Conventional wisdom says, “Never go hiking alone.” You’ll read this everywhere. Publications all parrot the same warning (likely egged on by their attorneys). Venturing alone into the backcountry alone is not safe, they say, and you shouldn’t do it.
Hiking alone may not be “safe” … but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
I’ve been hiking alone for as long as I can remember. And not just hiking – I kayak, swim, run, cycle, mountain bike, ski, and climb by myself. I’ve summited 14ers, rappelled canyons, and swam across alpine lakes with none but me, myself and I.
I’m not anti-social. I love adventuring with friends! But schedules often don’t align, and not everyone wants to spend a Saturday trekking 20 miles with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Time spent with children and grandparents is just as important.
Is Hiking Alone Dangerous?
I’m not ambivalent or dismissive about the dangers of hiking alone. Yes, there is real risk to entering the Great Outdoors without a guide or partner.
- You can have the best fitness in the world – but a venomous snake bites you.
- You can carefully pack the 10 Essentials – but you come down with hypothermia from an unforeseen cloud burst.
- You can slip, fall, and concuss your cranium against a rock. When you wake up, you have no idea where you are or where you were going.
So is hiking alone safe? Perhaps the better question is, “How do I make hiking alone safer?” Being outdoors means mitigating risk, not eliminating it. Being alone requires a high degree of fitness, technical skill, cool confidence, and self-rescue techniques.
What Benefits Are There to Hiking Alone?
- Walk at your pace. Stroll along at 1.7 mph or charge ahead at 3.1 mph. Your gait is your own!
- Enjoy the tranquility. If you escape from the modern world to find peace in the outdoors, hiking alone is a great way to spend time alone with your thoughts.
- Go when you want. No need to schedule outings weeks ahead. Light out for the trail whenever you feel like it!
- Test your fortitude. Yes, hiking alone can challenge you. You’ll have the privilege of testing your mettle against moody Mother Nature.
- Commune with God. I’m a Christian, and I find spending time alone in Nature is a great way for me to inspect my life and talk with/listen to God.
But truthfully, the thing about hiking alone is you either like it or you don’t. If you like it, then you already know about the benefits. If you don’t, then the benefits won’t many any sense to you – why would I go spend three hours alone in the woods by myself? Just don’t knock it before you try it!
Your Fitness Is Your Security Blanket
When hiking alone, your fitness is your security blanket.
- Caught in a freak snowstorm? You need to hoof it back to base camp.
- Take a wrong turn and walk an extra five miles the wrong way? Up to you to walk back – before it gets dark!
- Hiking a trail with steep, rocky scrambles? You need the leg strength to cruise up the boulder fields!
When you hike alone, you need the fitness to self-rescue yourself, not just to complete the mileage. You need to be hyperaware of your fitness levels and how altitude, terrain, and nutrition will affect your performance.
Plus, you’ll have to carry everything yourself. You need the upper body strength to deal with a 30-60-lb backpack.
Adopt Ultralight Packing Techniques
For the reason just mentioned – carrying a full pack by yourself – many solo hikers adopt ultralight packing techniques.
And no, ultralight packing doesn’t have to break the bank.
- Pack a simple 3-season hooped bivy sack or 1-person tunnel tent.
- Leave the multi-tool; bring a lightweight fixed knife.
- Eat super-high-calorie foods like peanut butter and raisins.
- Use a simple alcohol stove and pan stand. Or leave the stove behind entirely and eat all dry foods.
Sometimes, lightweight backpacking means simply doing without! Rather than carrying an extra camping pillow, just fill your sleeping bag stuffsack with leftover clothes.
You should aim to keep your final pack weight at 10-20% of your body weight.
Keep a Cool, Collected Head
Hiking alone means being able to troubleshoot “situations” before they turn into emergencies. It’s all about keeping a cool head.
One time, I was hiking up 13,065-ft Wheeler Peak in Nevada. While ascending snow steps in a wide col, a heavy cloud dropped in and I was quickly enveloped in a whiteout blizzard! I couldn’t tell right from left, up from down. The whole world was white.
I stopped moving, planted my poles in the snow, faced away from the wind, and waited 10 minutes. The blizzard passed, the sun came back, and I continued on my way.
If I had turned around in fear and tried to descend to calmer weather, I could have easily walked 50 yards to my left, where the trail turned into a 1,000-ft talus slope with treacherous footing. Who knows what could have happened?
