' AllThingsJacq.com - Essay | Going it Alone: Advice on Hiking Solo: 1998 or 1999

Essay: Going it Alone: Advice on Hiking Solo

First posted in 1999

This originally appeared on an outdoor e-zine site that I maintained, though I have no idea of the original posting date. I believe it was sometime in 1998 or 1999.

There's an old saying... safety in numbers. However, as most serious backpackers know (and semi-serious packers will soon find out), it's often difficult to find someone to hike with you when the invite involves walking more than a mile or two, especially when the weather's not so perfect or there's a holiday involved. I've often found myself in this predicament, and, against the advice of friends, I often venture off into the woods solo. I'll be the first to admit that it isn't the best idea. Just a couple years ago, I found myself "stranded" three miles from the road with a broken ankle; luckily, on this occasion, I had some very kind buddies with me, who helped me out of the woods... but what if I'd been alone?

I've thought a lot about that question ever since that incident, and every subsequent solo trip has been planned with a few key safety tips in mind. While this is by no means a comprehensive list of things to be aware of, I hope it helps as a good starting point. If you think I'm missing something that other's should be aware of, please drop me a line.

Before moving on to the solo hiking tips, I'd also like to mention that a very astute reader sent me a message regarding the entire subject of hiking alone after this column was initially published. He pointed out that, while I emphasized all the negatives of solo hiking, I completely failed to mention the positive aspects. He's absolutely right, and I'd like to share an excerpt from his letter in which he makes some great points:

"It's true that trail companions add an additional element of safety to a trip. But (though admittedly biased) I think the solo trip offers the greatest opportunity for self reliance .... provides the most ideal condition for interaction with wildlife .... makes it easiest for tired ears to hear the voice of the wilderness. To have, as Emerson put it, 'solitary converse with Nature.'"

- Gary Robertson, Beyond the Trail

And with that having been said, here are some things to be aware of as you embark on your solo trip:

Know your limits

Limits come in a variety of forms:

  • Physical Limits: For instance, if you've never done a long-distance dayhike, don't even think of attempting your first fifteen-miler alone.

  • Mental Limits: If you're really a people person, and can't stand to spend much time alone, don't plan on a three night backpacking trip.

  • Material Limits: Be sure you've got the right gear for the job and that it's reliable. If your boots start to rub, you won't be able to borrow any mole skin from your buddy.

Know the rules!

Spacer Follow the rules of good, safe hiking... drink before thirsty, rest before tired, don't take unnecessary risks. Remember that you don't have a friend along to go back for help.

Make your plans known!

Spacer Be sure to let someone know where you're going and when you should be back. Often, I'll tell a friend or family member to report me missing if I don't phone them back by a certain time.

Don't Act Like You're Alone!

While you don't have to be mean to people you meet on the trail, you don't want to make instant friends with anyone, either. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for criminals to enter the backcountry to seek refuge. Keep this in mind as you make contact with every stranger you meet. Be friendly, smile, but don't go out of your way to make conversation... such chit-chat invariably leads to talk of itineraries, the number of people in your party, etc... things that are none of the other party's business! Should you find yourself caught in conversation with someone, it's okay (in this instance at least) to be vague or misleading. For instance, if you're taking a break and someone happens upon you, be sure to keep checking your watch, look down trail, and maybe go so far as to say that you're waiting for a friend of yours to catch up.

Keep to heavily used trails!

Okay, now that I've told you not to take candy from strangers, I should also tell you that strangers can be of help. Contradicting? Maybe... but if you twist an ankle in the snow as dark is falling, a stranger may also be your ticket to safety. When hiking solo, avoid remote trails and hiking cross-country.

Don't break regulations!

What ever could you mean? Well, I hear many folks address their fear for personal safety when traveling alone. Know the regulations for the area that you're traveling in. Most National Parks, for instance, prohibit firearms within their boundaries. Choose an alternative method, such as pepper spray... works well on bears and people, without the long-lasting guilt or the monetary fine/arrest record for being caught breaking the rules.