The Art of Solo Backpacking and Hiking
A Solo Hiker...Gasp!
Whenever I speak to outdoor groups about backpacking and hiking, I always advocate hiking in small groups for safety. Then one observant person in the crowd pipes up and asks, "why are you alone in all your pictures?"
Then, I see disapproving stares and hear murmers of, "all alone, he must be insane."
I admit it - I am a solo hiker, a pariah amongst outing clubs and I love it.
When people think of solo backpackers they think of Aron Ralston, who being pinned by a boulder for five days, amputated his own arm. Thoughts also drift to Christopher McCandless, of Into the Wild fame, who starved (or perhaps poisoned himself) to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
You see, solo hikers get a bad rap...
I've had quite a bit of fun over the years on solo backpacking adventures, hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, and hiking all but one of the Adirondack 46 High Peaks solo too (I'll fix that in a few weeks hopefully).
Is solo hiking dangerous? It can be, but then again - camping in your backyard can be dangerous too. Backpacking solo safely is possible through managing your risk by being prepared and knowing your limits.
"It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it."
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Why Solo Hiking?
Quite honestly, going solo gives us an elusive opportunity to have honest conversation with ourselves. Not only away from the impressions of others, but away from social media, and the pressures of conformity.
It's hard to form our own ideas when immersed in an artificial world we didn't create. We must get away from influence, so we can be our own person.
And even though I'm speaking of escaping influence, appropriately in "Walking" Thoreau prepares the walker in saying:
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.
For Thoreau, to truly walk is to give yourself over completely to nature. It is also not possible to enjoy everything a walk has to offer when you are concerned with the affairs of the office, the farm, or whatever else distracts you from being wholly present. As a solo hiker, it is easier to mitigate distraction and immerse yourself in your surroundings.
I generally have my best ideas while mucking about in the woods. So many ideas that I, who abhors the non-necessities, carry a notebook and pen with me now. But now the notebook is a necessity. Even though, that much like my cooking, some of my ideas are better left in the woods.
Solo hiking has a much more pragmatic reason too; it's hard to find a hiking companion. Though it is nearly impossible to find a person that shares your pace and your goals, and sometimes it is hard finding anyone at all. With a tough economy and vacation at a premium, if you want to get outdoors - you may have to do it by yourself.
Carry copies of guide book pages for the entire area you are hiking in, not just the trail you are on. The information will come in handy, if you have to make an emergency bail out.
Risk Management and Solo Hiking
Yes, as lawyers tell us, with all things outdoors there are inherent risks involved and perhaps even more as a solo backpacker. However, being safe in the outdoors is all about managing the risk associated with the activity.
In the article "How Dangerous is Solo Hiking, Really?" High Country Explorations makes the argument that it is less safe to be with a group of incompetent people rather than a solo hiker that follows a good risk-management strategy.
That being said, it is safer to travel with a group of competent companions (using good risk management) than it is to be a competent solo outdoor enthusiast with the same outlook toward risk.
Tips for a Safer and Successful Trip:
- Always, always, always leave a trip plan with someone back home. No one was looking for Aron Ralston because he didn't inform anyone about his hike plans.
- Sign in (and out) at every trail and shelter register - it will make things easier if people are looking for you.
- For your first couple solo trips, stick to well-traveled trails and campsites.
- Research all potential hazards in the area and develop contingencies for dealing with them.
- Master your backcountry survival and camping skills as listed below.
- Carry the Ten Essentials
- Be physically fit enough for rugged hiking and have a doctor check-up.
- Know your limits and when to turn around!
Gear for Solo Hiking
There are no secrets here, the gear for solo hiking is exactly the same the group hiking; however, you may feel your pack getting heavier. One of the beauties of group hiking after all, is that you get to distribute the weight amongst all the participants.
Solo hikers often master lightweight backpacking, as to carry all their camping and safety equipment, yet still be comfortable on the trail. As a lightweight solo backpacker, I generally average around 8 pounds of equipment for a summer three day trip. With food and water, that weight gets up to around 15 pounds.
Quick Tips for Lightweight Backpacking:
- Downsize your pack.
