I Spent a Year in the Wilderness With My Wife, Here’s What I Learned About Isolation and Change

Amy and Dave Freeman during their Year in the Wilderness ExpeditionNate Ptacek

My wife Amy and I spent a year in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where weeks of isolation and social distancing were the norm. We didn’t cross a road, enter a building, or leave the wilderness for 366 days. We learned how to deal with isolation and major disruptions in our daily routine, which I believe can help others adjust and deal with the isolation and social distancing that the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic requires. Here are eight keys from that recent year in the wild for coping with the challenges at hand.

Develop a Routine

Routines are one of the best tools for adjusting to both isolation and disruptions to your normal rhythm. While the routine we developed of setting up and breaking down camp, gathering water, splitting firewood, and countless other tasks were quite different from life outside the wilderness, establishing daily basics to set a common rhythm was critical, especially during our first few weeks in the wilderness.

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Neither of us enjoy doing laundry, so we would work together to get it done. Dave Freeman

Divide and Conquer

One of the biggest challenges of spending a whole year basically alone with my wife was not letting little things annoy us—plus communicating clearly so we each knew who was in charge of different chores and tasks. I lit the fire every morning (even when it was negative 40 degrees out), and she washed the dishes. We each were happy with the division of labor and, once established, there was no need to waste time discussing who was going to complete these regular tasks. For tasks we both enjoyed or despised, we took turns. Dividing tasks and communicating clearly can make adjusting to changing or stressful situations easier no matter where you are living.

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The Freemans used their canoe as a table on Thanksgiving. Separated from family and friends, holidays took on a special significance. Dave Freeman

You Will Adapt

Humans are incredibly adaptable! After three weeks alone in the wilderness, life felt normal and we had adjusted to our new routine. After three months, it was hard to imagine not living in a tent and gathering our water from whichever lake or river we happened to be camped on. By the end of the year, we had no desire to leave. The coronavirus will not cause us to be in isolation for a whole year, but over the coming weeks, try to remember that you will adapt and adjust to the isolation and changes in your daily life. Who knows, you and your family may find that you choose to keep some of these changes in place moving forward.

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Reading books out loud allowed helped the Freemans pass the time and do something together that they enjoyed. Dave Freeman


It is critical that we stay informed and follow guidelines set out by experts as we work to keep ourselves, communities, and nations safe during this challenging time. The flip-side is that it can be extremely helpful to unplug from the frenzied news cycle and social media as well. During our time in the wilderness, we had limited access to the internet and consumed most of our news by listening to a tiny FM radio tuned into our local public station. Listening while we ate breakfast and dinner most days became part of our daily routine and allowed us to stay informed about local, state, and global issues. But the limited intake also kept us from spending hours surfing the Web. We found that those imposed limitations on news and screen-time greatly improved our mental health.

Get Outside

We never got sick during our year. Not even a cold. Our physical and mental health has never been better. If you can spend time outside, while maintaining adequate social distancing, get outside! It can be a crucial means of relieving stress and improving mental and physical wellbeing.

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Dave hauls himself out of the water after his bath in February. Taking a plunge in every month was a ritual became part of their routine. Dave Freeman

Find Your Purpose

Setting goals and identifying a clear purpose can help you remain positive and focused. We used our year in the wilderness to help the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters stop a massive copper mine proposed on the edge of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which would pollute our nation’s most popular wilderness area. Every day, we were shooting photos and videos, crafting blog posts and content to help people understand how precious the Boundary Waters is, and why it needs to be protected. The importance of having a clear goal to guide us was key. You may already have one or more clear goals in your life that you can continue to focus on working toward. A goal could be as simple as going through piles of papers that have accumulated, or as complex as developing a component of a ventilator that a hospital needs with the 3D printer stuck in your basement. Set a health and fitness goal to exercise an hour each day, read with your child, or set about learning a new language.

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As the lakes started to freeze, Dave and Amy Freeman hauled their canoe over the newly forming ice. Dave Freeman

Focus on the Positive

It’s important to identify and focus on positive aspects of your situation. When the lakes were freezing around us, we got stuck on an island unable to move—totally cut off from the rest of the world. Food, warmer clothes and other necessary supplies that friends were scheduled to bring were delayed by several weeks. We almost ran out of food, pushing us to our limits. We came up with sometimes strange, yet occasionally delightful meals with our quickly dwindling rations. We found joy in the smallest treats, like savoring the third cup of tea from the same tea bag in a new way. Being forced to slow down caused a shift in perspective: seeing beauty in an individual snowflake or reveling in the light slowly changing across the tent. Maybe you finally have the time to unsubscribe from all the random emails that clutter your inbox, or you’re playing that old guitar you haven’t picked up in awhile. Remind yourself each day of the positive things in your life.

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When the ice was finally thick enough to walk on the Freemans danced with joy because their food supplies were dwindling. Dave Freeman

Build Deeper Connections

While drinks with buddies or CrossFit classes may not be in the cards, it’s important to savor the connections you have with the people in your life. Connect with others through phone calls, video conferencing, emails, or perhaps a good old letter if you can’t physically get together. During our time in the wilderness we read to each other out loud most nights before we went to bed. I know it sounds like something old people do, but it was a way for us to be physically and mentally present with each other. Some people play cards or board games, but being present with those that you can interact with for a group activity will help you feel less isolated. When we did have visitors, we truly savored our interactions in a way we previously did not appreciate. We found ourselves rehashing things they had said days after their often-brief visits. If you find yourself physically isolated from others, take time to develop deeper connections with the people who matter most. They may be sitting in the next room, or halfway around the world. If you can’t physically sit down with them, then give them a call and tell them why they are important to you and how much you appreciate them. Above all, remember that you are not alone; we are all in this together.


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