Solo Backpacking

Section hikng the Appalachian Trail

Solo Backpacking

I do a lot of solo backpacking. I got started when I hiked the Long Trail in Vermont in 2008. No one I knew wanted to come along, but I still wanted to go, so I did it by myself. I quickly discovered that I liked it more than hiking with a partner or a group.

When you hike by yourself you have a lot more freedom to do what you want than when you’re with someone else. You can break camp really early or stop for long time at a nice viewpoint. Your time is your own, and you don’t have to take anyone else’s feelings or desires into account. There’s no need for discussion or negotiation. You can take side trips, do insane mileage, or wimp out when it’s raining and stay in a shelter all day.

In fact, backpacking and day hiking by myself is one of the few times that I have alone anymore and it’s quite a relief for me. My people job is full of “I wants” and interruptions all day long, and I’m married. I won’t go into detail, but you married folks should understand.

Hiking alone is a special time when I can empty my head of racing thoughts for long periods of time, even days. I can just focus on the sensations of my feetĀ  as I walk, the swinging of my poles, and the motion of my body and legs. It’s harder than you think to stop the worldly thoughts, but it is vastly restorative. Buddhists call it walking meditation.

Temporary Trail Friendships

You are rarely alone when you solo backpack. For example, in New England, I usually come across a few people per day, even on the most remote trails, and it’s not uncommon for me to share a campsite. I’ve made great temporary friendships with some of these hikers and had a very enjoyable time together.

If the chemistry is right, you can even pick up a temporary backpacking partner for a day or so on a longer trek. I did this on the TGO Challenge, hiking with Graham Lewis for a day over Lochnagar. He also prefers solo backpacking, but we got along great because we had so low expectations of one another. We just happened to be going the same way and it was natural that we hike together, but there were no hard feeling when our route diverged.

Safety in Numbers?

People say that you shouldn’t go solo backpacking because it’s not safe. That’s bull. Hiking with a partner or a group can actually compromise your safety as much as hiking solo.

I can only really think of a few examples where hiking with another person enhances your ability to survive: when you are knocked unconscious by a fall, when you are bleeding out and can’t staunch the flow of blood yourself, and when you’re incoherently hypothermic and can’t make rational decisions about reversing the process.

Even then, your ability to survive is limited by your partner’s skill in wilderness first aid and common sense. If your partners are clueless about what to do, then hiking with them hasn’t improved your odds.

On the flip-side, hiking in groups can actually compromise your safety. If you’re in a group with mixed skills and the weather turns to shite, you need to move fast and find shelter. You can’t do that if a less experienced member of your group is slow and holding everyone else back. The same holds for groups that have fast hikers and slow hikers in them, where the fast hikers speed ahead. When a group gets dispersed like this, accident scenarios get even more complicated. Those of you who are trip leads out there, can sympathize, I’m sure.

The only exception I make about hiking with partners or groups is in winter. I always hike with a partner then, because winter hiking and mountaineering are more dangerous, and a skilled partner can intervene far faster than a mountain rescue or search and rescue unit if you need to call for help.

Self-Reliance

I believe that expertise and experience are the best way to remain safe when solo backpacking.

I read somewhere that solo backpacking is about self-reliance. That’s very true. You really need to hone your bushcraft skills like finding a trail when the blazes suck, knowing how to find water, map reading and navigation, weather forecasting, how to recognize and prevent hypothermia, how pace yourself, and so forth. I really became much more skilled at all of these things when I started solo backpacking. There’s less room for error, so you are forced to become an expert.

Your thoughts?

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23 Responses to Solo Backpacking

  1. Maz August 1, 2010 at 11:20 pm #

    I enjoy solo hiking, mostly because I was forced into it, but now it's largely because I move fast & don't have to wait. If I want to cover "insane mileage", I can. I also enjoy time to think. That said, there's a mate of mine with whom Zi hike very often & that has it's attractions too – company is our default setting as a species so company can enhance a hike too. I think on balance it must necessarily be safer hiking with another, unless you really are a true expert, as if things go wrong you have another pair of hands, another pair of legs and another brain. I don't think it's unsafe to hole alone – of course it's not – but having help is usually a good thing.

