For me, and for millions of people around the world, hiking is like pressing the reset button. It’s a natural remedy for life’s problems that no drug can emulate. It brings me peace, balance, comfort and positivity.
I used to think that I had to be with others to hike. “That’s just the way it is,” I thought. “Hiking is a social activity.”
If none of my trail-loving friends were available, I’d rule hiking out for the day. For a while, I never even considered the option of hitting the trail by myself.
It wasn’t until I embarked on my first ever solo hike on a trail in Troy, New York that I realized how incredible backpacking by myself could be.
Many people are scared of this idea entirely, and I don’t blame them. Doing anything by yourself can feel like a bit of a risk, especially if you’re used to doing it with people. However, the key to solo hiking is thorough preparation.
There are certainly risks associated with solo hiking, and they need to be taken into account. However, when you’re actually prepared and know what to expect, hiking on your own can be the medicine you never knew you needed.
Is Solo Hiking Really Safe?
The main thing that stops most people from hiking by themselves is a concern over safety.
When you’re alone, you are generally less protected from everything around you. Having an extra set of eyes to watch you or an extra person to help defend you will always be the safer option. However, it’s definitely possible to safely hike solo.
Before hitting the trail, you need to seriously consider your level of experience. Are you an avid hiker? Or is it your first time on the trail? If you’re completely new to hiking, you probably shouldn’t backpack by yourself. This activity is reserved for those who already know what they’re doing to some extent.
If you find yourself in a bad or dangerous situation, it’s vital that you know how to handle it properly without the assistance of someone else. When beginners hike alone, they’re at higher risk of being injured or lost.
If you’re moderately experienced, you can safely hike by yourself if you choose a trail that suits your abilities. Make sure you know the length and elevation gain of a trail before you choose it.
Should You Hike By Yourself?
Let me just put it out there: solo hiking is not for everyone. A lot of people enjoy the social aspect of hiking more than anything. They like to have a good conversation. They like a bit of verbal support from others when faced with a challenge.
If you’re apprehensive about trekking alone or if you don’t enjoy your alone time, then I wouldn’t recommend a solo hiking trip.
I absolutely love my alone time. I find it easier to gather motivation when I’m by myself, so solo hiking really works for me. It’s important to ask yourself the question: “Do I actually like being alone?”
Solo Hiking Hazards And Ways To Avoid Them
Before you step out on the trail by yourself, you should know about all the potential dangers of solo hiking. There are certainly more than a few things you need to look out for, but when you’re properly prepared, you can solo hike safely.
Losing Your Way
Even when you hike with a group of people, you run the risk of getting lost if you’re not experienced. This is especially true if you encounter bad weather or if you’re on a complicated trail. When you’re alone, taking one wrong turn or misreading the map for a second can have brutal consequences.
Most hikers (including myself) use some sort of satellite-dependent trail GPS to find their way. I use AllTrails– an app which is compatible with iPhones and Androids. It’s great for knowing exactly which path to take and it’ll record all the stats of your journey.
The most important thing to remember is that you should never move off trail when hiking alone. This is the quickest and easiest way to get lost. If you notice that you’ve lost sight of your trail, stop moving immediately. Don’t take another step until you’ve either located a trail marker or checked your map.
Make sure you always have a full charge on your phone before hitting the trail. It’s also a good idea to keep a portable or solar powered charger with you (and don’t forget to charge that too!). As an added precaution, keep a printed out map of your trail with you. Pieces of paper don’t die, so these make for a great backup.
In more remote locations, travel with a satellite phone. These don’t need cell towers to work, so they’re more reliable than your regular phone.
Whenever you hike alone, it’s vital that you tell at least one responsible friend/family member about your exact plans. Tell them the name and location of your trail and what time you expect to return. This way, if you’re not back by your expected time, someone will know that something is wrong. They will then be able to take steps to look for you.
You should also consider keeping an emergency signaling device in your backpack. Signaling mirrors and high-decibel alarms both work well. Also, consider wearing bright-colored clothing. This will make it easier for a search team to locate you.
I also recommend checking in with park rangers before your solo hike. They’ll be able to tell you about any current issues or concerns with the trail. If the area you’re hiking in doesn’t have rangers, see if you can speak to some locals. They may be able to give you a few updates about the conditions of the trail.
Never begin a solo hike if you don’t think you’ll be back before sunset. The darker it is, the easier it is to get lost. You should always keep a flashlight with you just in case.
Mother nature can be unpredictable. Any time you decide to go on a solo hike, it’s vital that you’re dressed appropriately. Before you even leave the house, find a detailed weather forecast for the exact location that you’ll be hiking in.
If your area is known for having erratic weather, then bring extra clothes in your backpack. If you get too cold, hot or wet, you can always change on the fly.
Remember that weather can be especially unpredictable and extreme at higher altitudes. In this case, it’s a good idea to bundle up and dress in layers.
Don’t set out on a solo hike if you’re expecting bad weather. When there are high winds, there’s a greater chance of branches or even entire trees falling down. This is a huge hazard. Always be alert to the sound of loud cracking or snapping and never walk with your head down.
Thunderstorms are a risk as well. If you hear thunder, stay away from hills, cliffs or any elevated areas. Also, don’t go near tall structures or isolated trees. If you’re expecting rain, be sure to put all of your electronic devices in a sealable, waterproof bag inside your backpack.
Depending on the location you’re hiking in, there may be some risk of running into a dangerous animal. If you’re by yourself, it’s vital that you know how to react during an encounter. Your actions can save your life.
