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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.

15 Responses to Courage to Go Backpacking Solo

  1. Judi September 22, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

    I have hiked and backpacked solo many times. When I BP I do a trail that I know and have scoped out a camp site ahead of time. Also water sources, firewood etc. I truly enjoy the quiet and sounds of the wilderness. At times it gets a little lonesome but I will chat with folks on the trail not telling them that I will be alone for 2+ nights. I always have a book to read. Sometimes the too chatty GF or BF gets old. I say – Give it a try. Go close to home. One night. Have a plan B
    Facing adversity makes you stronger!! It’s an adventure!

  2. Bigfoot86 September 26, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    I perfer going solo as someone else might not be able to keep up or they might wanna go to fast. I usually go on a trail i know and i also carry a spot. But i never let friends or family dissuade me from staying home and i dont let fears get to me.

  3. C Moore September 26, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    I have gone solo twice, enjoyed both. I do recommend telling mixed gender groups you are solo. And don’t forget your BS (bear spray). It will work on a two-legged as well as on a four-legged critter. Also, I carry an emergency personal locator beacon(PLB), a FastFind. This is better than a Spot because NOAA will notify search and rescue (SAR) if you set it off. It doesn’t dial 911, it sends a real signal via satellite. Spot can yield a false alarm when it doesn’t connect, you don’t post something, the battery fails, and your friends/family panic. You only use the PLB if it is really actually an emergency. False alarms for SAR cost money and sometimes SAR personnel are injured during a search.

  4. drusilla51 September 26, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    PCT solo for five months…no problems. Carried an InReach, great invention I can text or email my husband or anyone that I have the phone number or email address of and let them know I’m doing fine or need a resupply. And the service is tailored my my specs.

  5. Alex September 27, 2014 at 2:18 am #

    Nice article, its always important to be prepared and do a bit of research before solo hiking.

  6. Larry September 28, 2014 at 12:49 am #

    Thanks for the nice story and great pics Jan. Cispus Basin is spectacular! As a longtime soloist, I’ve seen so many more women of all ages going it alone in the past decade than ever and it’s a good feeling. Going solo also makes it easier to reach out and strike up conversations with interesting people than from within a self-contained group. Besides your well-stated safety concerns, one of the most critical factors is navigation. With only one pair of eyes, it’s very easy to miss crucial trail crossings, so every time I reach a junction, I stop and scrutinize my map and gps.

    ps – Is that a light saber Brooke is carrying?

    Larry

  7. Grace September 29, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

    This is helpful. My husband and I hiked the JMT, rim to rim to rim of the Grand Canyon, the Maze in Canyonlands and climbed Kilimanjaro. Then he died in a car wreck in the Serengeti. I thus face solo backpacking. And, have not been brave enough to try. So all of your stories made a lot of sense and encouraged me. There are quite a few consistent points made by the author and replies. Thank you for writing about this. Gracetahoe

    • Judi September 30, 2014 at 4:50 am #

      Good luck to you! Your husband would of wanted you to do this! I lost my fiancé in an avalanche and have always felt he would want me to carry on.

  8. Gregory Adamson November 21, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    I’m a 49 yr old male which may disqualify me from this article. Nonetheless here goes.

    I ALWAYS hike alone because nobody I know hikes. My wife won’t and my kids refuse. Most of the guys my age sit on the couch, watch TV sports and drink beer all weekend. I can’t stand that kind of life!

    Also I hike on deserted trails in the deep forests in Alabama – pretty dangerous even for a guy. To add to the danger, many places on the trails I hike have steep drop-offs next to the trail. Not good for solo.

    The best advise I can give to anyone is have a “safety person” back home and take your cell phone and a good backup battery that will last the entire trip. I set this up before I go and give the person a set of trail maps and emergency phone numbers. I tell my safety person to expect calls from me no more than 36 hours apart; and if they don’t here from me in 48 hrs assume something went wrong. I check in by texting every day as cell service allows and provide location information. This works really well. During my 127 mile continuous hike recently I had two safety people.

    I would use SPOT but have heard it is almost impossible to cancel the service because of the way that company has it set up to keep you paying for their service. No thanks.

  9. Rachel "Spazz" March 3, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Thank you for the article! I am considering my first solo overnight trip as a possible warm-up to sections of the PCT. I had a SPOT tracker, love the idea, but had a lot of difficulty getting it to connect when I needed it to. It is very difficult to disenroll from their service as well, it is an auto-renew system.
    I solo hike constantly and have rarely felt in danger or uncomfortable. 🙂 Over night it always a little spookier though! Here’s hoping it goes great and leads to more adventures!
    – Rachel

  10. Christine March 26, 2015 at 12:06 am #

    Thanks for this article! I’m going out on a mostly solo backpack of the Sierras this summer so I’m trying to build up the nerve to do my first solo backpack here in Washington State. I do a lot of hiking on my own but the overnight seems so much spookier to me. I know it’s a matter of just doing it and conquering your fears. It’s so great to hear from so many others, especially women, out there solo backpacking!

  11. Donna April 26, 2015 at 7:58 pm #

    I hike solo day hikes but generally with a partner for overnight. I have a Spot and LOVE it. Great tool. Hubby loves it also.

  12. Pat Combee April 27, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    I love my trips with my friends, but I absolutely cherish my solo trips. My first backpacking trips were solo and I continue to love going solo. You just have to remember to stay alert, use good judgement and don’t rationalize away some nagging fear or concern, just because you can’t figure out why it is there. If your intuition says keep on hiking instead of camping around a certain person or group, just do it. You may never know why you had “that feeling”, but who cares, it is your trip, your decision. I really don’t think it is any different for a woman than for a man to do solo backpacking trips. Backpacking is really not about the physical strength, it is more about the mental strength, and we women have plenty of that. You have not truly lived until you spend a night or many nights alone on a trail. In our world today, we have so little time to truly call ours.

  13. Terri Likens May 22, 2015 at 7:45 am #

    My first backpack a few weeks ago was solo because I got tired of waiting for more experienced people to free up their schedules. It was a low-mileage (7) overnighter on a trail I knew in Bald River Gorge Wilderness,. I loved it. Hanging my first bearbag was a bit challenging, and the potential of a bear nosing around my lone tent was unnerving. But I slept well and had no problems. My next backpack will probably be a two-three nighter and probably be solo again.

    • Judi May 22, 2015 at 8:43 am #

      I have backpacked and hiked alone quite a bit. Like you I got tired of waiting for others to join me feeling like opportunities were passing me by. It is difficult to find a good partner that shares your priorities, hiking style etc
      Sometimes it gets a little lonely but I do enjoy the questions and comments of ‘amazing’ when people learn of my trips solo. Just go for it!

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