Those of us who go alone do so of necessity, or perhaps because we enjoy the solitary pleasures of thinking our own thoughts, adjusting to our own schedules and needs, and having total, silent connection with the nature which surrounds us. The price we pay is a slightly heavier pack and perhaps an additional element of risk. But hiking alone also carries with it more excitement and less adjustment to the moods and needs of others.
—Fred Coleman, as quoted by Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking:
Guide to Lightweight Hiking, page 440
My dad is a backpacker. He hikes the Pacific Coast [sic] Trail every year. He goes alone, and my mom and I hate it.
—unknown contributor on Backpacker.com forum
There is something extraordinary about being alone on a mountain. Vulnerability sharpens every sense. Fear visits the body with a physical coldness. Moments of bliss are intensified and made melancholy by the realization that the moment will be yours alone and never shared. Only solo do you understand the indiscriminate power of the mountain and feel to your humble bones the insignificance of a human voice raised upon it.
—Bruce Barcott, The Measure of a Mountain, page 6
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
Why go solo? Why adopt this hiking style knowing the potential risks and problems involved? How should an experienced and conscientious hiker assess this practice? Should solo hiking be analyzed as an ethical and societal issue? What about soloists who have no responsibilities to others? What are the best ways to increase the sense of solitude while hiking in groups or in populated areas?
By its very nature, solo hiking personifies a style very different from the norm. Some hikers embrace this style and indulge in it whenever they can. Others will not seriously consider it. Poets, philosophers, wilderness travelers and others often sing the praises of solitude. Others go into the backcountry primarily because of the camaraderie, which obviously minimizes solitude. Where are you on this continuum?
I had not seriously examined the practice of hiking solo until writing this article. When I felt like going solo, I just did it. I was usually careful and did not take chances. My wife gradually gained confidence in my abilities and my promises to return when I said I would. Some family members were not convinced and continually counseled me against this practice. As I write on this subject, I wonder if it will be an elaborate rationalization of past behavior or an objective analysis of this subject. The latter is my goal.
In this article, I first delve into the common and not so common motivations and rationales (rationalizations?) for solo hiking (the variety of motivations is mind-boggling). I then argue that this is not just a personal and family issue, but also an issue with ethical implications for society. I go on to share my own experiences and conclusions regarding solo activities in general and hiking in particular. I share some suggestions for increasing the amount of solitude when hiking with others. Finally, I share several additional issues for further reflection.
Motivations for Solo Hiking and Backpacking: Thumbnail Sketches
Why go solo? Following are numerous sketches of the different motivations (reasons, rationales, philosophies) given by solo hikers and backpackers. When a good quote is available, I let soloists speak for themselves.
Silence, Sounds and Solitude: These three “Ss” are quite important. Solo hiking involves many opportunities for solitude and quiet time. It involves a profound sense of quiet undisturbed by the always-present background hum and noise of people and civilization. When I experience this kind of solitude and silence, it gives me the opportunity to fully tune in to the delicate sounds and smells of nature. My going solo for an hour, a day, a week or longer is the ultimate in this kind of experience.
Out of Necessity: I can’t find others who fit my personal style of hiking. I very much want to hike my own hike. Here is one statement of this motivation from an unknown author:
For me the issue is simple; go solo or stay at home. I was born before WW II and among people my age, there are few that are interested in anything more strenuous than golf. So basically, there are no potential hiking companions in my age group, at least not that I'm prepared to take the trouble to meet. Moreover, younger people have tastes different enough from mine in life experience, music and philosophy that I don't really enjoy prolonged ‘togetherness’ with them.
And a different expression of the same philosophy, also by an unknown author:
I love hiking by myself and solitude does not bother me. I am the only one outta my group of backpackers left that hike in a lightweight manner. I also like to hike most of the day and stop for sleep after 12-20 miles in a day. I don't have peer pressure to hike further or faster than I want.
Freedom and Spontaneity: An extension of the previous motivation is that of increased freedom. Solo hiking means being able to make last minute decisions on leaving time, destination and goals. It means few complications, compromises and coordinations. How liberating it is to just grab my pack and go. I don’t have to adjust to the moods and needs of others. When backpacking, I get up when I want, eat what and when I want, hike at my own pace, etc. I also prefer to hike long days (sitting around alone is often boring), so I go to sleep when I have finished my camp chores. Here is a summary statement of this motivation from an unknown author:
Ideally, if I could clone myself I would have the ideal hiking partner. Then he could get off work when I do, rest when I want to, push hard when I want to, even stop to pee when I want to. I would love to have a hiking partner like that. But I'm not sure if I'd want to talk to the guy. I love going solo and can't imagine ever giving up the freedom that I have gained.
Here is a statement of this same motivation, also by an unknown author:
I would prefer to have a partner but reality gets in the way. I can't clone myself. I want to do my trip, not someone else's. Not that mine is any better but just that it's mine. That's why most of my major trips are solo. Actually when hiking I often become very introspective and internally focused. I can reach a state of mind not obtainable in the company of others. Sometimes I like that. There is much to be said for human companionship but sometimes long days on the trail are not the best place for it.
The above paragraphs provide a preview of the complete article (approximately 14 pages) available as a free download. Click on the following to download in either a Microsoft Word or PDF format.
Solo Hiking and the Search For Solitude – Word Format
Solo Hiking and the Search For Solitude – PDF Format
The sub-topics listed below are developed in this complete article:
Motivations for Solo Hiking and Backpacking
Author’s Experiences and Motivations
Regarding the Dangers of Solo Hiking
Soloing as an Ethical and Societal Issue
What About Solo Hikers with No Responsibilities?
Suggestions for Increasing Solitude in the Backcountry
Additional Issues for Reflection