I lead women’s groups on wilderness expeditions, and I see this over and over and over again. It is inspiring to witness, and it makes me proud to be a woman.
I’ve also learned, and experienced, that as women, we are often self-critical. We can be so hard on ourselves. We are usually juggling many demands in our life and our work, and even if we’re keeping all of the balls in the air, we think we ought to be doing better, or more. What I’ve learned is that self-criticism is not helpful, and that it crashes the party, usually during times when we could really use support. I speak from experience here… I have struggled with self-criticism my whole life. So one of the things that I hope women who hike together, and with me, gain is a better understanding of themselves, which can have the wonderful effect of helping them to be more compassionate to themselves.
When a friend or a colleague is struggling up a mountain in his or her life, we are likely to be compassionate and supportive. But when we’re doing it ourselves, we’re often our worst critic. It’s so much more powerful to love ourselves rather than beat ourselves up. There’s that wonderful saying, “Treat others like you’d like to be treated.” I would like to add, “And treat yourself the way you’d like to treat others.” When we are as kind to ourselves as we are to others, amazing things happen. We experience joy again. We stop comparing ourselves, or our lives, to others.
What lessons do you most enjoy seeing the women you coach discover when they’re in the mountains, specifically when they’re on their own?
That they can climb mountains. Literally, but also in their life. That just because terrain may be loose, they can find stability in it if they pay attention and are deliberate in taking their steps.
One of my 2015 Epic Women, Tina, from Charlotte, NC, said, “trekking in the wilderness showed me that I could lead without having all of the answers. Leadership is sometimes acknowledging what you don’t know and letting others show you the way. Prior to my wilderness experience, I was too proud to be seen as vulnerable. As women leaders we sometimes want to appear stronger or more confident than we feel internally so as not to be viewed as weak by others. But displaying my vulnerabilities ironically has helped me be a stronger leader.” I could not say it better.
What tips would you give someone who is considering heading out on a hike on her own?
First of all, I dare you to do it! You will be so glad you did!
Start small. Pick a well-known trail, and make the decision that you are going to go on a solo hike. Find out the specifics, such as trailhead location, distance, etc. Check the weather forecast. Be sure to tell someone about your plans, including your estimated time of departure, where you’re hiking, and your estimated return.
I recommend leaving at sunrise. The light in the morning is a bonus, and it will be more of a solo hike if you beat the crowds and have some of the country and views to yourself. Leave your headphones, music and/or podcasts in the car. You’ll be more open and alert to your surroundings. Listen to nature’s sounds. Smell the trees, sagebrush, and flowers. Look up and around. Let your mind wander. Listen to your thoughts. Imagine. Every now and then, stop and take a breather. Just be where you’re at. We hear a lot about the value of being present, of being in the present moment. In my experience, nothing helps us be present like being alone in the wilderness.
Have a great time! And, great job getting out to hike alone. I promise this will be the start of a great journey with yourself.
Shelli Johnson, owner of Epic Life, is an entrepreneur, life and leadership coach, leadership development facilitator, keynote presenter, writer, adventurer and guide. She is married to Jerry, and is the mother of three sons, Wolf, 16, Hayden, 14, and Fin, 9. She lives in Lander, WY, where she frequently hikes in the foothills and mountains of the Wind River Range. #WindRiverCountry