As a solo traveler/adventurer, I am frequently asked in shock and bewilderment things like:
- “Are you traveling alone?!”
- “How can you do this by yourself? Do you feel safe?”
- “Why would you do this by yourself? I could never…”
Looking past the (usually) unintentional and slightly patronizing assumption that I should evidently be incapable, there are many layers of norms and beliefs that bring people to this view-point. This post will unpack some of those things, and provide tips on how to prepare for and enjoy solo traveling.
Understanding the mindset
In July of 2014 I was in Maui, celebrating the completion of my doctorate degree, and found people asking me the list of questions above almost daily. While laying out on the beach with a delicious fruity cocktail towards the end of my trip, I began reflecting on what felt like absurd and all-too-frequent questioning. I realized that this mindset can stem from a few things:
- a deeply rooted cultural stereotype that women shouldn’t travel alone or shouldn’t be independent or… the list can go on.
- an implicit bias that women who take off on such wild adventures are something other than the socially acceptable norm, and an implicit bias that women need help to do… well, most anything
- accumulation of feedback or messaging from media (subtle or even not-so-sublte) overtime that reinforce the stereotypical expectations
- a personal lack of self-efficacy in their own belief that they could accomplish the task – traveling alone or taking a solo adventure. (sometimes people are also fearful, and that is a manifestation of low self-efficacy)
This list unpacking the mindset behind the questions is essentially the theoretical framework we at NAPE use to teach educators across U.S. how to improve educational equity, and an underlying lens for my dissertation. I clearly think about this framework a lot and how it impacts so much of what we do in life. The difference in this case, is merely the end result or task. Substitute math or engineering for travel and you’ll get the idea of what I spend most of my time doing and studying.
As time has gone on, I’ve been more keen to observe the usually uninvited feedback to me in my travels, and what it means. After all, my work currently keeps me on the road nearly 30% of the year, and I travel another 10% for fun, for an annual ~40% average, give or take. When it comes to my personal travel, or personal adventures that I insert into business travel, I do it because I simply want to explore. It is fair to say that I’ve invited people to join me on probably all of my big trips, though schedules and budgets don’t always align. Since my wanderlust seems to lack patience, and appropriately so, I have pursued many adventures across the country and globe, feeling no need to wait until someone is able to go with me. Given everyone has an opinion these days, comments like those above are all too frequent. 🙂
What do I get out of solo travel?
While it is certainly possible for personal growth to happen within the bounds of your community, research is overwhelmingly compelling that travel makes us more creative, globally-minded, cross-culturally competent, and overall more healthy and well! At the end of the day, I look back and think about how my solo adventures have brought me so much joy, awareness of our world, and incredible personal growth. I am confident that I would not be who I am today, doing the work I love to do, had I not ignored the naysayers and courageously taken risks. I wish this for everyone!
(A note about privilege: Everyone doesn’t get to travel the world. Some people are born in war-torn developing countries, and may never see or know much more of our world than rumors in their village. I was born in Texas to a wonderful non-jetsetting family, who wished they’d had the funds to send me on school trips or sponsored experiences. As a young adult, I prioritized travel over many other things, because I so deeply desired those experiences. Travel is what I worked for, and what I spent my money on. As I’ve gotten older, my passion for travel has remained, and my resources and opportunities for travel have increased as well, again because I’ve likely prioritized this in my life. In conclusion to this note, I realize that travel is an extreme privilege, and one for which I am so very grateful.)
So, top things I love about solo travel, and especially outdoor activities like hiking, SCUBA diving, kayaking, etc:
- Exploring new places and engaging in other cultures fascinates me and helps me better understand our world.
- Quieting my mind helps me to find peace and joy.
- Prioritizing time to reflect and dream and plan helps me to grow.
- Feeling so small and insignificant next to mountains, under the sea, or being surrounded by people who don’t look or live like me humbles me.
All together, this creates a deeply meditative atmosphere that is unparalleled to the normal rush of life. While enjoying sights and outdoors with others is also super fun… it isn’t the same. They are two totally different types of experiences in my opinion, and while both have wonderful merits, sometimes our minds need quiet and our bodies need fresh air.
In my observation, solo travel necessitates a few things:
- belief that you can accomplish the task, aka self-efficacy (plus some skills to help make a plan to get you there)
- ability to be alone (comfort is optimal, but that generally means liking yourself)
- at least some basic mindfulness skills (this practice can help with learning to like yourself)
- Break down the task: Smaller tasks and short-term goals are easier to tackle. Think small pieces!
- Find a role model: Shadow someone who knows how to do the task well and who has something in common with you! (gender, race, age, location)
- Ask for specific feedback: As you progress through the task, trust that feedback can help you improve.
- Learn from mistakes: Mistakes are OK, and are a part of learning! Have the courage to initiate, fail, and initiate again.
- Celebrate milestones: Reflect on your progress and acknowledge every step forward.
To build your self-efficacy, a great place to start is with your mindset. Read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr. Carol Dweck.
How to learn to be alone?
As someone who’s been single most of my adult life, and who is required to travel alone for work, this honestly feels like no big deal to me at this point, but I am aware that it is really a learned skill!
You could go for a long run or walk in your city by yourself, go see a movie by yourself, or go to a restaurant and dine by yourself — take a book or a journal or netflix with you (super challenge: don’t take anything and just people watch and talk to interesting strangers!). If you normally travel with a partner who navigates, ask them to let you take the reigns on your next trip so you can practice and learn.
Using the same strategies above outlined on how to build self-efficacy, you can practice building up your ability to be and function alone.
Ready to dig in? Listen to Dr. Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage.
How to be mindful and get the benefits of reflective meditation?
While the Eastern cultures have been meditating for centuries, Western researchers started studying meditation and it’s effects on the brain/body a couple of decades ago and it is as if they’d uncovered something remarkably new and groundbreaking. In reality, the practice of meditation is largely the same, though our understanding of its impact on us is truly remarkable. There are so many great books out on this right now – but you’ll see them listed as mindfulness (though it is really a form of meditation!)
A great introduction to mindfulness is: Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, by Thich Nhat Hanh. This is a short book that is approachable, interesting, and practical.
Another great read is: The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life, by Thomas M. Sterner.
Navigating from here
This morning, I stumbled across an article in a newsletter titled, The Benefits of Hiking Alone. While I did not need convincing as most of my hiking has been alone, I was curious what the author found the benefits to be and how they compared to mine. The first bold sentence was this: “For more women to reap the rewards of solo adventuring, fears must be confronted and centuries-old social norms must be broken.” Sounds like something I’ve been noodling on for years, and I’m so glad someone else is writing about it! Her key tips were to find people to teach you and to start small, building up your confidence and comfort. While the author of the article, Haley Littleton, is an academic researcher according to her bio, I’m not certain if she is aware of the learning theory that grounds her advice — role models and small steps are two key pieces to building self-efficacy.
In summary, if you are interested in traveling and are tired of waiting on others, I implore you to take the plunge. Be courageous and pursue those dreams! If you are a bit hesitant and need a little help, remember these three steps:
- build your confidence one step at a time,
- learn to love hanging out with yourself, and
- practice mindfulness to get the most out of the journey.