The wilderness solo: a touchstone for sustainability leadership.

The ‘solo’ forms the heart of my residential leadership programmes. During the initial weeks of my first job as an outdoor instructor, one of the senior staff left. He used to lead a one-week course to train outdoor leaders how to integrate environmental outcomes into their programmes. Nobody wanted to run the course after he went so, as the outdoor centre's resident environmentalist, I agreed to take it on. The only problem was, I had absolutely no idea what to do. I had never led anything like it before and, indeed, had only just started working as an outdoor instructor at all. I was short on both experience and inspiration.

At about the same time a university student arrived who had done some research on “solos” at Outward Bound New Zealand. Typically, a solo involved spending time in a wild spot, without human company, for anything from a few hours to several days and nights. I can’t remember what the specific outcomes were of this work but the encounter introduced the idea of having a solo as part of my new course. The reason I was so attracted to this notion was because of my own experiences of being out in the wilds alone, which had always been extraordinary - and in several cases life-changing.

So through a combination of accident, intuition and desperation, I programmed a 36 hour solo into my new four-day course. In at the deep-end! The other huge benefit of this was that I got two-days off in the middle of the week! I admit to finding that quite attractive in a 12 days on, two-days off work schedule. I love the apparent randomness of how I started leading solo’s because they turned out to be the core of my life’s work: and by far the most powerfully transformative outdoor practice I’ve ever led.

Those first few courses were pretty chaotic but I learned fast. I read everything I could find about programming solos in lots of different contexts. I researched their psychology and history (which is still ongoing 23 years later). I devised cunning ways of making them feel highly adventurous - while simultaneously making them extremely safe. And I added a second part to the process which exponentially increased their impact.

The Story Circle

There was always a ‘debrief’ or review after each solo but it wasn’t until I started working with Jungian Psychoanalyist Mary-Jayne Rust, that the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place. It turned out that the solo was only half the process. The other half was the story that emerged from each participant’s experience. The story circle evolved over a period of several years, based on a practice taught to me by Mary-Jayne, which we then adapted together for our own cultural context and psychological understandings. Although quite a disciplined and structured process, our story circle always seems to flow effortlessly, giving it a kind of timeless, magical feel. It releases the potential of that simple time alone in the wilds, transforming it into a life-changing experience for many people.

When offered as part of a sustainability leadership programme for example, the solo naturally opens people to questions and feelings about their relationships with the rest of nature. Through the story process these deepen, helping us to explore the ways we each live and lead. The solo and story-circle undoes our everyday way of being and thinking. It rattles the cultural architecture which we've learned to accept, exposing fallacies and unearthing new possibilities.

Wherever you go there you aren’t!

The solo contains some interesting paradoxes. On the one hand it makes sense that spending dedicated time alone in a wild place lets you experience nature in novel and direct ways. It’s also obvious that it will provide valuable time for you to reflect deeply on your everyday life. But another important aspect is not where you are on solo, but where you are not.

The solo removes a whole chunk of our usual context. There are no other human beings there, or the technology we use to act on our device-tapping social impulses. All the things we usually do to function in the human social and cultural realm are absent. Most people rely heavily on their social roles, what other people think about them, what job title they have, their social interactions (either physically or through technology) - and their social status for their sense of self. With these external self-defining factors stripped away - what’s left?

On my notice board I have a newspaper clipping from an article about the reality TV show, 'I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’. The headline reads, “The wilderness doesn’t care who you are”. While this was clearly about the voyeuristic entertainment of seeing what happens when celebrities are stripped of their fame (while actually being televised, so quite the opposite), it’s meaning is way richer.

Nature is neutral. It doesn’t care how wealthy you are, whose shirts you wear or what brand your handbag is. It doesn’t care if you’re scared, ecstatic, wearing make-up, fat, popular, skinny or lonely. It doesn’t care if you live or die. In this neutral space, with no social ties holding you in your regular everyday pattern, your shape is free to shift. What forms out of this unraveling?

You do - the real you.

What often emerges from the solo and story-circle process is a different person. Sometimes this transformation is startling - people look physically different, hold themselves differently, walk differently, speak differently. Sometimes it’s more subtle.

Then the negotiations begin. How do you weave your way back into your everyday life? What threads do you want to keep? Which ones do you want to snip forever? Who is this new person who’s experienced that they are stitched into the fabric of nature first-and-foremost - before any of the social weaving can even begin. And what does it mean to find that we are so fundamentally of nature? It means that we realise that without the rest of nature we cannot exist. That our self is - in the most direct and none-negotiable way possible - ecological.

Muscle memory

In addition to reconnecting us to our ecological selves, the solo performs other magic. It transcends our dominant intellectual and rational ways of relating to the world by offering a powerful sensory experience. The meanings that emerge become embodied - of the body. They ‘go into’ us. Like muscle memory. Extending beyond the rational self also opens up the world of feelings and intuition - and with them the limitless possibilities of our imaginations. Discovering new creative potential is a common outcome of solo time.

Rite of passage

For many participants the solo often comes to mark something significant. It becomes a rite, a moment in time that honours a commitment to make change - or to find acceptance. In fact, through the research I mentioned earlier I learned that solos - in very many forms - are the core of most ancient and indigenous rites of passage, including those in Christian and pre-Christian European cultures. They are ubiquitous: they appear as a process to mark and create personal and social change in almost every culture on Earth.

Cultural colonialism and other solo considerations

The ubiquity and lineage of practices that include solo time mean there are thousand of opportunities to do one yourself. There are however, a few things to consider.

Why do you want to do a solo? Is it for your own personal benefit or is to try and find ways you can create or lead change in your community? Who is leading your solo? Are they qualified to lead people in the outdoor environment where your solo will be held? Are they experienced enough to work with complex and sometimes challenging psychological processes? Do they have the personal lineage, or permission, of the culture whose practice they are offering. For example, are they using terms like ‘Vision Quest’, ‘Medicine Wheel’, ‘Lodge’ or ‘Shamanic Journey’? Are these practices from their own culture or have they ‘colonised’ them? Do you have the right to engage with these practices yourself?

The practice I lead is called a solo because it describes what it is and has no specific cultural meaning. The process is devoid of terms that align it to any cultural tradition, other than my own. My approach is to bring an ancient and ubiquitous human practice to our modern industrial growth culture in an accessible way - for the specific goal of changing that culture to one that is ecologically sustainable. Essentially, I offer the solo simply as a powerful way for people to physically experience their ecological self. The story circle then helps them make sense of that experience and transform it into helpful action.

Many people gain other rich and important meanings from their solo time. For example, numerous clients have described their experience as spiritual. And that is wonderful, as long as those interpretations do not limit the capacity of others - human or otherwise - to find their own meanings. Whatever people get out of wild time alone - a rite of passage, a time to reflect, deep rest, therapy, empowerment, creative awaking or spiritual journey - I don’t mind. I just want everyone to discover - deep in the blood and bone of their body - that they are nature, and that we must all live accordingly.


Photo: Haziq Tumaran / Unsplash


  1. Alun Hughes14th June 2020

    Hi Dave,
    Great piece. Hope all is well with you. Keep going…this is imperative…now more than ever. Much Love.

    1. David Key15th June 2020

      Thanks Al!

      Yes, now more than ever indeed.


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