When you face a dangerous situation while hiking alone, follow the acronym STOP: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan/Proceed. Problems are rarely as serious as they feel in the moment.
Fears about hiking alone tend to revolve around the worst-case scenarios: Stalked by a mountain lion, falling off a cliff, chopped up by a crazy axe murderer. And while just enough headlines exist to remind us that yes, these are all possibilities, these are not the risks that endanger most solo hikers.*
Don’t let fear of the unknown drive you to make hazardous or hasty decisions. To quote a famous Jedi, “Remember your training!”
Always, Always Stick to the Trail!
Most solo hikers get in trouble because they abandon or lose the trail. These are the guys you hear about because authorities discover their bodies five days later.
- Don’t take shortcuts or switchbacks.
- Bring a topographic map and know how to read it! Don’t assume your downloaded smartphone map will get you out of a bind.
- Even better, bring a navigational compass and know to plot a route and take a bearing.
If you do get lost, you need to find or build a shelter. That’s your first priority. Not food, not water, not finding a trailhead.
So know basic survival skills and shelter construction techniques, such as an emergency snow cave or a leaf/litter lean-to. You can survive days without water, weeks without food – but only a few hours without shelter from frigid or blistering weather.
Oh, and don’t assume the trail will be well-marked! A paper map is non-optional for long hikes in the backcountry. You don’t even have to look at it. Bring it just in case.
You did tell someone where you were going, when you’d be back, and when they should call for help if they hadn’t heard from you, right? If so, stick to the trail, and if something goes south, the authorities will know where to look.
But What If I Sprain an Ankle?
If you hike alone long enough, you will eventually sprain an ankle. It’s just the nature of the beast.
But then again … did you really expect your would-be hiking partner could carry you out like a sack of potatoes? Either way, you’re kinda-sorta on your own!
You need to figure out how to get moving.
- In some cases, simply wrapping the sprained ankle in an athletic bandage will immobilize your ankle enough to get to the trailhead.
- In other cases, you might need to fashion a crutch and/or splint using branches or trekking poles along with duct tape or paracord.
- Or … you might just need to crawl. It’s slow going, but you can eat up several miles crawling on all fours, keeping your foot elevated.
If you are truly incapacitated, you may have to wait for rescue.
Bring the 10 Essentials
Sorry-not-sorry to sound like your Boy Scout Troop Leader, but generally, yes, you should bring the 10 essentials.
This is a guideline, not Gospel. Don’t be that gumby that brings a fully loaded 35-lb backpack on a 5-mile trade route at a National Park. I’ve hiked 12-mile trails with nothing more than a LifeStraw, knowing that there was plenty of traffic on the trail to assist with any emergency.
But yes, if you’re venturing alone into the backcountry, then bring the 10 essentials:
- Navigational compass and topographical map
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Sun protection
- First aid kit (insect repellant, bandages, gauze, super glue)
- Emergency shelter (bivy sack)
- Emergency nutrition
- Extra water (1 liter minimum)
- Extra clothes (for rain/cold)
Bonus: Here are three other items I often bring:
- 30-ft of 1,100-lb paracord (where there’s rope, there’s hope!).
- Safety whistle on a lanyard/necklace.
- Bear spray (if in bear country)
This sounds like a lot, but the full list can weigh less than 3 lbs and fit inside a tiny rucksack. If you hate toting a daypack, just stuff everything inside a waist pack and carry the water bottle separately.
Once you’re an expert at hiking alone, you can make judicious decisions about substitutions.
- Instead of bringing extra water, you can just bring a portable water filter straw – so long as you can count on reliable water sources!
- You might forego the paper map for a downloaded offline map – so long as you bring a portable battery power pack and protect your phone inside a shockproof, waterproof case.
- If you’re super desperate to save weight, you can substitute a credit-card foldable knife for a relatively heavy Swiss multi-tool.
- If hiking in 80-degree summer weather, you may forego any extra clothes or rain protection. Even if you do get sopping wet, the 80-degree weather will keep you warm!
Tell Someone Where You’re Going!
I know I’ve already mentioned this, but this Rule Number One of hiking alone. Always, always tell someone:
- Where you are going
- When you’ll be back
- When to sound the alarm if they haven’t heard from you.
Hiking alone isn’t better or worse than hiking in a group. Some people can’t imagine without it; some people would never dare try it.
Hiking alone means being able to survive when things don’t go according to plan. There are inherent risks in the backcountry. Be prepared!
As the saying goes on long-distance trails, “Hike Your Own Hike.”