Sleeping out in the wild where there are no roads, no cars, no signs of human life. Making your way, day after day, across a landscape marked only by trails. What better adventure than this?
Heading out on my own is something I've wanted to try for many years. This year I made it happen. Here's a trip report of my three day, two night backpacking adventure on the Elbow Loop Trail.
Do I have what it takes to spend two nights in the wilderness alone?
This year I am going to try backpacking by myself. I’ll head out for two nights and three days all alone near the end of June. Dan would come with me if I asked him to. We’ve enjoyed many backpacking trips together and we’ve got another trip planned for the end of July.
But I’ve often wondered what it would feel like to hike out alone into the wilderness just me and my backpack containing everything I need to survive. How would I feel hiking along the trail by myself and trying to fall asleep all alone in my tent - nervous? lonely? afraid?? Or would I feel free, empowered, confident, brave?
I’ve done many backpacking trips with friends and family. I’ve researched routes and campsites, planned daily distances and rest stops. I’ve obtained permits and passes, reserved sites and created packing lists and menus. I’ve carried heavy packs over different types of terrain for multiple days. I’ve set up camp in the rain and occasionally in the snow. I’ve been cold, wet, tired, hungry, sore, grumpy and even scared but at the end of every trip, I’m always eager to go again. The joy outweighs the hardship.
I know I can handle the physical and logistical challenges of backpacking by myself. I think the hard part will be the mental game. Will my own thoughts and emotions get in my way?
Fear Can be Big
I started doing some shorter hikes by myself last year and, I have to say, at first I felt pretty anxious. I wasn’t sure I should be out there alone.
My greatest fear was bears. I imagined coming around a corner and surprising a bear on the trail. In my dark imaginings, the bear would be angry or threatened and attack before I had a chance to think. I carried bear spray and loud horns but my imagination could always conjure up scenarios where these devices failed me and I ended up grievously injured or suffered a painful death.
I enjoy time alone in other aspects of my life. After university, I lived alone for a couple years. Sure, there were lonely times but mostly it was peaceful and restful. I enjoyed coming home to my own private space after work or after an evening out with friends.
I think I can find the same peaceful aloneness out in nature. I believe it will feel like a nice break from the daily obligations and responsibilities of life. Just me and my dog Peaches moving along the trail and in the tent at night.
My first shorter “alone hikes” were near the road where there were other people hiking. It felt safer to have others around. I also brought Peaches. I didn’t really believe she could scare off a bear but having her with me made me feel a little less alone while still hiking by myself.
I kept reminding myself that in reality, the chances of being attacked by a bear are very remote. Bears are out there but typically they run away from hikers or just ignore them. I’ve met bears out hiking with others and they always either run or carry on eating plants as if we weren’t there. It shouldn’t be any different alone.
As I completed shorter hikes, I began to feel comfortable doing longer hikes, either with Peaches or completely alone. I rode my mountain bike alone too. I’m now pretty comfortable heading out for a few hours by myself, even when I know bears are in the area. The next step is to spend a night or two out by myself.
I think it will feel quite different from backpacking with others. I love the walking-away-from-the-road feeling where I know I won’t be back to civilization for a few days or more. I love that when I’m backpacking, all I really have to do is walk. At the end of the day’s walking, it’s a simple matter to set up camp and make some food. Then sleep, eat breakfast, pack up camp and walk some more. Simple.
It’s a pure experience. How will being alone change this?
I have reserved campsites for two nights on a popular hiking, backpacking and mountain biking loop close to home. Peaches and I will stay in designated campgrounds so we’re almost guaranteed to have other people staying there too. I think being around others will be reassuring.
And who knows, maybe I’ll love it. Or maybe I will get out there the first night and be so uncomfortable that I pack up and head right back. That’s fine. At least I will have tried.
Maybe it will be something new and different that I can’t imagine right now. Maybe my next trip will be somewhere more remote where I’m less likely to see other people. I won’t know until I try. And try I will.
June 27 - 29, 2023
Solo Backpacking Trip
The Elbow Loop Trail starts and ends at the Little Elbow Recreation Area at the end of Highway 66 west of Bragg Creek, Alberta.
The trail is 42.2 km and has an elevation gain of 1,660 meters.
I hiked it over 3 days starting on the Little Elbow section and getting to Romulus backcountry campground on my first night. I went on to Tombstone backcountry campground on the second night and then hiked out to the road along the Big Elbow section.
Scroll down for photos and descriptions of the hiking and camping for each day and night.
It's a straightforward hike with well maintained trails and it's fairly popular which made it the perfect route for my first solo backpacking trip. I was a bit nervous to head out on my own. Read about it by clicking the button below.
Distance hiked: 11.4 km
Elevation gain: 268 meters
Elevation loss: 105 meters
The map shows the entire route. The green line along the top section is the Day 1 route.
The sign describes a lot different hikes and activities in the area. We hiked the "43 km Elbow Loop" mentioned on the sign.
We left the Little Elbow West Trailhead around 9 am on Tuesday June 27. The trail was wide and easy to start.
As we hiked, we started to see new mountains coming into view. The trail climbed but not too steeply. We gained our elevation gradually.
