Solo hiking

3:26 p.m. on October 9, 2006 (EDT)

I've been an active camper since my parents introduced me to it years ago. I have stayed only in established state run campgrounds where the only hike is the 20 feet from the trunk of my car to where the picnic table is. Next spring will be my first backpacking trip (Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska). It is going to be a solo trip. My concern is: Every time I bring up camping alone or a solo backpacking trip I get this look like "you must be nuts." And I usually hear "are you really going by yourself?" I don't see anything to be worried about. I'm well prepared and I feel like I know what I am getting into. Besides I really enjoy the time away from everything. So, am I missing something? Should I be concerned hiking solo?

4:26 p.m. on October 9, 2006 (EDT)

a.k.a. Stormen Norm

I get the same response when I say I am soloing but Its not going to stop me because I can’t get anyone to go with me. First time I soloed everything went well and still do it today longest solo had been 7 days got an 8 day one in Nov. Every time I go I learn more and more just keep your pack light and make sure u got everything u need, I look over my stuff many many times u got no one else out there if u forget something. And just be safe as possible. Don’t let them strange looks bother you the biggest response I get is are you bring a gun LOL. Good Luck on your hike and enjoy every moment out there.

6:51 p.m. on October 9, 2006 (EDT)
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Actually, if you use your head and play it very conservatively, you are probably safer solo in the backcountry than in some state-run campgrounds I have been in.

The thing to think about is "what if?" and take appropriate measures to (1) prevent the "what if" and (2) if "it" does happen, be prepared for self-rescue. The prevention is largely knowing your limits and staying well within them. For example, if I were going into the backcountry in winter, "what if" an avalanche were to occur? First step is to be aware of avalanche terrain and current avalanche conditions. Second step is to avoid as much as possible the risky situations - that is, knowing that most avalanches occur on slopes of 38 deg +/- a band of certain width in angle, stay off those slopes, plus having some idea of tree size vs age gives a rough estimate of how long since the last big avalanche on that slope (heavily forested slopes with old trees being generally safer, bare slopes at 38 deg being pretty risky, especially right after a blizzard).

Another example - I come to a stream crossing. Knowing by reading and experience that streams more than a foot or two deep, especially fast flowing can knock you off your feet, don't cross or find a bridge (people misjudge streams all the time and think if it is less than waist deep, it must be safe - tain't, and think about foot-traps and strainers). Think about slippery moss-covered rocks and logs and how a misstep can break or dislocate a leg or ankle - what if that happens? How do you handle it solo?

What about that icey slope going over the pass, when you don't have ice ax and crampons?

If you can deal with these things, then go for it.

Oh, by the way, don't count on cell phone, GPS receiver, or the various types of emergency locators. Response times for those things are in the day or longer range. The heli-taxi is not waiting just for your call.

Yes, I do, and have for most of my life, go into the woods and hills alone. That includes serious technical mountains and (intentionally) blizzards and summer in the desert. An incident a couple years back changed some of my thinking. I was in a ski resort when a snowboarder ran into me and dislocated my elbow. As it turned out, I needed help from the ski patrol to get my skis off (it's really hard to operate the release on the bindings with one arm dislocated and you are face down in the snow on a slope), and into the sled. If I had somehow run into a tree or taken a fall alone in the backcountry and done the dislocation, it might have been later in the spring before I was found. Dislocations and breaks make moving around without help really difficult. That happens to be by far the worst injury I have had in my life. I have spent a lot of time since trying to figure out how to get myself extricated from such a situation (no, I don't think doing like Aaron Ralston would have worked - I couldn't have gotten to a knife in the position I ended up)

9:25 p.m. on October 9, 2006 (EDT)
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I hike solo myself. This might sound selfish, but I love solo hikes because the only thing you need to worry about is yourself. I'm always prepared though. Cellphone, compass, etc, etc.

The only non solo hike I've done is when I summited Ranier with my buddies. Dried and dehydrated food saved my butt a few times, gave me the energy to hike to safety.

Good Hiking everyone!!

10:01 p.m. on October 9, 2006 (EDT)
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The only people who will say you are crazy for solo hiking are those who don't hike or backpack. I go solo more times than not. I like having a buddy or two along sometimes, but most of the time I just like to do what I want to do and go at my own pace. I love the solitude and peace. My phobia is twisting or spraining an ankle. That would be a major bummer. I agree with the other respondent who said something about being safer in the wilderness than in a developed campground. Amen to that. Learn to be prepared without overpacking.