Educate yourself about the animals that are native to the area you’re hiking in. This will make it easier for you to prepare.
When you’re alone, you’re more vulnerable. Unfortunately, this makes you more susceptible to bear and/or mountain lion attacks. These animals tend to stay away from people in large groups.
Try not to hike by yourself in areas that are known for a lot of bear activity. Either way, always keep bear spray handy.
Believe it or not, mosquitoes and ticks are probably the most dangerous creatures you’ll encounter while solo hiking. This is why it’s important to wear bug repellent and be aware of how to avoid tick bites.
One of the biggest deterrents to solo hikers is other people. Technically, humans are the most deadly “animal” in the world. If you decide to hike alone, you may be afraid of being kidnapped, mugged or even killed by another person.
This fear is totally natural. However, there are certainly steps you can take to lower your risk of being hurt by another person.
Always be aware of your surroundings and never hike with headphones on. This will make it easier for predators to sneak up on you.
It’s okay to talk to other people that you run into on the trail. However, I advise that you use your best judgement. If you don’t feel comfortable talking (or even saying hi) to someone, you don’t have to.
If you do decide to talk to strangers, never give away valuable or private information. Don’t tell them where your car is parked, where you live or what your plans are. At the end of the day, it’s all about listening to your gut instincts.
You may also want to keep a weapon like pepper spray or a taser on your person. Better safe than sorry, right?
Accidents or Injury
Whether you’re a veteran hiker or a total beginner, accidents happen. It’s important to acknowledge that. Backpacking injuries can range from something mild like a splinter in your finger to something more severe like a broken leg.
In general, it’s important that you never take risks while hiking alone. Don’t attempt a climb that’s above your skill level. Don’t walk across that narrow log if you don’t think you can keep your balance. Don’t jump from a significant height if you’re not sure you can stick the landing. Solo hiking is not the time to take chances.
If you’re hurt while you’re alone, it’ll be much harder for you to seek help or finish your hike.
Always make sure that you have a backpacking first aid kit with you. It should include items like bandaids, bandages, tweezers, antiseptic, alcohol wipes, splints, aspirin and more. Check out my guide on backpacking first aid kits for more details.
The risk of injury is another reason why it’s so important to tell someone at home about your plans.
A Cautionary Tale
Some of you may be familiar with the case of Aaron Ralston. If you’ve seen the movie 127 Hours, you’ll know him as the man who had his arm pinned inside a crevasse for more than 5 days. He was biking in a rural area of Utah when he crashed and fell into a crack in the ground, leaving him helplessly stuck.
Unfortunately, Aaron had not told a single soul where he would be or what his plans were. No one even knew he was missing until he didn’t show up for his shift at a shop in Colorado days later. This mistake could have easily cost him his life.
Aaron was eventually able to free himself by tearing his own arm off… Ouch. His story is inspiring and horrifying, but more than anything, it’s a cautionary tale.
What Will You Get Out Of Solo Hiking?
Solo hiking isn’t something that should be forced on someone. If you’re not into the idea or if you don’t think you’re physically ready for it, then you should probably stick to social hikes. For the rest of you, it can be a hugely beneficial experience.
I like to use independent hiking as a sort of reset button. As I stated early, I greatly value my alone time. When I hike by myself, I’m able to feel nature’s energy on a deeper level. When you don’t have people to talk to, you wind up talking to nature… Not literally, but sort of telepathically.
A Mental Workout
There’s a power that comes with the natural silence of an independent hike. It allows your mind to roam freely. It’s a great opportunity to gather inspiration or find peace.
Hiking alone is a great way to improve your mental strength in general. It will provide some reassurance that you don’t need anyone nearby to enjoy yourself. You can survive and thrive on your own. Don’t be afraid to find a nice, clean rock and meditate for some time.
More often than not, you’ll come out feeling mentally replenished.
Improve Your Problem Solving Abilities
It’s not uncommon that you’ll face minor issues during your hike. This can come in the form of a blocked trail, a broken piece of gear, an animal encounter or literally anything else. When you don’t have a companion hiking with you, you’ll have no choice but to solve these problems on your own.
Overall, this is a great way to gain experience. It teaches you how to think critically on the trail. Sometimes, you have to face problems in order to know how to prevent them in the future.
A Lower Environmental Impact
Another huge plus of solo hiking is the reduced impact that it leaves on the environment. Unfortunately, every time we hike, we leave some effect on the ecosystem. The ultimate goal is to reduce how much impact we leave by following the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.
When you’re alone, it’s much easier to follow these rules. Obviously, a single person will leave less of an impact on the Earth than several people would.
I’ve written an entire article on the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, but here are a few of the key points to remember when solo hiking:
- Never veer off trail. Walking over vegetation will inhibit its ability to grow.
- Of course, NEVER EVER litter. Anything you bring into the wilderness must be packed out.
- Don’t break, vandalize or steal the natural objects you find in the wilderness.
- Don’t move or change natural structures.
- If you’re building a campfire, do so carefully and cautiously to avoid wildfires.
- Always act in accordance with local laws and regulations.
- If you must use the bathroom, be very conscious of the location you choose.
- Don’t wash your gear or bathe in natural bodies of water.
- Be kind and respectful to others on the trail.
If you were hesitant on whether or not solo hiking is a good idea for you, I hope this guide was able to help. I really do believe in the power of solitude and if you’re someone who is looking for a true escape from reality, this might be the activity for you.
Just always remember to take precautions and be aware of the potential dangers that come with backpacking alone. If you’re up for it, I challenge you to plan out your first ever solo hike and see how it feels!