Solo Hiking and Backpacking

Happiness is having the shelter to yourself

Happiness is having the shelter to yourself

I do my share of solo hiking and backpacking. It’s not for everyone, but I enjoy the added self-reliance required.

All of the decisions are mine alone to make. There are no social distractions, enabling a deeper connection to the forest and landscape around me. Increasingly, I wander off trail on many hikes to seek a better view or explore a feature on the map. I am less hurried, knowing that I have time for detours without having to justify them or keep to a fixed schedule.

I see and hear more animals when I am alone. Birdsong is amplified. I hear the flight of a bull frog in the weeds or the slither of a snake. Mice visit my camp. I sit and watch turkey vultures soaring on the thermals and wait out a chipmunk until he reappears. I scout out beaver lodges.  Once in a while I see a moose before he sees me.

Chipmunk in a Tree

Chipmunk in a Tree

The lack of conversation helps me savor the little tasks in camp: staking out my tarp, gathering sticks for my wood stove, lighting a fire, waiting for my food to rehydrate, writing in my journal. The evening is consumed by chores until the sun sets. I awake later in moonlight and look at the stars.

When I wake up the next morning, I like to lie in my sleeping bag and think of nothing for an hour or so. I am not fully awake but not asleep either. It’s an extremely peaceful time of the day that I treasure. I break camp when I’m ready.

Backpacking alone can be spooky, especially in more urban areas where shelters are easily accessible to roads. I avoid these and camp out in the woods if I feel creeped out. I never worry about animals (what few we have on the east coast) and use ear plugs to block out the night sounds when I go to bed

Hiking alone makes meeting others on the trail more relaxed. People stop and chat along the trail. Conversations in shelters are all-inclusive, without having to break through group boundaries. People eat dinner together and go to sleep at the same time.

Hiking alone is much simpler to organize than a group hike.I negotiate some free time with my wife, write up a trip plan to leave with her, and off I go. No group coordination, no last-minute cancellations by others, no shuttles or carpooling to figure out.

I still like hiking with others and lead a lot of group hiking trips because I like to spend time with friends that way. But I reserve about half of my non-winter day hikes and backpacking trips to reconnect with myself and the land.

Do you hike or backpack solo?

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39 Responses to Solo Hiking and Backpacking

  1. Higgins March 26, 2014 at 2:40 am #

    i have only solo hiked and mostly during the winter. i know never to hike alone during the winter. 400 miles of the AT so far. solitude amazing, loneliness you’ll get that for a few moments but once you get past that the trail will provide. a humble person to talk to, a great view, a cool breeze when your just about to sweet. etc. thank you for the writing about potholing i cut my last trip short because of potholing coming down the north side of graylock mt mass. it was probably time to end the trip but that was the icing on the cake after being out for two weeks. had to take off my snow shoes and put on micro spikes but i already twisted up my ankles kinda bad that i ended the trip there

  2. renegadepilgrim March 26, 2014 at 2:45 am #

    I do hike and backpack solo. Usually a few times a year. Love it.

  3. Mark Laird March 26, 2014 at 3:16 am #

    I agree with all your comments although we don’t really have the safety issues here in the English Lake District.
    Nice pics too.

  4. Chris March 26, 2014 at 5:30 am #

    Very much so. Just about to set off on a solo Coast to Coast in Scotland, a la TGOC. Love the chipmunk :-)

    • Philip Werner March 26, 2014 at 7:57 am #

      Isn’t he special? I had to wait a while for him to poke his head out of that hole!

  5. Chuck Lafean March 26, 2014 at 6:58 am #

    My favorite way to hike, for all the reasons you state. Hiking with others, even one other, is work; hiking alone is rest.

  6. Marco March 26, 2014 at 8:20 am #

    Yes, most of my hiking is solo.

  7. Michelle Lawson March 26, 2014 at 8:25 am #

    I feel exactly the same way. I can’t wait for my first solo backpacking trip this season.

  8. AFenn March 26, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    I agree, I really enjoy the self reliance and solitude.

  9. Kevin O March 26, 2014 at 9:34 am #

    There is a mental aspect you have to overcome to backpack alone. Before I set off on a solo trip I usually have anxiety. Thoughts of bogeymen and rabid raccoons fill my head! I’m usually driving early in the morning and have to turn off those spooky AM radio shows about ghosts and aliens!