2:37 a.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Jason, I've done a bit of solo hiking and solo bike touring (not quite the same but in some instances, I was pretty far from civilization). One sort of compromise is to hike a known track by yourself where you wind up at the end of the day in a campground. That gives you the advantage of just walking along alone, but also gives you some company in the evening.

Last winter I did a solo weekend in Yosemite where I snowshoed down a closed road, then turned off into the woods. I was alone at night, but in reality, I was only a few hundred yards off the road and if need be,not that far from help. My point is that going solo doesn't necessarily take being far from others to have the solo experience.

Bill-I too dislocated an elbow years ago-set it myself-kind of a long story to relate here, but that's about the worst injury I've had too, other than my gall bladder surgery.

10:48 a.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Every time I do something solo the neighbors all take out their third eye and give me a good once over. I've gotten used to it over time, at least they have yet to call the nice men in the white jackets and padded truck. I've never had any problems while solo in the bush.

11:01 a.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)

Lenny - you're right the people that give me the looks and question me are people that I know don't camp or hike. I won't let it deter me but I was afaid I was missing something.

Thanks to everybody that responded.

12:42 p.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Solo backcountry generally

One thing that hasn't been explicitly stated here, though Tom alluded to it, is that there is solo and there is solo. For example, I hike in the parks and Open Space Reserves around here by myself all the time, several times a week. In some sense, these 10 to 30 mile, 2000 to 5000 ft total altitude gain "dayhikes" are solo. I often see no other hiker on the trail for most of the hike. In most of the parks there are large areas with no cellphone coverage (although I can hit ham radio repeaters virtually everywhere in them). But I usually let Barb know where I am headed, and in many of the parks, I know the rangers and chat with them at the start and end of the hike. These people know my approximate time for return. There are occasional exceptions, like the hike I did in Big Sur from the ocean to the top of a significant hill via a trail that is largely abandoned which took almost half again as long as intended (I got back to the car after sunset, despite having started just after sunrise). But knowing that it was an abandoned trail (still on the maps), there was no worry with the underestimate of time.

Much of the time on many of these hikes, I do pass other hikers (mostly solo themselves), sometimes a ranger on patrol, and (to my dismay) get passed on the way up the main hill and back down again by runners (one hike just before Bay to Breakers, I got passed by a couple of Kenyans, one of whom took 1st in Bay to Breakers that year, about half-way up the hill, then again at the 3/4 mark on their way back down, the trail being 5 miles each way and 2300 ft of gain).

The other meaning of solo is when you truly are alone, going into an area where the probability of encountering people is virtually zero. Examples of this are backcountry ski and snowshoe tours, backpacks cross-country that are mostly off trail, and some technical climbs in the Sierra, Cascades, and Rockies backcountry. Sometimes I intentionally do these in blizzard conditions in winter. Again, though, I have given an itinerary to Barb and/or rangers. True, like Aaron Ralston, if something happened, even knowing the itinerary, people would not know where to look necessarily. That's the time to play it extremely conservatively. Ralston was very experienced and generally cautious, but still got pinned by the rock. Timothy "Grizzly", on the other hand, pushed his luck way too far (and had a companion at that who also got eaten).

The general advice is to have the "Ten Essentials", which most people interpret as the "official" list in MFOTH. But blindly following a written checklist won't prepare you for what might really happen on your particular trip. You won't need huge amounts of water on a winter snow trip, but you will need some way to melt snow or know that there are running streams available (and how NOT to fall in). You probably won't need rain gear in the desert (clothes dry fast in those conditions), but you may need a lot of extra water. Matches won't help above timberline, unless you have a stove (which isn't listed as one of the "10").

So if you go solo, it is even more important than group trips to be sure you understand what resources are available, what resources you have to carry with you, what your personal limitations are, what risks there are and how to avoid/mitigate/recover from them by yourself with no help. Example - maybe you can avoid crossing streams altogether, but maybe you need to cross a fairly dangerous stream (how can you make it safer - no, don't tie a rope to a tree), and if the disaster happens (slip, knocked over by a current stronger than you expected, strainer coming up as you are swept downstream), how can you get out of the situation.

