Image of the November 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
November 2023 Issue
Home / Articles / Everyday wonders

Alone doesn’t mean lonely

Hazel Phillips only tramps if she’s alone or with somebody. Photo: Hazel Phillips

If you want excellent company, try tramping solo.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” When I’m tramping alone, I consider myself to be in rather excellent company; we (me and my other personality, Susan) chat to ourselves, stop regularly for snacks and to stare at the scenery and, best of all – we agree on everything.

Solo tramping is an everyday walking wonder. You can go whenever and wherever you like, stop when you like, walk at whatever pace you like. I reckon you tend to meet more people, some of whom feel sorry for you and try to ‘adopt’ you, and feed you dehy dessert.

I’ve had people ask me if I prefer tramping by myself, or am amenable to company. It’s the latter – company is great. Solo tramping started for me in part because I couldn’t find people to come on my adventures and I didn’t want to miss out, so I simply packed and went. Then it turned into a challenge. Later it became normal.

I’ve recently begun to listen to podcasts while I tramp. I find I can’t listen to anything if I’m on technical terrain, anywhere that requires concentration, but if I’m wombling along on easy or moderate ground and my brain isn’t taxed by the movement and foot placements, I enjoy being swept up in someone else’s thoughts rather than my own. So I queue enough podcasts to cover the tramp’s duration, and when I’m sick of being inside my own head, I get into someone else’s. Is that cheating? Maybe; perhaps Susan and I do have company.

I’ve received disapproving comments from people who assume I am assaulting my eardrums with music and not ‘listening to the birdsong’. But this is an ideology, as is tramping solo; whoever dictated that there is just one way of tramping that involves attentive listening to birdsong or, say, a billy boiled as soon as you walk in the hut door, or tramping with others rather than alone? We’re all individuals and that makes the world go round. You do you.

One of my favourite places to shuffle my feet alone is on Ruapehu, skinning on skis up the Whakapapa Glacier. The side walls of the glacier catchment act as a sort of soundproofing. The walls block wind and aeroplane noise, and nothing can be heard from the ski field below. It can get baking hot, a weird combination of snow and oven, with bright sun lighting ice formations into diamonds and glass globes bringing contrast to the blue sky. I often listen to podcasts here while I shuffle, left, right, left, right, poking at ice on the way; contemplating the smallness of my humanity.

To circle back to ol’ Sartre, I reckon there’s a nuance shift between tramping alone and tramping solo. The word ‘solo’ in the mountaineering world means that you’re climbing without a rope, untethered to the earth. There’s freedom in that. Tramping alone means there’s nobody else with you. Tramping lonely is hopefully something none of us ever does. We are all addicts, though; I only tramp if I’m alone or with somebody.

Hazel is the author of Solo: Backcountry adventuring in Aotearoa New Zealand. Subscribers get a 10% discount.