"The most important thing on solo trips is knowledge. Know the land, know your gear, know your limits and know how to survive."
"Interesting subject and one I think about quite a bit, especially as I HATE to carry any weight unless I decide I REALLY "need" (might need?!?!?!) the item, LOL, plus decision-making in general . . . plus hey, never hike alone but I always do, plus always give someone your itinerary and I never do because one time my mom called Search and Rescue on me because she forgot I wasn't due back yet and for some reason people worry too much about me so I like to be on my own."
—unknown but dedicated solo hiker
For most people, hiking is like fine dining and hot-tubbing: it's a pleasure best enjoyed in good company. But if you crave the singular adventure of hiking alone, do it responsibly. The responsible soloist places a high priority on safety and risk management. Following are specific strategies designed to maximize enjoyment and minimize risk. The list is quite comprehensive. Some strategies will be obvious; some not. Some will probably seem like overkill. You decide.
Be realistic about your skills and abilities. Stay within comfortable limits for mileage, elevation gain, navigational challenges, and technical skills. This is not the time to experiment with off-trail navigation or exposed scrambling. Do an honest assessment of your current state of health (both mental and physical). Don’t go out solo when feeling poorly, dealing with an unresolved medical condition, recuperating from a serious illness/injury or when dealing with a serious personal or relationship problem.
Establish an Experience Base
Break into solo hiking gradually. Build up a solid base with experienced partners before attempting an ambitious trip alone. Take shorter day excursions before going overnight; go overnight a few times before going on extended trips. Don't make your first multi-day winter trip or your first hot desert trek a solo affair. Part of developing an experience base is taking the time, upon your return, to put in writing your thoughts about what you could or will do differently on your next solo jaunt.
Hike in Well-Traveled Areas
At least initially, hike on well-maintained and often-traveled trails. If and when you decide to go off-trail or into more remote areas, give a relatively precise itinerary to friends or family, realizing you can’t foresee all contingencies.
Hike in Familiar Conditions
Your experience base should include knowledge of the environment in which you are traveling. Know its hazards and how to travel safely through it. If off trail, travel through some of the area with a group first to get the lay of the land. Only when you have gathered some in the field knowledge should you go off-trail into new areas.
Avoid Unnecessary Risks
All backcountry trips involve some risk, but most risks can be minimized, if not eliminated. However, there is no reason to take unnecessary risks. As one unknown writer put it: “take risks but not chances.” Before taking even routine risks (like fording a moderately challenging stream or river), evaluate the potential dangers. Swallow your pride and abandon a route if it is proving to be too tough. Save your wild, off-trail, multi-day adventures for a group of backpacking vets.
Provide Key Individuals with Trip Data
Provide your trip data to at least two individuals. Give it to at least one individual who knows the area and who won't panic if you're a few hours late. Give them specific instructions about when to call out the cavalry. Giving them a copy of the map you will use is important if route is complex or not obvious. Write out the following (on the map or elsewhere): planned itinerary, campsites, alternative bailout routes; make, type, color and license number of vehicle. Also recommended is a list of carried emergency/survival gear. All of this data will be valuable to search and rescue agencies. See the sample data sheet on this website, “Hiking Trip Data For Emergencies,” for the form I use for more extensive trips (whether solo or not). I simply add trip detail to the basic information that doesn’t change and then print several copies (one to leave inside my vehicle, one or two for friends and family, and one with personal papers inside my pack). One last thing. If you live alone, make sure to check in with your emergency contact person upon return. If you are an smart phone or tablet user consider downloading Bugle from the iTunes Store. This free app is configured to automatically notify your emergency contacts of your whereabouts if you do not check in with Bugle that you have returned.
Develop a detailed checklist for the specific type of solo trip you are planning. There will usually be no one to borrow from if essential items are forgotten, lost or damaged. Go over the checklist for backups in case essential items are lost or fail (e.g., chemical tablets for water treatment if water filter fails; extra socks in place of lost gloves). Review the article “A Systematic Approach to Outdoor Gear,” for more ideas about customized gear lists.
Whether you are an expert or a novice, going alone invites greater risk: help is not guaranteed. Be conservative in your packing even on day hikes. Weigh the consequences of not having it against the burden of carrying too much. For example, consider carrying a stove and a bivy sack along with your other essentials on longer day hikes. Carry extra medications if these are necessary to deal with serious health conditions.
Avoid Extreme Weather Conditions
Check long-range weather forecasts to avoid the worst weather. Hypothermia is probably the biggest danger if you get hurt or sick, so pack to survive a couple of days in colder weather. No matter when you hike, develop a full understanding of hypothermia by reviewing the article “Understanding and Preventing Hypothermia.” Better yet, do most solos in mild weather conditions.
Avoid Longer Trips
Avoid longer solo trips, especially those outside of well-traveled areas. The longer the time you will be out in the backcountry by yourself, the longer will be the response time if you get hurt or sick early in the trip.
If you will likely feel vulnerable out by yourself, consider carrying mace or pepper spray for protection against both human and animal predators.
Adopt Strategies for Prevention of Falling
Since injuries from falling and tripping are often the most serious risk that solo hikers face, consider reviewing and adopting some of the 30 plus strategies listed in the article “Preventing Falls and Serious Injuries from Falling.” At minimum, pay extra attention to strengthening your legs and doing some balance enhancement exercises.
Wilderness First Aid
Read and print off the following articles on this website: “Wilderness First Aid” and “Wilderness Medicine.” Take a wilderness first aid course. Even though controversial, get your family doctor to prescribe some serious painkillers—some opiate heavier than Vicodan or Codeine. If seriously injured, heavy-duty pain management will often allow you to function well enough to take care of yourself. The best way to get quick relief is to chew 1/2 the dose and then take the rest of the dose with lots of water. The chewed tablet will hit you fast. Otherwise, you will wait 20 minutes for relief—the first 20 minutes can be critical for avoiding shock—a significant danger in these situations.
Emergency Communication Devices
At minimum take basic lightweight signaling devices: whistle, mirror, LED light with a strobe function, fire starter and a brightly colored piece of gear or two. Seriously consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) or a satellite phone, especially if you plan on going off-trail or into less traveled areas. Most of these emergency communication devices are coming down in price and weight. Most can be rented. But, also acknowledge the limitations of these electronic devices. Especially, do not rely on cell phones in the backcountry. For an in-depth analysis of the best devices for your needs, read the article “Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices Analyzed” located on this website.
Final Thoughts on Solo Hiking
Many counsel to never go it alone, experienced search and rescue personnel among them. Many counsel that the best prevention strategy is to always go with others. I counsel doing at least some low-key trips solo to see how you like it and to see if you are willing to follow the above strategies, at least those with which you agree. There are many benefits that can come only from solo jaunts. See my article “Solo Hiking and Solitude” for an extensive list of benefits and advantages. If you do decide to do more extensive and aggressive solo hiking, do it safely and wisely, especially if you have loved ones who care about and depend upon you.
Legal Disclaimer: Nothing in this website article on solo hiking can substitute for experience, careful planning, the right equipment, and appropriate training. There is inherent danger hiking and backpacking and viewers must assume full responsibility for their own actions and safety. The Author will not be responsible for the safety of those who visit this site.