Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


 Pam LeBlanc

Me, Myself & I

Go solo camping with your best friend: yourself.

No one knows what I’m doing at the moment, out here in the darkness at Goose Island State Park, and they’d probably roll their eyes if they did.

That’s because I just spent 30 minutes figuring out how to hoist my lanky body up the bowing trunk of a windswept oak, wrap my knees over a branch the thickness of a python, and dangle upside-down for five seconds. Then, after I climbed down, I ditched plans to cook something healthy over a portable camp stove and made a meal out of cheddar cheese slices, crackers and a few chocolate chip cookies instead.

That’s the beauty of striking out into the wilderness — or even a state park — on your own. You can stay up all night watching the stars pop out against a black velvet backdrop, eat s’mores for breakfast or spend an entire day taking pictures of birds without worry that you’ll cramp someone else’s plans.

Camping solo sets me free.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate sharing a tent with my husband or gathering up a gang of friends and hitting the backpacking trail for a few nights of communal nature appreciation. But popping up a tent by myself somewhere beautiful and contemplating life slows my pulse. It makes me feel self-sufficient and capable and reminds me that humans actually can survive without computers, air conditioning, television sets or microwave ovens.

I didn’t get to this point overnight. I’ve snoozed on a sand beach at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, peeked out tent flaps at tongues of ice at Glacier National Park and made camp beneath a canopy of pines on California's John Muir Trail. Those first four decades of hammering in tent stakes and snuggling inside sleeping bags, though, were always spent within screaming distance of family or friends. After all, I reasoned, you never knew when a bear might tear through camp or a tent pole would snap.

I’m lucky. I grew up in a family that liked to car camp. We’d ramble to state parks from Michigan to Texas, setting up an enormous blue canvas tent and unfurling sleeping bags on our top-of-the-line bunk-bed cots. I fondly remember drinking Tang for breakfast and defying the label warnings not to swirl a pan of Jiffy Pop over a campfire.

Since those early days, I’ve camped my way across the High Sierra Trail, lit a headlamp in the New Mexico mountains and nearly crushed a palm-sized tarantula strolling just outside my tent in West Texas. I’ve also learned that ravenous bears or knife-wielding wackos aren’t the biggest danger — it’s my hyperactive imagination.

Once, during a backpacking trip into the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, I lay in a tent and listened to an animal — “Bear?!” my mind screamed — sigh loudly, chomp on something and shuffle around just outside the tent I was sharing with my husband. I stiffened in terror, unable to bolster the nerve to peek out the tent flaps, as my husband sawed logs. In the morning, when I dragged myself into consciousness, I discovered hoofprints, apparently left by a foraging deer, around our camp.

Some nights, every snapping twig or yipping coyote makes me feel very, very alone in the wild.

Realistically, though, it’s the mundane stuff you really should worry about. Don’t pitch your tent next to a “widow-maker,” a dead tree that could crush your tent if it comes down while you’re sleeping. Make camp safely back from cliffs or ledges, lest you wander off one during a groggy midnight pee break. Don’t plant your tent in an exposed area during a thunderstorm; you don’t want to risk a lightning strike.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Here at Goose Island, it takes me about three minutes to pop up my two-person tent on the Live Oak Circle section of the campground, where the sites are spaced out on a cushy expanse of grass, and a grove of twisting trees tempts some people (me!) into their branches. I honed my tent-erecting skills a few years back, on a 15-day trip on the John Muir Trail in California with my husband. We split duties: He cooked, and I put up the tent and broke it down each day. Now, it’s second nature.

With that done, I explore the park, which is recovering from damage delivered by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. Park officials say all repairs should be finished sometime this year. (The bayfront campsites are closed as of this writing, as is the fishing pier. The recreation hall, the only remaining structure at the park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is being renovated, too.)

“We were pretty much in the eye of the hurricane,” says Sarah Nordlof, acting assistant superintendent, park interpreter and volunteer coordinator. “We lost a lot of trees, and unfortunately that will be what takes the longest to recover from the hurricane. Live oak trees are slow-growing, and it’s definitely changed the landscape here.”