    My goal is to always hike until I drop and keep my mind occupied until I fall asleep. Once I get past that 1st night I’m good to go. By the second day, I feel great. All of the nagging thoughts about work and home disappear, my fears are relieved and I have the freedom to decide how I want to achieve the task at hand… Walking in the woods! I can break camp before sunrise and put up huge miles or sleep in and take my time. Whatever I feel like.

    The opposite is true for me when I hike w/ others. On day 1, I’m excited to share the experience w/ someone. By Day 2, I start to get annoyed when their schedule conflicts w/ mine. (long lunches, stopping to talk, the same story for the third time). Usually you can strike a balance and hike in harmony, but it’s hard not to think about what you would have done if you didn’t have company.

  10. louisfbrooks March 26, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    I have not hiked solo yet since I am required to have a hiking partner by marital decree but I want to give it a try one of these days. I have to convince the wife I am not going to be eaten by a bear or fall off a mountain first. Finding a hiking partner that is compatible with your personality, planned hike, hiking style and schedule can be very trying at times. (Sometimes it feels like I am dating again.) Having said that I have meet a lot of cool people I would not have by having to look for partners.

  11. happy hiker March 26, 2014 at 9:35 am #

    I’ve done solo hiking and it’s a great escape. As soon as I’m on the trail, I feel all my worries melt away and I’m free to do what I want.

  12. eddie s. March 26, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    Over the years because of my work schedule since I was maybe about 16, 99% of my Hikes have been Solo. Even when younger say when I was 11 and 12 years old I was a Solo Hiker on the Indian Trails of Upstate New York walked by the Iroquis, Mohengan’s, Adirondacks, Senaca’s and Roger’s Rangers, Trappers, and the like. (my Poor mother worried to death) I lived in Albany then, and not two blocks from my home were some of these trails because in the 16 – 1800′s Albany was the Center of the Universe. Sadly all these trails have been paved over by of all people the State of New York and the State College System as well as private Construction Projects. Where I used to hunt Deer and Fish in rarely visited spring fed ponds you now find State Office Buildings and the former State Univeristy of New York Buildings. Where I sat by a Natural Spring Roasting a Rabbit I shot, I sat under a Maple tree and sat upon an old Musket Pistol, which is now the State Police Headquarters and Nuclear bunker, only the metal was left with the outline of the wood. I also found an old brass Candle Stick Holder which sits above me on a shelf. I enjoy Solo hiking more than being with a group. There are benefits to both when it comes to carrying extra food or shelter or First Aid equipment but more than two people scares every creature in the wild including Rattle Snakes who would generally slither away or lie still and let you pass instead become a bit agitated to say the least.. As an example of the benefits of Solo hiking, ..last week in my area was the opening of Turkey Hunting Season. I wasn’t really aware of that until after my 8 mile loop Day hike when I got back to my truck to find a Wildlife Management Officer standing there. He asked me how the hunting was, I told him great! I bagged a few Turkeys,,he got all excited and wanted to see my license, I told him I didn’t have one, he got mad then, then I showed him my bagged turkeys in 35mm digital replay..he laughed a lot, I got him for sure…He then told me that there were 24 hunters he had checked on that day and nary a one had even seen a Turkey and here on my camera I had 14 photographs of individuals Males and a flock of a half a dozen hens..The downside, 14 years ago, coming down from the Mountains of Bishop Basin in the Eastern Sierra’s after a wonderful week of solitude and Trout fishing on Mountain Lakes where I was the only person I saw for a week, a Club group come charging by me on the trail, one banged into me which forced me to stumble down hill which dislocated my left knee from the socket…I yelled after them to stop that I was hurt but they kept on going totally ignoring me or couldn’t hear me because of all their Chatter..I literally had to crawl the 2 miles left to my truck and drove my self to the Bishop Hospital where a good pull and tug got the knee complete back into place, I tried to do it myself by hooking my ankle between to rocks but it only partially set, Another time I cut my finger really badly and had to sew it up myself because I was 5 jogging hours from my truck and another hour to a hospital, or a full day carrying a pack., but in 53 years of hiking those have been my only injuries other than the normal cuts and burises and a sprain now and then and the dredded blisters. To this day I always carry a knee brace and use it on all down hill sections cause sometimes the knee pops out just for a second an then because I react it pops back in..The only way to correct it is for surgery to shorten the muscles and tendons that were stretched beyond norm but my Health Plan will not cover that Surgery. One other item I carried over from Deer Hunting is a pair of Hearing enhancers, called Ultra Ear ITC. This brand has a noise suppression system built in and has a 5 level volume adjustment. I totally agree with just about every you wrote Phillip, Be it Cross Country or Trail hiking, Solo I find is the best for me. Another benefit while Desert Hiking in Southern California was the Tinaja’s, most only hold about a quart of water which is great for just one. dang am I wordy thanks for allowing me to share…. lols

  13. VTMike March 26, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    I’ve almost always ever hiked solo due to work schedules. My first night out in the woods was completely alone – the shelter was deserted. I love walking through the woods alone – so wonderful with no distractions.

