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 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.

Your thoughts?

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

    • Sometimes I wonder about that. There are times when I hiked with someone else, the bear-safety factor got compromised siimply because they kept disappearing into the alder bush, or don’t know how to cook; or to be 100% sure food haven’t made contact with their own stuff.

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

  5. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

    • 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.

      • Hi – and years later, I want to echo your sentiment Wendy. It’s been impossible for me to find anyone to join me on the Long Trail in VT, and for some reason, that is not one that many organized groups do outtings on.
        A hiker-match service is a great idea!

  10. 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. 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: 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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!


  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. About 20% of the UK population is introvert – meaning that their batteries are topped up by alone time. The other 80% are extroverts whose batteries are drained by too much time on their own and love the stimulation of a group (check out Myerrs Briggs for more on this). I’m an introvert, I can function as an extrovert and I’m told I’m very charming, but the joy of alone! I try very hard to make sure I get to do solo hiking and camping every year. I love walking alone, I love camping alone – really love it.

    I’ve only once had a bit of trouble as a single female on a hill walk when two lads wouldn’t stop walking just behind me for several miles – always about fifty feet behind and stopped when I did. Disconcerting more than anything else and had me slightly concerned. Eventually I walked slightly faster into the edge of a small wood and hid and stayed perfectly still for half an hour. They came into the wood. And looked around, the path ahead was very straight – it was an old conifer plantation, and I wasn’t in sight. I could hear them talking about it. They had just meant to freak me out a bit. It started to rain and they went back they way they came. I made a cup of tea, ate some Gorp and carried on. I was glad I hadn’t confronted them, and glad I took evasive action. Just in case.

  23. I went solo hiking for the first time last year ( I’ve been hiking/backpacking for 35 years and worked at Mead Base in NH back in the 70’s & 80’s ) and it was one of the most rewarding and spiritual experiences in my life. I had never felt such an absolute feeling of being alone in a vast beautiful wilderness. The silence was amazing. My senses were awakened like never before. I highly recommend solo hiking to everyone – just use common sense, get in decent shape, let family/friends know where you are going and when you should return and above all, BE PREPARED with the right gear.

  24. Years ago when I first started hiking in New England, I had a very difficult time keeping up with group hikes, e.g., the AMC. After a few group hikes, I realized that the pace was absolutely impossible for me because I would end up a sweaty mess then freeze to death. Like you, I was forced to go solo because I needed to get away from it all. At first, it was incredibly lonely, seeing everyone else have a great time, enjoying the company of others, even if it was few I would see the whole day. But, I was determined. I started learning exactly what I could do with my body. I took many courses on first aid, weather forecasting, navigation, avalanche training, rock and ice climbing. First, it was hiking. Then trail running. Then backpacking. Then climbing. For more than 20 years, I hiked, backpacked, and free-soloed most of the time, even in the cold winters in the Whites, the beautiful peaks in the west, and in Europe. I realized that winters were my favorite because there are so few people out. In all those years, I’ve never suffered an injury that required me to be rescued because I was cautious and slowly learned what was possible. Nowadays, I’ve mellowed a bit, and now I lead hikes. But it’s not the same. Many don’t know a thing, get lost after peeing, slip and fall on a leaf, go into unsafe conditions because they want to bag a peak, not knowing what to do if a problem arises. The “experienced” people still hike at unsafe speeds, not knowing what a 2 MPH pace feels like, not knowing that the others around them are not saying a thing, not enjoying a thing. And the others in the group wondering why they are having such a difficult time, also thinking about going solo. Nowadays, I say out loud “safety in numbers”, as you’re almost required to say. But in my heart, it’s definitely not true.

    • yeah, I can see your point of view. There are times that I like company, like in autumn and winter. But when the sun is shining, I just assume hike alone. Gives me time to listen to myself.

  25. I’m old, I’m slow, and nobody was willing to go. So I went. What a great experience the night in the woods alone. Don’t hesitate. Do it if the time calls. Of course I want to share wilderness time and experiences with others, too. Yet being the one to hold up the pace or obligate anyone else to see to my care is not what I would want. So having already solo’d it gives me that option with the knowledge I can still very much enjoy my time. Time in the woods.

    • I’m also old and slow and unless I’m leading the group, I’ll be in last place on the trail. I just section hiked over 100 miles of the AT with younger friends who haven’t made undergoing back surgeries a personal hobby. It was usually HYOH for Grandpa until he encountered them wherever they decided the group should camp. Grandpa enjoyed the times he was hiking with them and equally enjoyed the time alone. It gave him lots of opportunities to reflect on the Maker of all the beauty he saw and plenty of time to just relish being out there in the woods on his own pace.

      At one point, we were trying to get to a hostel to beat out an approaching winter storm which was going to arrive about noon the following day. We’d already been blitzed on the trail by one winter storm and preferred to be inside when the next one hit. We did stop and camp a mile from the trailhead because our purpose in being on the trail was to camp and enjoy the woods, not stay in hostels. The next morning, we got to the trailhead and caught a ride to the hostel before the storm hit. We waited out the storm that night in the hostel in the company of several thru hikers who also took refuge there.

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