I suggest you read accounts by people like John Muir (an avid solo hiker, with lots of near misses), Ralston, Warren MacDonald's A Test of Will (a friend of mine, who was in fact with a companion - it was the subject of a Discovery Channel program), and see Grizzly Man, and read Accidents in North American Mountaineering (nominally about climbing, but includes hiking incidents as well). There is a book I can't put my hands on right now that has a title like "Survivors" or "Those who survive" about the attitudes and psychology of people who get into situations (often solo) and survive them.

No, I am not trying to scare people away from solo treks. After all, I do them all the time. As others have said (and you will get from Muir's books), some of the greatest rewards come from solo trips, things you do on your own, depending solely on your own wits and resources, knowing that you have prepared well. The point is - educate yourself as well as you can about what you need, what the risks are, and how to deal with them by yourself, with no help or aid from anyone else. Do not count on cell phones, GPS receivers, sat phones, emergency locators, or any other electronic technology (remember, I spent 20 years working on developing such technology, and I am delighted to have you buy the widgets - helps support me in my dotage). If you are solo, or even with a couple companions, help may be days away, even in the US. But that just adds to the joy of being self-sufficient.

5:04 p.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Re: Solo backcountry generally

MFOTH, I presume, is Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills, one of the "must have" books for high country hikers and climbers. I also recommend Colin Fletcher's books, The Complete Walker (often referred to as the "hiker's Bible"), The Thousand Mile Summer (Fletcher's walk from Mexico to the Oregon border through California) and The Man Who Walked Through Time (Fletcher's walk the length of the Grand Canyon. You can't learn everything from a book, but you can learn the basics and get an understanding of what you need to know. Plus Fletcher is an interesting guy so the books are a good read.

Bill-I saw a rescue on the news last night. Two hikers got off the trail above Pacific Palisades (north of Santa Monica) and got lost. They called 911 with a cel phone and LAFD sent out the helo for them. When they couldn't spot them, they had the guy hold up his cel phone and used their big night vision scope to spot the glow from the phone's display. Once they had them spotted, they turned on the night sun and pulled them out. Turned out to be two young guys in shorts and tee shirts.

7:12 p.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Re: Solo backcountry generally

"When they couldn't spot them, they had the guy hold up his cel phone and used their big night vision scope to spot the glow from the phone's display."

LOL! That is a use of a cell phone as a rescue device that I had never heard of before!

But.... lost in the Pacific Palisades area? That takes a lot of doing. Did they get stuck on one of the cliffs (people do take shortcuts to the beach right down the cliff faces), or up one of the canyons?

8:24 p.m. on October 10, 2006 (EDT)
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Re: Solo backcountry generally

They were up in the Topanga State Park area above the Palisades and apparently wandered off the trail-supposedly had a map, but got lost anyway.

12:09 p.m. on October 11, 2006 (EDT)
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Re: Solo backcountry generally

Definitely tell someone where you are headed, and when you expect to be back.

2:17 p.m. on October 11, 2006 (EDT)
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Re: Solo backcountry generally

Bill, you are correct about the nature of being "solo." Hiking by yourself on well marked, well populated trails is really not solo in the sense that you will frequently see others. Certainly if you are hurt help is likely to be there before long.

However, wander off that well marked, well populated trail just a bit and you will not likely see anyone. Several years ago I went on a trip to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. My group went on off-trail for a couple of days and saw not one person during that period. In that instance, being solo you are on your own if you get hurt. Even with an itinerary left for others, it may be days before they find you.

2:44 p.m. on October 11, 2006 (EDT)
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Well, I've stayed quiet during this discussion as I wanted to see how it fared. I then reread the thread I started, "Tell me about my age", where I was getting those looks from you guys about going solo myself. The difference I see here between me and the OP is the experience level. I am comfortable with the differences and still respect the advise I was given.

I still would like to try solo hiking, for much the same reasons listed here, but have opted to find a partner at first. I can't say I don't feel ready to solo, but am sure it will become more certain as to when I should solo hike as time and experience passes, and maybe I run into some of the problems you speak of even with a partner.

Can anyone give me a clue as to what will trigger the notion that I am truly ready to solo? Yeah, I know this is different for everyone, and is really up to the individual as to when soloing is proper. Just asking, though, as I really take what you guys have to say to heart.


