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As a Woman Alone on the NST – An Experience Report

Whether man or woman, who doesn’t know those thoughts about the first night in the great outdoors? Being alone outside at night can lead to unsettling thoughts and questions, especially before or during preparation for a hike with an overnight stay in nature.

In most cases, you will be so exhausted after your hike that you’ll fall into your sleeping bag and fall asleep immediately. But what if you don’t? What if you are still wide awake, listening intently to the night, feeling a bit uneasy?

What is creeping around me out there at night? Is it a person? Will I be discovered? Or is it just a small owl?

If I, as a man, already have these fears, what is it like for a woman to be alone in the forest at night? There is an interesting survey on TikTok aimed at women: Who would they rather encounter in the woods at night, a bear or a man? The answer is almost always the bear. The intention behind this survey is clear: it aims to raise awareness among men and encourage reflection on our behavior. What business does a man have being in the woods at night, anyway? Well, I suppose we thru-hikers are the target audience of this question. Of course, on long-distance trails, you might encounter fellow hikers and strangers at night. I believe no female hiker would actually prefer a bear in the shelter in this situation. So much for a reality check. But back to the main topic: How do you deal with fears?

We asked “Deichschaf,” who completed the North-South Trail in 2023 and spent many nights alone in nature. What does she have to report? Is it really that bad? Enjoy her experience report.

Deichschaf on the North South Trail

Hi, I’m Deichschaf, a 32-year-old woman, and I completed the North-South Trail from mid-April to mid-October 2023. Now, I get to share my experiences with you. Since I was often asked by fellow hikers and friends where I slept and whether sleeping outdoors frightened me, I want to focus on this topic.

At the beginning of my journey, in mid-April 2023, I had never slept alone outdoors in the forest or in a shelter. My first hiking steps were on the Camino Frances in Spain. The Camino de Santiago is excellently equipped with hostels where pilgrims can get a bed in a dormitory for little money on the section I walked. On the Westweg, which provided my first experiences with sleeping outdoors, I was not alone.

Since I was born and raised in Schleswig-Holstein, it was clear to me that camping before May was not an option due to the weather. (I see this a bit differently now.) Nevertheless, I knew that I could only afford a trip on the NST if I started sooner or later.

Fortunately, in the northern section, I could initially go back home and later rely on friends, family, and acquaintances. I did not take advantage of the help from trail angels. My concerns about going to strangers for help as a woman alone were too great. I didn’t want to reveal my sleeping place to strangers. As a result, I surely missed out on some positive experiences and encounters, but I just wasn’t ready for that yet.


The North South Trail on Sylt

Starting from the Heidschnuckenweg, my network became thinner, and the weather warmer, so I had no reason to keep postponing sleeping outdoors. For my first night in a shelter, I was lucky: another long-distance hiker, with whom I had already spent a few hours during the day, was already there. Having an experienced companion who showed me what to look for when choosing a campsite helped me overcome the first hurdle.

Despite that, I didn’t sleep particularly well. There were too many unfamiliar noises. Even the smallest bird rustling in the leaves sounded like a saber-toothed tiger at night. But it was really worth enduring those sleepless nights, because over time, I slept better and better outdoors.

The view from your sleeping bag in the morning

Since the long-distance hiker was on a different path than mine, we parted ways in the morning, and I was on my own. Funnily enough, we met again the first time I had to sleep alone in the forest, so I didn’t have to face that hurdle alone either.

What I took away from these situations is that it’s easier to camp alone after gaining experience doing it with someone else. Over time, I got used to sleeping outside. When choosing a spot, I mostly relied on my gut feeling. In the beginning, it was important for me to camp deep in the underbrush to avoid being seen, setting up late and breaking camp early, but I became more relaxed about that later on.

Nowadays, I prefer sleeping in shelters since they usually offer benches and allow me to pack my tent dry in the morning. Of course, I encountered other hikers or bike tourists there. Although I initially planned to move on if shelters were occupied, that wasn’t practical. I also became braver in this aspect. If I didn’t have a bad gut feeling after a conversation, I would share the shelter. Most of the time, the “roommates” were also on foot, and the conversations were interesting, exciting, and informative. If I had a bad gut feeling or if a shelter was occupied by a bachelor party or the partying village youth, I would move on and find a place to sleep away from them.

Notes on Wild Camping
The North-South Trail initiative explicitly states that we do NOT endorse wild camping or camping out. A few hours of sleep in a shelter outside of protected areas has nothing to do with “camping” or “setting up camp.”

In Germany, wild camping with a tent is generally not allowed, and camping in the wild is only permitted in specific places, such as official nature campsites, trekking and bivouac sites, as well as campsites or with the permission of the owner of the forest/field/property. Sleeping without a tent is a legal grey area and is not explicitly prohibited in Germany outside of protected areas. Additionally, overnight stays in shelters on major long-distance hiking trails are now largely tolerated, which is a significant step forward.

Furthermore, please ensure that you act responsibly and respectfully towards animals, plants, and nature in any natural area, adhering to the „Leave No Trace“-philosophy or the NST Code

Over time, I became more courageous and started asking for directions or water at houses along the way. When I encountered someone at a swimming pool who offered me the use of a washing machine and a campsite in their garden, I gladly accepted. We had a wonderful evening together, and the next morning there was a pot of tea waiting for me. It had been worth trusting strangers.

Further along my journey, I was repeatedly invited by people to stay overnight or share a meal with them. These encounters were always warm, informative, and wonderful. I also learned to explicitly ask Trail Angels for help and encountered incredibly kind and loving people.

I am deeply grateful to all the individuals I met along the way who accompanied me and helped me overcome my fears step by step.

I have particularly fond memories of a morning in the Hegau region when I enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. The evening before, I had ruled out a shelter because it was too exposed. Instead, I decided to sleep on a summit near a cross – it offered excellent visibility but also a stunning view.

I have developed three “rules” for feeling safe while sleeping outdoors. Firstly, my gut feeling about the location is crucial. There have been times when I found a nice spot and wanted to set up camp, but my intuition told me otherwise. In such cases, I moved on and found another spot.

Secondly, it’s important for me to talk to any potential “roommates” in a shelter or unofficial camping area before setting up. Again, I trust my gut feeling here.

Thirdly, I always inform at least one trusted person about my location and any individuals who are with me.

Waking up in nature - fortunately, nature and trekking spots in Germany are increasing year on year

If I were to do the NST again, would I do anything differently? Yes. I think I would start sleeping outdoors earlier and thereby avoid some interesting experiences on public transportation. Additionally, this time I would seek help from Trail Angels and from the NST community earlier, as these encounters make the journey unique for me!

Deichschaf – Thruhiker, Class of 2023

Die Initiative Nord Süd Trail hat sich zu einem ausgedehnten Netzwerk entwickelt, das aus ehrenamtlichen Helfern, erfahrenen Fernwanderern, Wegpaten, Youtubern und Wanderführern besteht. Da wir nicht an einer finanziellen Vermarktung des Weges interessiert sind, liegt das Hauptaugenmerk weiterhin auf der Etablierung des Weges.

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