Our trail took us past Mount Remus. We met five people heading up to climb Mount Remus. They were out for the day.
Their route went up the tree gully in the middle of the photo, then angled up and right along orange coloured gravel to reach the large orange area near the top. Then left to the summit.
Here Peaches and I stopped for a first lunch break and to get some water. I treated all my water with Pristine tablets that gave the water a mild chlorine flavour. Not pleasant. Adding juice crystals helped.
We ended up stopping for multiple food breaks each day. I found it easier to eat small amounts many times during the day rather than one large lunch. It can be difficult to get food in on these long trips. On this day, I was impatient to get the miles done and curious to see the trail ahead.
We hiked past Mount Remus. I believe this is where Mount Romulus started coming into view. The campground we were heading to for the night was along the base of Mount Romulus.
Our first day of hiking ended here.
Arriving at Romulus in the early afternoon, after our first day of hiking, Peaches and I found 10 tent sites like this one. Only two were taken at that time. I chose this one. It was apart from the others and the shortest walk to the outhouse and cooking area.
Here Peaches and I set up our tent. It was fairly level and the gravel kept it pretty dry during the rain storms that came through that afternoon.
Peaches and I sat here for a second lunch break after we got the tent set up. We only managed to eat and relax for a short time before the rain started and we were forced into the tent.
Good thing I brought a book. I read almost the entire novel "The Catcher in the Rye" during this three day trip.
Peaches investigated the firewood pile. I think a chipmunk was hiding there.
Here I cooked and ate my dinner after my first day of hiking and my breakfast the next morning. This was a shared space and the site of some excellent campfire conversation during dinner on my first night.
Distance hiked: 12.3 km
Elevation gain: 514 meters
Elevation loss: 340 meters
The map shows the entire route. The green line along the top section is the Day 2 route. The Little Elbow Provincial Recreation Area at the bottom of the map is where I started.
The day started warm with blue skies as we left Romulus backcountry campground and started our hike to Tombstone Mountain.
This big boy still has some snow in the gullies.
The trail was wide and easy for this section of the hike.
As the morning passed, it got steeper.
But wait, is that bear scat on the trail? It's not too fresh so no panic. I just kept shouting "Hey Bear" from time to time to avoid unpleasant surprises.
New mountains came into view as we continued our hike that morning. On the right is the top of Mount Rae, in behind on the left perhaps is Mount Arethusa.
Dan and I climbed Mount Rae in 2018 from the other side starting at Ptarmigan Cirque off the Highwood Pass.
Here is one end of the Tombstone Lakes Trail. I know from a hike a few years ago that the other end is at the Tombstone Campground, our destination for the night.
Peaches and I decided to hike past the lakes and leave the road-like trail in favour of the narrower path through the forest.
The hiking trail winds up through forest, gaining some elevation. It was a lovely hike.
Here we stopped for our first lunch. It was a great place to rest but the clouds were rolling in and I worried we would get some harsh showers before we arrived at camp.
Unfortunately, this was the only photo I took of Tombstone Lakes.
Fishing is allowed but there is a limit because fish grow slowly in this alpine lake.
We arrived at the campground in the early afternoon. It is well appointed with all the same amenities as Romulus.
This was one of three firepit areas. We had dinner here and breakfast the next morning.
Here Peaches and I set up our tent. This camgpround was really beautiful. There was a little creek at the bottom of the bank below the trees at the back. This campground was very popular and most of the sites were occupied by night time.
We had a good night's sleep here and felt rested for our final day, the longest hike of our trip.
Distance hiked: 21.7 km
Elevation gain: 340 meters
Elevation loss: 688 meters
The map shows the entire route. The green line starting at the lower left and ending near the upper right corner is the Day 3 route.
This map at the Tombstone Campground showed our first two days of hiking and a big day remaining for Day 3. From here, we will hike down the Big Elbow River, past the Big Elbow backcountry campground and out to the road.
When I was having breakfast on Day 3, the morning sun was shining so beautifully on this mountain, Mount Elpoca. I fell in love with it a little bit and started wondering if there are any ascent routes on this east side of it. Ah, this is how alpine climbing dreams are born!
But we had to turn our backs on this mountain and walk down the valley on this day. I will return. The mountain will wait.
Our trail started out narrow through a closed in forest. It was a bit shady and cool. But blue skies and sunshine promised a warm morning.
One last look back up the river towards the dreamy mountains.
The forest opened up a bit as we continued through the morning.
The day was very warm and Peaches was looking for every chance to get some water. Good thing there were small creeks along the trail in addition to the river.
We were taking breaks every hour to hour and a half for water and snacks.
The river rushes through a narrow canyon far below.
That's Cougar Mountain in the background.
This was one of our rest stops. We found a soft place to sit in the shade.
After over seven hours on the trail, we come to the end. A great day and a great trip!
I think Peaches enjoyed sleeping in the tent with me. She looks pretty comfortable here, on our second day waiting out the rain in the tent.
I really enjoyed backpacking by myself but I didn't feel the full benefits of it until I got back. I wrote an aritcle about my experience which you can read here.