    My uncle, upon hearing about my first solo hiking/camping outing told me it would be a challenge to sleep out in the forest alone but was vague enough to not explain in what manner this challenge would present itself.

    Let me tell you – the first night in the forest completely alone and miles from anything (read: help, security) is a moment of truth. =) After I exhausted myself with thoughts of being eaten by a bear or stepped on by a moose I did have a good sleep and continued on the next day.

  14. Chas C March 26, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    I hike alone 99% of the time and enjoy it much better than with others for all the reasons you cited. I frequently get asked if I’m worried about wild animals by folks who have no clue. I’ve seen a black bear once and suspect mountain lions have seen me many times but I don’t run like prey and so don’t worry.

  15. melinda March 26, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    Great post!

    Up until last summer, I’d always hiked with my partner. Then I moved cross country for work, and he stayed in New England to finish up some projects for his own work with a plan to come out here this fall. Since then, I’ve done shorter dayhikes with friends, but every hike longer than 8 miles has been solo. I love how meditative it is and how quiet, especially now in the off season. There have been times when the only human I see all day is myself. I love moving at my own pace without having to worry about going to fast/slow/far. I definitely miss and miss hiking with my partner, but solo hiking is its own joy.

    I haven’t solo backpacked yet but want to, very much. I’ve been dreaming of solo tents and bear cans that don’t weigh a ton (required in many places in western WA, including the Olympics and the cascades). 

  16. John_M March 26, 2014 at 11:38 am #

    Most of my trips out are solo. I love the solitude on the trail, the heightened awareness of my surroundings and satisfaction from self-reliance.

  17. josh camp March 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    95% of my hiking is solo. It’s all about the solitude.

  18. Ben Carlson March 26, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    I’m the first person to post here that I haven’t done any (significant) solo hikes or backpacking trips. I think I’m too extroverted — more than I’d like to be. I’d rather be doing an activity with someone than alone, so if I have an option to hang out with friends on a weekend where I could go solo backpack, I’d choose the friends. If I’m planning a hike with a buddy and he bails, I often end up bailing too. This is to my detriment sometimes, for solo trips and other activities that I enjoy, but I’m generally OK with it.

    Maybe all it would take is for me to force myself to get out there alone, who knows.

  19. Elle March 26, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

    I usually hike alone because my friends don’t hike. I like the freedom of choosing when & where I go, but I sometimes want someone else to choose. I went on a couple of guided hikes this winter with EMS (figuring that a paid guide would be less likely to leave me behind or get annoyed if I was slow) and they were really nice hikes. The group was great, and there was just the right amount of talking and not talking. It was good to have the pressure to be at a certain place at a certain time, and to have to keep up with other people.
    I am pondering doing a solo backpack this summer, maybe someplace like the Kinsman tent site that has a caretaker to make me feel a little safer. Not that much danger would be anywhere but inside my head, but still. (Huts have way too many people for me…)

    • eddie s. March 26, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

      I so know you fears, for I have two Daughters who had the same fear. The help them overcome the fear I did a number of things to help them and also instill confidence in their abilites and here are a few of those: Self Defense Course of some kind, I sent them to Karate classes, Since I was pretty proficent in hand to hand combat in the Marine Corps I added on to the Karate with a few more techniques and skills I had learned. I taught the idea that just about anything can be a defensive weapon, fear is good, panic is your enemy, learn to control the fear and you will conquer your enemy, Stealth Camping, learn what it is and how to apply it’s principles and methods to hide in Plain Sight. Never buy what I call Taco Shop Colored Tents or equipment. On one trip below the Border every Resturant in town was colore Orange, Bright Red, Bright Yellow or some other really bright eye hurting Color. It stands out for miles against the backdrop of Greens, Browns and Grays. Did you know Black does not exist in nature except by fire! So choose earth tone and muted colors, but not necessaryily Camoflage, The Marine Corp pattern for camo is good in the green tones, but the Armys BDU’s are easily spotted and are about to be replaced. Same with most Desert Colors do not work, still with muted browns and greens. A neon colored Backpack is also not a good idea. Fear is Fear of the Unknown, pick each fear, write it down and then research the subject matter so you understand it. Like Snakes and Bears and remember most animals in todays forests are most Nocturnal due to man’s invasion..So expect things to go bump in the night..Hope this helps you…