  2. Chris Wallace August 2, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    Always hike in groups in Griz country. Statistically you're far less likely to be attacked.

  3. Steve August 2, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    I've got the dog for solo hike companionship, but I prefer to hike with friends than solo. It gives you another set of eyes to notice the small yet still amazing things one sees on hikes. It's also fun to share the experience with friends. I'm also sans car since my car was totaled last December, so it's made solo hiking difficult lately.

    My other issue is that one friend is still recovering from ankle surgery so is not able to hike at my pace quite yet, the g/f has a genetic food issue that makes rigorous hikes difficult for her, but she's a trooper and loves hiking so we plan for the slower pace when she joins me. My only other hiking friend that can keep pace has had the "opposite" free time schedule as me this summer so we haven't been able to hike together this year.

  4. lostalot August 2, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    You're really missing something unique if you won't go out alone in winter.

  5. Chas August 2, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    I mostly dayhike alone for reasons mentioned by others: lack of partners, love of solitude, no worries about matching another's pace. I haven't backpacked in a while because of a lack of partners but want to start solo b-packing in wilderness by my house. Thanks for your perspectives.

  6. DaniLou August 2, 2010 at 11:46 am #

    This summer has found me hiking alone quite a bit more often than I have in the past. I too have found that I really enjoy it. It allows me more time to think, I'm not caught up on keeping up with my (much faster) hiking partner, and surprisingly I'm hiking longer days more comfortably than I expected.

    The trade off for me is at camp. I really miss the company of a hiking partner at the end of the day when a little conversation over a night cap and a campfire make a great end to the day (not to mention giving me a little more confidence when things go bump in the night)….

  7. del August 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    The media always tend to focus on the negative aspects of hiking/camping alone. They publish excruciatingly detailed accounts of bear attacks, campers being dragged out of their tents, snakebites, people dying of thirst trapped on a ledge, guys amputating their own arms with a dull knife, etc. But if they were to spend the same level of coverage reporting on all the positive outdoor experiences that happen every day the newspapers would all be as thick as a telephone directory. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of stories all saying stuff like "Joe Hiker spent a great weekend hiking around such-n-such wilderness enjoying nature and nothing much bad happened to him."

  8. Tom Murphy August 2, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoy being able to hike at my own pace when solo. Group hikes are fun too. Everything in moderation.

    I do think that you contradict yourself a bit. If it is safe to hike alone in the summer, then it is safe to hike alone in the winter. Every season brings its on set of challenges and you need to be prepared and use good judgment.

  9. Laine August 2, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    This spring before I went for some solo hikes, I googled "woman hiking alone" thinking I'd find some helpful tips. Never ever google that if you want to step in the woods again.

    After that, I went and bought a knife to carry with me.

    Now I've started to look for hiking companions for my more distant hikes or ones where I'm not sure if they'll be enough people on the trail to make me comfortable.

    I've thought of joining a hiking group (or rather, my mother has tried to encourage me to join one) but the thought of going with too many people is not appealing to me.

    There should be some sort of hiker matching service, where we can specify what we want and can offer (chatty, quiet, good cook, etc) and get matched up with some other normal person who just wants to not hike alone.

    • Wendy July 17, 2012 at 10:41 am #

      Laine,
      You posted this almost two years ago, I too am a women who loves to be outside, but can’t find many other women who enjoy the same. I get a lot of more time off than my hubby so find myself hiking alone. On my way to the Smokies tonight for my first solo overnight. Got my knife all ready to go.
      Wendy

  10. Thomas Johnson August 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    I do quite a lot of my hiking by myself. I definitely think it is safer walking with others. For me the rewards outweight the risks.

    I have these awesome moments when walking alone where I am just in awe of the scenery. For whatever reason the intensity of these experiences are reduced when I'm which company.

    A GPS locator beacon goes someway towards minimising the risk of hiking alone.

  11. Earlylite August 3, 2010 at 3:30 am #

    Chris: Very good advice, as usual.

    Steve: Funny you mention that. I am working on trying to notice things better this year, also to help become a better photographer. Retraining my perception (and patience) has been difficult, but I am making headway.

