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 feet 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.
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.