Solo Hiking Mount Mansfield With Dobby and Max
Traveling solo can be daunting in its own right, but even more so as a solo woman. Trekking miles into the woods of your own volition with two dogs in tow may seem like an unnecessary risk to some, but I choose to see it as the opposite: as an opportunity.
In October of 2021, I embarked on my first week-long, solo road trip with my two small terriers, Dobby and Max. As I left New Jersey I was filled with joy and a bit of uncertainty, with nothing but my first two nights planned. But fall always draws me north, to see the seasons change in the most vibrant fashion throughout New England and Upstate New York. While the trip took me on many winding roads throughout several states (both literally and figuratively), one moment really stood out. When the three of us climbed Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak.
Jillian's terriers, Dobby and Max, during another adventure on their fall roadtrip.
Mount Mansfield towers over Underhill State Park, a prominent point in Vermont’s northeast Green Mountains. And, at 4,393 ft (1,339 meters), it boasts a challenge to anyone who sets foot on it. I found myself in this region after leaving New Hampshire and following my loose plan of heading towards Stowe, Vermont which was approximately 2 hours Northwest of my previous location. The goal was to get some food, then try and find a safe place to sleep for the night. The sun was setting and the boys were watching the busy hustle and bustle of tourists pass by the car window while I googled and called several campsites within an hour drive. Finally, I landed on Underhill State Park. Once we arrived, I paid the fee and we settled into my makeshift bed in the car, our sights set on ascending Mansfield in the morning.
When I opened my car door in the morning, we awoke to the most beautiful vibrant trees, cool autumn air, and good spirits. However, as I forced down a granola bar and fed the dogs their breakfast, I felt some familiar nerves. I always experience fear before solo hiking. Luckily, at this point in our adventures together, I was very confident in both their physical ability, and their ability to self-monitor their own fatigue. While many dogs may push past their limits, I’ve always found my dogs will express through body language when they have had enough. They lay down, go back down the trail, or start lagging behind me rather than at my side or ahead of me. So after knowing myself, my dogs, and remembering we had the proper gear plus good weather in the forecast, we set out to the trailhead.
The boys were both wearing their Ruffwear Webmaster Harnesses because of the extra security the double strap and handle provides. These extra safety features come in handy when navigating rough terrain such as the rocky trails we often traverse in the northeast. This particular trail had a steep 2,539-ft elevation gain over 2.5 miles (5.1 miles). Having conquered Mount Moosilauke only days prior, an even longer and higher mountain in New Hampshire, I was feeling confident for this “shorter” hike.
We pushed forward, the majority of the hike continuing in the alpine zone and boasting sweeping views of the surrounding peak fall colors. This is the area where I began to experience some self-doubt and fear. The sharp rock was steep, exhausting, and demanding of myself. I could tell the boys were feeling it too. They began to move slower, taking standing rest breaks vs sustaining their typical trot, and were more attentive to my pace instead of looking ahead as they normally would.
When hiking solo, safety is always priority number one and guides me on deciding when to turn around. Hiking is never ‘one rule fits all,’ and I knew if I pushed further and got too tired, going back down would become even more difficult and dangerous. It was at this moment I decided to take off my pack, refuel both myself and the dogs, and observe their movements and behaviors as we reset.
When I stood back up and re-strapped my pack, I said, “OK, let’s go,” and they both enthusiastically moved forward up the trail instead of down the mountain. This alone gave me a boost of confidence and motivation to push to the summit as we were less than a mile away.
Refueled and energized, the boys pulled me enthusiastically upward and towards the summit. As we approached those final few steps, the fear, anxiety and fatigue melted away and the summit breeze cooled my sweat-laden face brought on by the welcomed rays of mid-morning sun. At the top of Mount Mansfield, you feel like you’re on top of the world, looking over all the surrounding towns, ski resorts, and cascades of crisp orange capped trees.
As we sat and exchanged greetings with other hikers also basking in their successful ascent, I looked at my two small dogs, in admiration of their persistence and endurance. Each time they scale stones five times their height and navigate boulders and roots, they break the stereotype that small dogs aren’t meant for big adventures (but their harness handles do come in handy for the occasional purse carry every now and again.) And it always fills me with joy when we receive compliments from other hikers who say, “Wow, they don’t need to be carried?”.
Each hike is an opportunity to show how capable I am, a reminder to myself that I am confident in my skill and decision making. It allows me to face my doubts and share my stories in order to give other women the courage to face their fears, right beside me as I face my own. It's a craving that never fades, and two years later you can still find us out on the trails, accomplishing new feats, and happily showing just how capable a solo adventurer and her pair of 12lb terriers can be.