- Weigh everything and create a spreadsheet in excel to track weight.
- Carry high-quality multi-use equipment and avoid carrying back-up gear
- Avoid multiple stuff sacks. Carry everything that needs to stay dry in one larger sil-nylon bag - it will pack easier too.
- Watch how much food you carry - food is often the heaviest burden in the pack.
Most importantly, never compromise safety for the sake of weight - especially as a solo backpacker. If something happens in the backcountry, the only person you depend on is yourself. It's important to have the right gear to back you up.
All hikers and backpackers should carry The Ten Essentials whenever they hit the trail.
Carry a "pealess" emergency whistle around your neck- they work even if they are wet or frozen.
Get HELP with SPOT
Attracting Help as a Solo Hiker
So it happened. You slipped on a log (damn slimy logs) and think you fractured your leg. Unfortunately, there is no group to give you aid and run back and grab a ranger for extrication. Now, what do you do?
These are the questions you have to ask yourself if you are contemplating solo outdoor adventures.
Though a whistle is an essential piece of any hiker's equipment, it is especially important for a solo hiker. Keep a whistle on you at ALL times, just in case you are separated from your pack. You'll be surprised how far the shrill sound of a rescue whistle travels. If you need help just blow your whistle three times every few minutes. Listen for the reply, which is two whistle blasts.
Though cell phones have limitations with reception in the backcountry, satellite messengers like those from SPOT, offer peace of min to solo hikers. SPOT works by relaying your position directly to satellites and has a number of features. Perhaps the best feature is the "check in" feature which sends a signal to people watching your progress back home letting them know you are okay and where you are. In an emergency, you can let Search and Rescue know you need help and inform them of your position .
As great as SPOT and other personal satellite locators are, they are not an excuse to be foolhardy. These tools are after all, mechanical devices, and though they are very reliable - they are no substitute for common sense.
“Loneliness adds beauty to life. It puts a special burn on sunsets and makes night air smell better.”
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Many solo hikers have heard the question, "aren't you lonely out there by yourself?"
And though humans are social animals, solo hikers are solo for a purpose and usually do not miss the social experience that hiking can be. So though, they are without social interaction, most soloists are not lonely.
It's not that all solo hikers are antisocial misanthropes, well some are, but most are generally well adjusted individuals. If you see a solo hiker, resist the urge to chastise their decision and you'll most likely have a pleasant trail conversation.
Sometimes solo hiking can be a very un-lonely experience. Between casual conversation with hikers you meet along the trail and sharing campsites with others, sometimes an intended solo trip seems anything but.
The most difficult task of a solo trip can be maintaining your solitude.
Check Out the Hiker's Bible
Important Skills for Solo Backpackers
So you know the risks involved and still want to join those hikers that prefer to be on the trails alone. What skills do you need?
- Navigation - You must be able to competently use a map and compass. Also, most solo hikers carry a GPS - make sure you can use that too.
- First Aid - Though the community first aid course is a start, take a wilderness first aid course to learn how to deal with medical emergencies when help is far away. Also, read all you can about improvisation in medical treatment.
- Survival - As a solo hiker, you must be well versed on survival. From starting a fire without matches to building an improvised shelter for the night - you must channel your inner Les Stroud.
- Cooking and Water Purification - Meal planning and the ability to prepare food is a must for the solo hiker. You don't need to be a gourmet, but you need to practice your cooking skills - even if it is just boiling water. Speaking of water, make sure you know all the methods of treating water and making it safe to drink.
- Camping - Though this should go without saying, as a solo hiker you need to be an expert camper. You need to know how and where to pitch your shelter, how to stay warm and keep cool, plus be an exert in field sanitation. Your first camping trip, should not be solo.
- Leave no Trace Ethics - Help preserve what you see today for the hikers of tomorrow, by practicing Leave no Trace and leaving an area better than you found it.
- Weather Forecasting - So what do those nimbus clouds really mean, and can you get over the exposed ridge in time?
- Decision Making - This is one of the most important skills for solo hikers. You must be able to make hasty decisions which don't compromise safety.
This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.