This past weekend I did something I’ve never done. I went for a solo hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Appalachian Trail. I’ve hiked lots on my own near where I live and I often go to the trail in the mornings by myself or with a girlfriend before work, so being in the woods unaccompanied is not a new thing for me. My husband Rob had obligations with work and encouraged me to take this trip alone because he knows I love to hike. I really wanted to do a portion of the trail for AT Day, where hundreds of people register for a section of the AT and hike simultaneously on the same day with the hope of completing the entire trail in 24 hours.

I had my own concerns about doing this, mostly surrounding wildlife because the Smokies are home to a large population of black bears, but it wasn’t until I started telling people what I was planning that the fears of others began to ring in my ears.

Don’t even tell me you’re thinking about doing this alone. If you go by yourself you’ll be attacked by a rapist/bear/crazy person. PLEASE do not go alone because so many horrible things happen to women these days when they are by themselves. This is so dangerous, you should never do this kind of thing alone.

On and on they went, the discouragements. One person said I was crazy. Another decided to tell me a story about someone who was stabbed near Gatlinburg in the park. Over and over again I was disparaged for daring to think I could hike alone in the woods. What I saw as an adventure, others saw as my personal doom.

I did not want to miss out on this experience because I got a little scared or let the fears of others govern my actions.

The biggest thought in the forefront of my mind was that I refuse to let fear keep me from doing this. I was determined to hike that trail and yell and wave my arms at any bears I saw and make it to the highest point on the AT if it was the last thing I did. I did not want to miss out on this experience because I got a little scared or let the fears of others govern my actions. There are tons of people who hike the AT solo every year, including many hundreds of women who take on the challenge of tackling the trail alone. I have read so many blogs by female solo hikers and am in an Appalachian Trail Facebook group where women encourage each other to seek adventure, advise each other on safety, and admonish one another to conquer fear and get out there to experience the beauty of nature. I asked Rob if he was worried about me doing this and he said that at no point on all the hikes we’ve done, not even when we had to step out of a bear’s way in Colorado, did he ever think to himself, “I’m really glad I was there.” His confidence in my ability to do this helped me shut out the negative voices.

The morning I drove up to my starting point at Newfound Gap it was already drizzling and clouds were rolling in and nestling between the peaks. I headed straight for the trail and hiked a couple of miles without seeing anyone. The woods were misty, dark, and quiet, and it took my best efforts to keep my imagination at bay. I kept clicking my trekking poles together, making noise in case there was a bear in the area. Then suddenly, I rounded a turn in the trail and before my heart could reach my throat realized there was another female hiker who was also by herself! We stopped and chatted about AT Day and how many people had registered for this section. We talked about the weather, how all the views were obscured, and where we’d parked. Running into her was such a confidence booster because I kept thinking, “I’m not alone out here, there are other women hiking solo too!” Farther down the trail, I met a couple out for a day hike, then another female solo hiker asking how far the shelter was, then a small group of 4 ladies, another couple, and two more women. Everyone I passed said hello and occasionally we’d stop to talk about the weather or how much distance was left to the top. I couldn’t believe how many adventurous women were out on the AT on such a lousy day with such big smiles and warm hearts.

At about 3.6 miles to go the rain started. This was no gentle rain, but rather a full on downpour, and the trail transformed into a muddy river with water coming down the rocky areas in small cascades.  At this point, none of my technical gear mattered. Mother nature was determined to soak every inch of skin and forest. When I finally made it to Clingman’s Dome I decided not to turn around and hike the 8 miles back, but catch a ride with a couple headed down to Newfound Gap, another thing I’ve never done before. As I walked through the clouds down to the parking lot and sat in the car with that couple who so clearly did not feel like giving me a ride, the only thing I kept thinking was, “I did it. I did it and I didn’t die, and I will do this again.” As I drove back to my hotel around the winding roads of the Smokies, descending to clearer skies, I also kept thinking what a shame it would have been to miss out on this if I had let the voice of everyone else’s fears get to me.

I am so sick of women being told not to do certain things because they are not deemed strong enough, brave enough, capable enough, or safe enough.

A friend of mine recently went hang gliding and before she went she faced a barrage of comments from friends and family members that were cemented in fear. One friend told her she was being completely selfish because she’s a mother.  Others told her she would fall to her death. Yet her husband was encouraging her to go for it and do this because he knew it would be an incredible experience for her.  She flew a mile up in the air through clouds, higher than she’d ever been before. She let go of her fears and everyone else’s and embraced the sky. It was such an incredible moment for her that she is determined to go again. If she had listened to the naysayers and kept her feet on solid ground, she would have missed out on the thrill of a lifetime. Her story makes me think of the Toni Morrison quote that says, “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

What is it about women doing things alone that causes such fear inside of people? I am so sick of women being told not to do certain things because they are not deemed strong enough, brave enough, capable enough, or safe enough. My advice to others would be that if you have a woman in your life seeking to do something adventurous that you personally have reservations about, keep those thoughts locked up. Embolden her to step out and do that brave and wonderful thing she is courageous enough to do. Refrain from using words that will only serve to hold her back and make her doubt herself.

And for the woman contemplating venturing out on her own, I want to ask you to consider what lies on the other side of fear? What adventures, dreams, and blessings lay beyond the limitations we place on ourselves day after day after day?  Go!  Be a woman of valor who takes on new challenges with strength. Practice self love and acceptance by embracing those desires in your heart and chasing after them. It may not mean stepping out into the woods alone, but maybe it looks like writing the book that’s been rattling inside your brain for years, or speaking kind words to the gnarly stranger on the corner with the cardboard sign, or daring to spark your inner creativity by making a piece of weird art, or leaving a dead end job to find work that is meaningful. Whatever it is, let it be something along the lines of living without boundaries and restrictions and fears. Life is just too darn short for that.

For more inspiration on hiking solo as a woman, Leah recommends Backpacker’s “18 Tips From Female Solo Hikers” and these women’s hiking memoirs.