Thankfully, the Big Tree, a gnarled, centuries-old live oak located on park property a mile or so from the campground, survived the storm. It’s a highlight that will leave you contemplating the changes that have taken place on our planet since the tree first sprouted from an acorn.

Wildlife watchers can hike a short nature trail or join one of the organized bird walks offered four days a week between January and April. The park offers excellent fishing, especially for red drum, black drum, speckled trout and flounder, and it’s also popular with kayakers.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Lucky visitors might catch a glimpse of an endangered whooping crane. The bright white birds — which emit a sort of gargley yodel and stand about 4 feet tall when grown — winter at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. As their population has rebounded, their range has expanded, and occasionally one shows up within park boundaries.

Keep an eye out, because occasionally an alligator shows up, too, usually in St. Charles Bay or near the Big Tree, although officials say they’re not a big concern in the main area of the park.

Swimming is allowed but not recommended here because the shoreline is covered with sharp oyster shells that could bite into delicate feet. Park officials recommend driving to a soft sand beach in nearby Rockport if you want to take a dip. (Those oyster shells, by the way, are an ingredient in the “shell-crete” used to build the recreation hall.)

I finally tuck myself into my tent for the night, burrowing into the fluff of my sleeping bag. The only sounds I hear are hooting owls and the clatter of some passing white-tailed deer.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Before I know it, it’s morning, or, more precisely, time for the duck hunters to get up and at ’em. It takes me a moment to realize I’m hearing the roar of airboats and not a chainsaw cutting through the air as they head out for the morning hunt before the sun rises.

No matter, I appreciated the wake-up call. I boil some water for tea, then walk down to the water to watch the pelicans dip and dive as the skies brighten. I’ve got no apprehensions about being alone, not even a pang of loneliness as I ease into the new day at Goose Island.

“I think we are a really good starter park,” Nordlof tells me. “There’s a ton of activities. For someone newer to camping or apprehensive about camping alone, we’re fairly close to a city, so if you forget something or something comes up, the comforts of home are pretty close.”

If you’re thinking of camping alone, I suggest easing into it — leave the cougar wrestling and javelina jousting for another time. Camp with friends or family members who are experienced campers first. Let them show you the finer points of selecting a good campsite, putting up a tent, lighting a camp stove, cooking a meal and building a campfire.

Then, when you feel comfortable with all that you’ve learned so far, plan your first solo camping trip to a public campground, where you can camp alongside other groups. Campers are generally a good lot, eager to help if you’re having trouble with equipment.

If you need more assistance, consider signing up for a camping class. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers workshops at parks all over the state through its Texas Outdoor Family Program. The sessions cover the basics of camping, from putting up a tent to preparing dinner, and organizers provide all the equipment you need.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

As you grow more confident and proficient, consider a tougher challenge, like heading into the backcountry. If you do, remember to pack light, since you can’t share the load with anybody else. If you’re going someplace remote, you might want to bring a satellite tracker, too. (I used one when I backpacked the John Muir Trail.)

Finally, make sure you bring the 10 essentials outlined in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills by the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based outdoors group who brainstormed the list nearly a century ago: navigation equipment (map and compass), sun protection, insulation (extra clothing), illumination (headlamp or flashlight), first-aid supplies, fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles), repair kit and tools, nutrition (extra food), hydration (extra water) and emergency shelter.

Before you step away from civilization, pause for a moment and think about what gives you goosebumps. If you’re nervous about bears (not much of a problem anywhere in Texas except Big Bend National Park), carry a bear vault to store your food and stash it 100 feet from your camp at night, or tie scented items in a tree. If it’s a knife-wielding madman you fear, carry mace.

It’s essential that someone knows where you’re going and when to expect your return. And make sure you’re healthy — both physically and mentally.

The solitude might do you some good. I recommend it and can’t wait to do it again — back off, marauding raccoons and giant hairy spiders! — without the safety net of other campers nearby.

Pam LeBlanc is a travel writer/photographer.

IF YOU GO: Check the Goose Island State Park webpage or call (361) 729-2858 before you visit due to recent closures. Goose Island State Park is located at 202 S. Palmetto St. near Rockport. The park has a total of 126 campsites, including 44 on the bayfront when the park is fully operational.

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