    Chas: Get out there. Backpacking alone has some subtle rewards.

    Tom: I hike with someone else in winter to appease my wife. I also do some pretty ambitions hikes in winter, that are more dangerous. Adams in winter is very different than Mt Adams in spring or fall.

    Laine: meetup.com is a decent way to meet people who are willing/like to hike in smaller groups. Posting on a group's message board can work to cull a single person from the pack. Another thing I used to do what to become an event organizer, so I could keep my hikes small.

    Thomas: Good point. The experience is much more intense when alone.

  12. Tom B August 10, 2010 at 5:36 am #

    I like to hike in groups (if everyone's 'at the same level') and also solo. One BIG risk of hiking with a group or a partner — not mentioned — is what I call 'the macho dude' (found in many sports). This is the guy who has great daring but no common sense and does really crazy (i.e. dangerous) things on the theory that he's never had anything happen before. Unfortunately this type also (1) is often a charismatic leader type, and (2) tends to abandon folks who follow him part way and then wake up to what could happen. (They're now 'on their own' in conditions that are beyond their knowledge/experience level!) I could write a book about these 'adventurers' and I avoid them like Lyme Disease or compound fractures!

  13. jarra August 11, 2010 at 7:24 pm #

    I was on a mountain bike ride with a friend and we met a stranger who started riding with us. After a while we came across a rattlesnake coiled on the trail. This Macho started agitating the snake by poking at it with a stick and pursuing it into the undergrowth. What if he had been bitten? We would have been obligated to rescue him. Big liability.

    If that type of person is your trail companion, you're better off alone.

  14. lostalot August 12, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    Actually, if you're not in France or in the last episode of Seinfield, there is no 'good samaritan' law that obligate you to rescue another person.

  15. lostalot August 12, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    And I make it a habit myself of driving snakes off trails, first stomping my feet then getting a long stick and flipping them off, mostly for the snakes sake since so many people will kill them on sight.

  16. Bryce September 3, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    So what you're saying Philip, is your followers will never get a chance to hike on a 3-season trip with you. Damn, I was hoping for that personalized trip to the whites! :p

  17. Earlylite September 3, 2011 at 8:24 am #

    Nope – I'm going to start co-leading backpacking trips in a few weeks with the AMC. Post about it next Tuesday. Starting out in the Catskills, but moving back up north next year.

  18. Bryce September 3, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    Game on! :)

  19. david longley October 30, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    I absolutely love solo-hiking. It is the primary way I care for my heart. The forest, for me, is many things…chief of these is a sanctuary. As grateful as I am for my amazing family and friends, I long for solitude. I crave the peace and clarity that comes from walking through an ancient hardwood forest or a grove of pines where the trail is laden with and softened by needles. It is, above all, a spiritual experience…sometimes to be shared with friends; sometimes better savored in solitude. My Abba, my Guide…He meets me there. So do I ever truly hike alone? Probably not. Thanks for the great article. Keep 'em coming!

    -wayseeker

  20. Martin Rye October 30, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    I like solo walks, and group walks. I dont accept the arguments solo is a risk much higher than in a group. Groups can be just as risky.

    There is something very satisfying about a long solo walk. Hard to explain, but worth going to find out yourself.

    But often its the only option. More often than not, no one is able to go on a walk with me, so I go solo.

  21. Jerzedevil October 30, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    You made some great points about hitting the trail solo. Going above treeline alone in winter is an experience. My wife, friends, and, at times myself, question my sanity when I head out on a trek like that.

    As you mentioned, self reliance is of utmost importance when soloing. Your senses become razor sharp and focused in those conditions. Without an element of risk its just not worth doing in my opinion. Might as well go for a walk in the park if that's what your after. I want an adventure and to forget life's problems for a while. A solo winter excursion above treeline is the perfect cure.

  22. Mike October 31, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Necesity has made me a solo walker. It is so different than walking with friends and I have been spoiled by the solitude and now prefer going it alone. There is usually a campfire to share along the AT when I need company. And one of the best walks was an impromptu week with a SOBO. Serendipity.

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