      • eddie s. March 26, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

        Sorry for the mispellings, I did proof read it..Thinking my keyboard needs replacement

        • eddie.s. March 26, 2014 at 6:41 pm #

          I just remembered one item, sorry for being a Pest..I have an Electronic Unit called a SPOT which is a Satelite, GPS, Messenger. The unit cost me $100.00 back a few years ago and then $99 to activate it. One push of the Red SOS button and a message is immediatley sent to a Satelite where it is relayed to the nearest Fire, Police, Sheriff Dispatch Center with my GPS information or Global coordinates within 5 feet. Look up the newest versions on the Net, there are now a couple of other Companies making similar Units and well pick the one you feel safest using. My little Unit is about the size of a deck of playing cards and operates on a couple of lithium batteries. They are a number of program features you might like that send automatic messages to your loved one of choice to tell them you are Ok…worth the money believe me..

          • Elle March 27, 2014 at 10:21 am #

            Thanks. I was thinking of just bringing some xanax, but those are good suggestions!

  20. Laurence March 26, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Phillip is right about avoiding easily accessible campgrounds, because being alone makes you far more attractive to criminals or troublemakers, like wearing a “Kick me!” sign.

    But backpacking alone is absolutely worth it, for the glorious absence of debate! I can camp, sleep, hike, stop, cook, and eat, all where, when, and how I alone want, without any discussion, consultation, or compromise. That makes life fabulously relaxing and easy.

    Besides, “He who travels fastest goes alone,” according to Merle Haggard.

  21. Mike March 26, 2014 at 5:47 pm #

    My first ever backpacking trip was solo, and about dusk I was walking down the trail near my campsite and saw a bobcat. It was awesome to see, even though it quickly ran away. But what really struck me (the next day) was that I went back to my tent, crawled in, and fell right asleep. Never worried about being attacked by a wild animal, despite having just seen one. I knew I was going to be just fine.

    If my wife would sleep in a tent, on the ground, I’d love to go backpacking with her. Besides that, I’d much prefer to be solo.

    Philip, a big “heck yes” to your comment about that first hour of being semi awake. Nothing like waking up with the forest.

  22. Kurt in Colorado March 26, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

    I hike and car camp solo (usually with my dogs: does that count as solo?). Living in Colorado, we have no grizzlies but plenty of black bears, and I know my imagination is likely to get the better of me! One night while car camping alone up a valley, just a half mile from other campers, I heard an animal crashing through the trees, coming closer. I thought, “It’s not a deer. Or a coyote or a rabbit! It’s big enough to knock over some serious brush!”

    I spent an uneasy half hour close to my spotlight and hunting knife (no dogs on this trip), until I heard the animal speak, and my fears were relieved. It went “moo.” Sheesh.

    My only solo backpacking was in Canada. Even with my dog, Canada’s wilderness makes me nervous because they do have grizzlies! I blew my whistle frequently and yelled “Hey bear!” in the dense forest where the trail was obscured. Then I came upon a woman sitting on a picnic table, of all things. I said, “Did you hear me?” She said, “Here what?”

    The return hike was not too fun: the ranger informed us that a grizzly had been spotted on Healy Pass, and I had to hike the entire 8 miles alone. I figured my Border collie would detect a bear long before I did, providing an early warning system.

    At one backcountry campground, he began growling and staring with agitation at a spot on the far side of the valley. The wind was from that direction. I used my binoculars but saw nothing. However, it did create a bit of apprehension, as he never growled like that at raccoons or deer! I was quite glad for fellow campers–and a metal pole on which we hung our food.

  23. Grandpa March 26, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    My backpacking experience has probably been split about 50/50 between solo and with other[s]. I love it either way.

    I’ve backpacked plenty with friends, family members and various in-laws. I’ve also introduced three grandchildren to backpacking.

