Over time, my outdoor adventures expanded as I gained confidence. This isn't to say I like adventuring solo better than with company; it's simply a different experience, and I enjoy both.
Spending days outdoors with only your own thoughts takes getting used to. At first I was distracted by the usual sights and sounds of the outdoors...no big deal. But then I began to explore my thoughts more. This got challenging. You see, I was going through a divorce when I first headed out alone, so there was A LOT to think about.
The nights were mostly good, but one rainy night I got creeped out and wondered why the heck I was out there alone. I heard weird noises all night long. In the dim light of morning I discovered why...wild boars had rutted up the entire campsite. No dinosaurs (yes that was my first theory), just a bunch of pigs grunting.
Since those first trips I've spent a lot of time alone in the woods, sometimes days, other times only a short hike. I'm more at ease now and look forward to exploring my inner space to the background rhythm of my footsteps.
If you plan to head out solo, there are a few things to keep in mind. Backpacking solo means you have less of a margin for error. You need to be more attentive to everything from weight to personal safety because you don't have an extra person to assist. I'm focusing on backpacking in this post, but most of these tips apply to hiking as well.
Plan Ahead — Choose your route in advance and identify possible "bailout" points, such as road crossings or trail heads, where you can abort the hike if you become sick or injured but are still mobile. In general, my route selections are more cautious when I'm alone because I don't have help available if I get hurt.
Share Your Plan — Leave the following information with someone you trust to keep calm if things go wrong:
- Detailed route, and perhaps a marked-up map, including the bailout points.
- Planned off-trail date/time and an "overdue" date or time. Note: Overdue is when you want people to start looking for you and may be longer than your planned outing by a few hours or a day depending on the length of your hike/backpacking trip.
- Who to call if you don't check in (typically a local authority)
- A detailed list of equipment in your pack
- Current medical conditions
- Location of your parked car (if applicable)
For more information, check out my post on the 10 Essentials.
Research communication options — Does the route have cell coverage? Tip: If you are trying to make a call with poor reception, try texting instead. The signal strength needed to send a text message is less than for a call.
Another option is to carry an emergency alert device such as the SPOT Personal Tracker which allows you to summon help via satellite and can send "I'm okay" messages to contacts. Please remember, the SPOT emergency function is for life safety, don't use it just because you ran out of Snickers.
Trust your instincts — Our senses can perceive things we aren't aware of yet, so be aware of your surroundings and trust your "gut" feelings. I worry more about humans than animals, so I avoid loitering near remote roads where I may attract unwanted attention from a passing vehicle. I also sometimes refer to a phantom hiking partner when I meet people to avoid letting them know I'm alone. I don't like fibbing, but I feel in this case it's prudent. Choose what feels right to you.
Pack Light and Carefully
Partners normally split the load of common items, bringing just one tent for example. Also if you forget something, there's a good chance your partner has it in his or her pack. Now it's all on you, more specifically, your back. Make a list, check it twice, and pack the lightest equipment and supplies possible. Don't skip the Ten Essentials, you are responsible for your personal safety.
Load your pack a few days before leaving to make sure the space and weight are going to work. A kitchen scale is handy for weighing individual items to choose which are the lightest and a bathroom scale is good for weighting the whole load. This may be the moment you purchase new (lighter) gear; it was for me.
Occasionally trails offer shelters, which are a convenient alternative to pitching a tent. You'll also get the chance to talk to people for a brief time. Shelters fill up sometimes, or aren't conveniently located, so pack a tent or tarp regardless of your plan. If you don't use a shelter, camp away from roads, which may provide easy access for troublemakers. I usually camp well away from roads and out of sight of the trail.
Solo backpacking is a little like therapy with a workout. It's good for you, but may feel uncomfortable at times. If you're new to backpacking I suggest hiking with an experienced buddy first. However you get started, enjoy the beauty and solitude of nature and your thoughts.
What do you think? Are you ready for or in need of a solo trip?