5:49 p.m. on October 11, 2006 (EDT)
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Good question Steve. I'm sure Bill will have a better answer, but unlike some endeavors,there really isn't a test to take, like soloing in an airplane. I think the answer may be when you feel comfortable with all your gear and don't spend a lot of time fussing with it instead of just looking around or taking pictures or fishing or whatever; stop forgetting to pack something important (I left my fuel bottle in the garage on my last trip, but had a canister stove as well, as a backup, but still, shouldn't have happened); know enough first aid to perform minor care on yourself; know how to find your way back home by yourself; and finally, don't mind blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong.

Years ago, I did a solo bike and hike tour in New Zealand and when I started out, all I knew was I could ride around the block on my fully loaded bike without falling over, how to fix it if it broke and how to put up my tent. The rest I picked up along the way or read in a book. I went by myself because I wanted to go and didn't have anyone else to go with me. Sometimes, the answer is that simple.

7:54 p.m. on October 11, 2006 (EDT)
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Solo vs solo

Buried in my long ramblings are, I think, the criteria you can use to decide if you are ready for a solo trip. As Tom and others said, first thing is how comfortable you are with your gear, and that is something that comes with experience. Second thing (actually more important) is how comfortable you are with your experience. Ask yourself the question honestly whether the trips so far have gone smoothly, whether you depended on the lead and experience of your partner, whether you are having "epics", and so on. If you are having trouble trail finding, or leaving vital gear at home (or worse, at the last rest stop or campsite), or having problems walking on rocky trails or steep trails without stumbling and tripping, or being cold or wet at night, then you probably aren't ready. Yes, we all have epics, even after years of experience. Yes, we all forget something at home that we wish we had. We all stumble over the occasional rock or root. Question is whether this is a continuous thing and how have you dealt with it.

Like everything else in hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing, etc, starting off step at a time with a good mentor, first on day hikes, then short backpacks, and building up, then taking short solo dayhikes on well-travelled trails, then on less travelled ones, then longer dayhikes, then some short backpacks, then longer ones, is the way to tell.

I've been reading Dave Roberts' recent book "On the ridge between life and death." Although he survived his early ventures into climbing (2 deaths of partners in the first couple of years, more later), he makes a number of comments about how he started going on hikes, many solo, while in high school, some like his Maroon Bells traverse, that turned into epics. His "formal" training in climbing was 5 weekends with a local climbing club, after which he and a friend bought a rope and some hardware, and set out climbing without really knowing what the routes were like. He and his friend got in on one climb way over their heads, which ended in his friend falling several hundred feet to his death. The point here is that they basically jumped into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim, or maybe more like jumping into a whitewater river without knowing how to swim.

Thing is, the resources to learn are out there, and the knowledge is available. Spend time with more experienced people (a variety of them), get their assessments, and make your own. You will be able to tell when you are ready to go solo.

4:25 a.m. on October 12, 2006 (EDT)
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It's funny that Tom should have mentioned the test for soloing in an airplane, as that is what I was thinking about as I wrote my sentences.

There is ground school, dual flying with an instructor, and all of the things that go into learning to fly an airplane. The feeling that I had when I was ready to solo was just the opposite of a feeling. As I gained experience, and flying an airplane became second nature, the instructor became just another passenger. I no longer needed his guidance but enjoyed his company. I never thought about when to solo or if I could, it all just happened gradually over time, and when I finally did solo, it felt no different than the dual hours I had been flying, except that first solo flight was one of the greatest moments of my life.

I have a feeling hiking will take on this same experience. I will try to learn from good teachers, but will not have to consider whether I should take off on my own or not. I only piped in because I was given the impression that soloing was a no-no always.


1:04 p.m. on October 12, 2006 (EDT)
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Steve, Here are two of my favorite quotes about adventuring -

"Adventure is just bad planning." — Roald Amundsen (1872—1928).

"Having an adventure shows that someone is incompetent, that something has gone wrong. An adventure is interesting enough — in retrospect. Especially to the person who didn't have it." — Vilhjalmur Stefansson, my life with the Esquimo.

Now obviously, these two have a very different view of the meaning of "adventure" than most people, but they have a point. Planning will help prevent what I would call "misadventure" as opposed to adventure. So will reading about other people's follies.