    My ten year old grandson has accompanied me on many trips since he was four. Sometimes at the beginning of a hike, he can be a “whine-oceros”, but once we really get going, he settles down and enjoys himself and he’s learned how to use the JetBoil and pitch the tent, which is a big help. When I’m solo, I don’t have to cajole and encourage someone or listen to complaints. I’m also free to sleep without the tent and lay there staring at the stars because I’m not afraid of the dark and I don’t freak over sounds in the woods, however, I recognize that when I was that age, all those fears were real to me as well. I can travel lighter when solo because I don’t have to also carry some of my young companion’s gear. Since I’m not a picky eater, food preparation is also simpler when alone. I see more wildlife when solo because I’m quieter on the trail. Once, when my grandson was five, we kept meeting hikers coming from the other direction asking if we’d seen all the bears they encountered. In miles of hiking, we never saw the bear because I think our noise was herding them on ahead so all the other backpackers could view them. I love the peace, freedom, and serenity of being alone but when I’m solo… I also don’t have a loved one to share the wonders with!

  24. John March 26, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    I day hike and backpack solo and with partners. Though I prefer company I have had some very enjoyable solo hikes. There is nothing like arriving at the perfect swimming hole and having the place to yourself! I am planning to do the 100 mile wilderness this Summer and would love to find a hiking partner.

  25. Brett K. March 27, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    I dayhike solo most of the time, and always backpack solo. I’m working on getting a few friends to try backpacking. I mainly backpack in the Adirondacks & on the AT in PA/NJ/NY. I’ve found that on the AT, even if you’re backpacking solo, you’re never alone. I’ve had so many great experiences meeting and staying at shelters w/ fellow backpackers on the AT.

    I love the freedom that solo backpacking offers. Any choices I have to make are mine, and mine only.

    My first solo night backpacking, I was visited (not too closely) by 2 black bears about 10 minutes after I hung my bear bag. Later that same trip I hiked into a tropical storm. It was an interesting indoctrination into the world of solo backpacking, but didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it at all.

  26. Greg Brouelette March 27, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    99% of the time I’m out with my hiking buddy “Thunder” who is my Husky/Shepard mix. He’s a great dog and I enjoy his companionship and the sense of safety I have when being out in the woods with a dog.

    So yeah, I’m essentially a solo hiker. The few times I’ve hiked without him it feels really strange.

  27. David March 28, 2014 at 10:57 am #

    I too prefer solo hiking, but not exclusively. Maybe I’m just picky about who I hike with. One day I would like to go with one of your groups Phil. I am planning to do some solo backpacking late this summer and fall, my favorite times of year, after labor day.
    I know there are always safety concerns, and my partner voices them to me regularly. But most of the risks can be mitigated if one plans, equips, gains the necessary knowledge and experience, and being in appropriate physical condition is essential to ones safety. The woods are not inherently a dangerous place in my view but like anywhere else there are dangers. I did buy a SPOT II satellite beacon which makes my partner feel ,much better, and me too for that matter

    I echo the comments others have made about being able to keep your own schedule, stop for photos and to just reflect when you get to somewhere special, or push on hard if that’s where your mind is at the time. I like meeting others on the trails, but I much prefer being on my own most of the time. Great discussion here.

  28. Brandon March 28, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

    I day hike by myself occasionally but never have stayed overnight alone. I think it would creep me out a little and it doesn’t sound as fun. I get plenty of alone time in the woods during my local hunting seasons, so I see the appeal in it. I just don’t think it is for me.

  29. Mike H. March 29, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I’ve only ever been camping with others, though I enjoy the solitude of taking solo day hikes (plus my dog).

    I have long contemplated bringing ear plugs for sleep (the mosquitos sounds so close in a hammock!), but often worry I won’t hear if something else arises. I know the woods are safer than most places, but I often camp with scouts… & they’re ways causing trouble!

  30. Pete M March 30, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    One of my goals this year is to do some solo hikes and maybe an overnight solo backpack or two.

    • Carol Gardner April 15, 2014 at 4:33 am #

      I hike alone, with nobody else. You know when I hike alone, I prefer to be by myself.

      • Aaron Preston April 24, 2014 at 12:45 am #

        If there was a “like” button here , I’d “like” this comment. Very clever! :)

  31. Cincinnatus May 2, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    Yes – the most memorable time was laying in the tent and listening to the leaves hit the branches as they fell to earth.

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