How camping alone help me beat pandemic loneliness

My first post-COVID travel was camping alone in Texas' Big Bend National Park—and it was just what I needed to cure two years of pandemic anxiety

Girl in sleeping bag camping alone
(Image credit: Getty)

I was lying diagonally across the flattened tent barely holding it down while I tried to hammer the first stake into the ground. The wind was gusting so hard I feared it might blow the whole tent away, wrapping around me and dragging me through the desert.

This was the first tent I bought as an adult. Sized for four people, it was the cheapest option, but I would be the only occupant, a reality that weighed on me more and more the longer COVID-19 and its collective trauma stuck around. That’s how I ended up in a one-woman struggle with nature in Far West Texas—that remote area in the Chihuahuan desert where Texas dips into Mexico along the jagged line of the Rio Grande.

At first, I was okay in the pandemic. I was single, but working from home freed up time for new hobbies, and I stayed in touch with friends and family. However, after two years, it seemed everything in the world that could go wrong had gone wrong, and I was trying to remember who I was.

I was claustrophobic, but also paralyzed by my inability to fill the empty space around me. Wasn’t I supposed to be enough on my own? Wasn’t I supposed to not need anyone else to be happy? I needed space from the stranger I had become in solitary confinement. I needed sky and open road and, according to a wise old woman in one of the gazillion books I had read, I needed to go camping.

How camping alone in the middle of nowhere cured my pandemic loneliness

Photo of a young smiling woman relaxing in the hammock in the middle of the forest, sipping up a hot tea while enjoying in a beautiful autumn day she is spending outdoors.

(Image credit: Getty)

I got the first stake in, but the ground on the opposite side was solid rock, so I pulled the stake out and moved the tent, hoping for softer ground a few feet away. This time, two stakes went in but the others hit rock. I moved the tent four times and bent every stake I had. Finally, three stakes were kinda sorta in when my mallet broke in half. I had been relieved to even find the mallet among my camping stuff. I probably didn’t even look through my supplies before I left. I’m the kind of person who gets bored with planning, hops in the driver’s seat and floors it, trusting myself to figure it out as I go.

At least, I used to be that person. Now I was anxious about everything, alone in the dirt while the sun set, hungry, achy, and surrounded by insufferably happy families and couples.

I picked up a rock and started hammering the last stake with all my strength. A pair of smiling young women passed, and I resisted the urge to hiss at them and went back to my neolithic assault on the last stake. My hands were bruised and swollen, but the stake didn’t budge.

I sat in the dirt again, ashamed of how alone I felt, how weak I was, when a woman offered me a hammer. The last stake went in easily and I drove the other three more securely into the ground. People will help you. I’d forgotten that.

The tent held through the night, and I woke up surrounded by fog and wasted an hour choosing a hiking trail. Going down to the open desert would be a long drive, and visibility on the road was barely ten feet. I finally settled on a trail close to camp, but in the parking lot, I lingered, nibbling on a snack, checking the laces of my boots, and rereading the warning about bears. 

I thought about how a few years before the pandemic, alone in Peru, I hadn’t even hesitated before climbing into the car of a stranger whose Spanish I barely understood. Protestors had halted the trains out of Cusco, so the stranger drove me across town where I climbed into a van, more curious than cautious, content just knowing that, eventually, I’d arrive somewhere. But by 2022, I had spent two years alone marinating in fear, and now I was terrified of a cloud.

Finally, I stepped onto the trail, unable to see through the fog whatever it was I was climbing towards. The view from the top an hour later was supposed to be one of the best in Texas, but I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. I didn’t care though: I had made it. I celebrated with selfies and several more snacks. On the hike down, the fog lifted enough to glimpse the desert below. I felt the fear and loneliness start to lift, too.

Learn more about how to travel alone with our Solo Travel series, and check out the best destinations for solo travel in the world for some next-vacation inspiration. 

Karen Petree is a writer who covers feminism, mindfulness, creativity, travel, and culture. When she’s not working, she's usually making art, wandering around a bookstore, or documenting the daily life of the world's cutest dog. If you can't find her online, check the nearest taco truck.