Reading about lost hikers, climbing accidents,rescues and searches may seem morbid, but it can be instructive. Many of these that end up badly have common threads - inadequate gear for the conditions; inadequate skills and experience; getting lost; unanticipated bad weather or some combination of these. Most of these can be avoided, or at least minimized, by careful planning and learning one step at a time.

One of the saddest examples of this is that of two hikers who died on Mr.Rainier last winter. Never been there, but I understand the usual route is not technically difficult. One was an experienced hiker, the other was not. They had full packs with the right gear,including cold weather gear, stove, tent and food. However, they apparently did not check the weather, got caught in a whiteout and couldn't find their way back to the shelter. They were found dead of exposure next to their packs with some of their gear pulled out. They were seen by a Ranger on their way up, but apparently no one thought to ask them if they knew the weather was turning bad or whether they knew what they were getting into. They were wearing light clothes and the assumption is that when the whiteout happened, they became hypothermic before they realized it was happening and quickly lost their ability to save themselves. They apparently tried to get on their gear and get their tent up, but couldn't do it in time. They weren't all that far from safety, which makes the story even more sobering.

I don't recount this to scare you (or anyone else for that matter) but only to point out that just having the right gear isn't enough. This event didn't have to happen-it wasn't one big thing like an avalanche, it was several little things. That's something to remember-bad things can creep up on you slowly before you realize it and may not even seem so bad at the time, until they all add up to a big problem.

4:36 a.m. on October 17, 2006 (EDT)
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Hi Jason, Don't be concerned, just be prepared physically and gear-wise for the hike you intend doing, and let someone know where you intend going and when you should be back.
I suspect the folk who looked aghast when you mention going solo have never been solo themselves.
I have done most of my hiking solo right from the start, (thru-hikes of the PCT, Great Britain, and NZ's North Island, etc.) and found it an enjoyable experience.
Take a map of the area you're entering and a compass, (even if following an established trail) and have some idea of how to use them. Carry the appropriate gear, carry a bit of common sense, let folk know you're going, and you'll be as safe as you could be - even hiking groups can get into strife!

1:00 p.m. on October 19, 2006 (EDT)
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I do alot of solo packing. I have been packing for over 40 years, so it is second nature to me and I always still go thru the physical and mental checklists prior to every trip.
Solo just requires maybe a little more prep time. Make sure you have the necessary gear, maps of the area you have studied prior to going, what is the weather like and will it stay that way, and make a written iteniary and leave it with someone. I include the phone numbers of the local ranger stations or the like for the area I am going to. I feel it will save time and make sure the right people are contacted if I am overdue.I also include where I should be parked and a vehicle description. Then make sure to stick to your plans. Sometimes I put a few variables in the plan,ie if not camped at lake lala, will be at lake tata. At least then they know the places I should be. If going off trail or climbing I leave a written note at my camp on my sleeping bag in my tent stating my plans/direction.

Then while on the outing, move a bit slower and be careful, as stated, don't take chances. Solo can be quite rewarding, seeing animals and such that might scatter if the noise of a group is about. For your first few trips, stay to a well marked trail and do not venture too far off it. This will keep you safer, build confidence, and also develope some needed skills for the wilderness. And dont forget to keep that whistle in your pocket at all times!

1:46 p.m. on October 24, 2006 (EDT)
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Solo hiking is wonderful. It forces you to deal with yourself - to come to know yourself - your strengths and weaknesses - you'll come back from your trip a more confident, self assured individual.
Solo hiking off trail using a map and compass is even more fun - and more satisfying - but I'd suggest getting a few solo trail hikes under your belt first.
As for safety - don't stay in established campsites if you can help it - "stealth camp" - on the AT all you generally need to do to be alone - even at the height of thru-hiker season - is walk an extra 1/8 mile down the trail - or go over to the other side of a ridge. You're really safest if you're not surrounded by strangers - and the established campsites - especially those convenient to road access points - tend to attract weekenders who build massive bonfires and drink large quantities of beer (at least here in PA on the AT) - best to avoid those places.
I feel far more "safe" all by myself miles from anyone else than at any other time - nature I can deal with - myself I can tolerate - other people - however - can be a trial.
Enjoy your trip - go it alone - that way it's YOUR trip - you set the pace - and you're only responsible for your own safety -

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