September 22

Courage to Go Backpacking Solo

Love backpacking but have a hard time finding companions? You are not alone, and ultimately if you find yourself dreaming of trails, mountains, streams, wildlife, the smell of pine trees, or nature’s music, you’ll be faced with the decision to either hike solo or deny your dreams. Finding companions with the same desires, schedules, hiking style, and with whom you enjoy spending time can be a nearly impossible challenge.

Goat Rocks Wilderness
Hiking Cispus Basin in Goat Rocks Wilderness, WA

Females hikers tend to face more obstacles when making the leap to solo backpacker. Most often there are loved ones who are naïve to backcountry realities and who believe their friend, wife, daughter, or mother needs male or group protection from perceived lurking dangers. These concerns are difficult to dissuade and can add to any anxiety already present for females considering their first solo.

women backpacking
Leea, Heather, Jan and Brooke enjoy both group and solo trips

In a recent survey I conducted on Facebook, I asked a group of female backpackers, about their solo experiences. I received 48 responses, with 36 saying they love to solo, 10 stating they would solo if they could find the time, had the gear, or didn’t have family pressures and obligations. One respondent tried soloing but didn’t like it, and another admitted she was chicken.

If this question had been asked to the hiking group, Im involved with, I’d guess 90% would say they were chicken, me included until the past couple of years.

My first solo experience was not what I would have recommended or planned, but the opportunity presented and I ran with it. As part of a group of four, I spearheaded a trip to the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington. But even after a year of planning, as the date approached, one by one my comrades dropped out of the group, with the last dropping just a week before our scheduled departure date. I was faced with the dilemma? Do I go solo or do I deny myself the opportunity?

I had previously made a mental list of requirements for my first solo hike. Primarily that I would select a trail I’d previously taken and with which I was comfortable, especially regarding campsite selection, and that I would plan for a single night out. The Goat Rocks trip would nullify these factors, but there were other positives that made it attractive. The route I had planned was on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at a time when many thru-hikers would also be in the area. This ensured if something were to happen, eventually I’d be found and could get help.

chicken
Are you a chicken?

Over the previous few years, I’d gained confidences by backpacking in groups with seasoned male and female veterans, and then more recently with one less-experienced female companion. I hiked over varied terrain, using GPS, maps and compass. I hiked solo to test my boundaries. Many hours were spent on the internet learning about gear choices, first aid and emergency kits, and tips for successful solo experiences.

Although I had a bit of anxiety, I was excited and ready for adventure. The adventure couldn’t have been better. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to be completely selfish and make every decision independent of the considerations one must make with a companion. Time without compromise is good for the soul.

Goat Rocks Wilderness
Enjoying my solo time in the Goat Rocks Wilderness


Are you ready to hike solo?

  • Do you have the hiking gear? It’s important to be self-sufficient and be prepared for most situations. If you are always borrowing first aid or emergency supplies from others or haven’t learned how to make a fire or navigate or hang a bear bag, you’ll want to add the necessary gear and skills.
  • Where do you want to go? Your experience on a well-traveled trail, such as the AT, PCT JMT and in many parks like Yosemite, will be much different than more isolated wilderness areas.
  • Have you spent a day on the trail hiking solo? If not, you might consider doing so prior to first overnight trip. The next step might be to plan a trip with a buddy, hiking and camping solo, but within reasonable proximity. When I began backpacking, I planted my tent within a few feet of a neighbor, but as I gained confidence, I moved further and further away learning to enjoy the sounds of the forest.
  • Do you enjoy your own company? 24 hours or more of nothing but your own thoughts can be uncomfortable for many.
  • Are you a planner and a leader? You’ll need the skills to plan your own trip and to make all your own decisions along the way.
  • Do you have anxiety or fears? Know what they are and be ready with a plan of action. For example, if it’s being by yourself in camp, then plan your trip so you can camp with others; if it’s navigation, then practice with GPS, maps and compass; if it’s bears, then wear a bear bell (just kidding).



mountain goat
If I chickened out, look what I would have missed!


Tips for a Successful Adventure

  • Notify others of your basic itinerary but keep it flexible so you can make choices along the way. I’ve found sending a group text is the most effective with date of departure and return, name of area and trailhead. When I return home, I send another group text. You’ll enjoy your trip more if your loved ones worry less.
  • Consider carrying an emergency locator device, like SPOT. I have a few people in my accountability network. I send a message when I arrive to/from the trailhead, as well as from camp each evening and morning. This device gives me peace of mind should I have a problem with my vehicle or need other assistance that is not SAR worthy. Plus, it’s a great way to coordinate transportation for a one-way trek.
  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings, especially near towns, trailheads and when road walking.
  • Listen to your internal voice. If you get that nagging feeling you shouldn’t cross a raging creek or pursue a scramble or camp at a certain location, consider alternatives, but don’t let fear stop you from expanding your comfort zone.
  • Be ready with a few white lies. I don’t recommend sharing with others you meet on or nearby the trail that you are hiking solo, nor your exact itinerary.
  • Be confident about your choice to solo; don’t let others dissuade, scare, or intimidate you.
  • Be wary of oversharing on social networks (i.e. your live tracking map)
  • Consider items that may make your adventure more enjoyable. For me, it’s photography, a good book, and maybe a little music.
  • Stay positive, laugh often, and don’t forget to have FUN!



This post was contributed by former Trail Ambassador Jan McEwen.