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Solo Trips and Their Risks

We have some active people on this forum that regularly do some solo trips.   There is some risk, but the rewards are many.  Decision making is easy.  It is quiet.  You get to see the wildlife. 

I’ve done countless solo forays into convoluted, wild, unknown country. I’d say the biggest risk is a disabled ankle or leg. Hence the 10 E’s which includes extra water in my case, so staying alive a bit longer is more probable. Another big risk is simply becoming disoriented and lost. There is country where that is easy to do. It might take more skills than level one map reading at times.

Yes the rewards are off the scale and it is addictive. 

I did a lot of solo backpacking in the Cascades when I was a grad student in forestry.  That country is wet, with lots snow drifts well into late summer and cold water.  I was careful.  

It is hard to describe to people sleeping out with just my dog watching the Northern Lights under a full moon at the top of the range.  Cavorting with herds of deer and elk.

Now I am ready to go back to solo trips in a canoe.  It just makes everything so easy compared to organizing a bunch of people with little experience, which is the kind of people I can find around here. 

Almost all solo trips here with the exception of a couple of short trips with my wife each year, and about annually meeting up with Patman somewhere in the hills. He and I have discussed this...even with both of us having experience you get a bit distracted with others and its not quite the same trip. Enjoyable but different...not many folks I would invite along on trips but got one or two in the works with him this year.

Solo increases risk obviously, but that can be mitigated somewhat with good decision making...deciding to change a route to avoid a difficult scramble along a slope, knowing when you might be pushing too hard and dialing it back, etc. I always carry an Inreach now. 

There is no question you get to see more wildlife going solo...it happens every time. Its also mentally addictive for me...barring health issues I try to squeeze in a solo trip every month...Im a better person  when I do go frequently.

thanks Phil.  good words. 

I resemble a lot of those remarks Phil :) Better if I get out in the woods for a night or more at least three times a month. Family or alone are both good, but each makes me appreciate the other heh.

I do still have that joke I've been saving to share with you over a campfire (or titanium stick stove) though. Maybe we can arrange intersecting solo trips if you don't want to do a whole trip :p

Next trip to the northeast I'll definitely take you up on that LS.  Some of the TS regulars would be my exceptions to solo walking...quite a few good folks on here who I wouldn't mind sharing stories over a fire.  Well, and the occasional relative or friend who asks for a weekend out to show them what it's like and get them started down the rabbit hole...

No doubt about the danger and risks of solo hiking but those of us who love it are willing to accept  them. We take cautions yet, at least when younger, push our limits safely or what we believe is safe. 

Wasn't long ago there were no cell phone or such to call for help. We told someone where we were going/and/or signed in at the trailhead if there was one and took off for parts unknown. I say unknown since I  prefer to bushwack, tho did plenty of trails.

Other than my oldest grandson and we don't get much time together, there is only one person I like hiking with... one of the boys, now a young man and a professional guide, who I mentored as an Eagle Scout. Its a joy to be with him and watch how  much he loves the wilds and to see his agility and skills.

I had enjoyable clients but also had ones I would have preferred to slap upside their head because of noise, knocking down dead trees, rolling boulders, throwing rocks, litter, etc, no matter how many times I asked or told them to stop and more then once escorted them out of the woods cutting a trip short. Nothing scarier than finding one drugged or drunk, especially when hunting and I actually had one walk off a cliff and crumple up below like Gumby and then stand up ever so slowly and say, 'I'm ok'. I'm sure he wouldn't say that the next day.

Yep, I like exploring alone even in small patches of woods that I haven't been in before, watching for animals and old or new sign of man. Its peaceful and I enjoy that, I need it.

FlipNC said:

"..Solo increases risk obviously...""

No, not necessarily true at all. 

Studies have shown that group thinking is prone to take greater risks, than choices made when an individual is accountable for the outcomes.

I have yet to find myself better off in a group, when trouble decides to tag along.  I am the one who usually effects necessary field repairs, knows the proper first aid solution, or comes up with the contingency plan.  Thus those hiking with me benefit, while my otherwise trouble free trip gets derailed because others made poor choices, or aren't adequately provisioned, under equipped, or physically in over their heads. 

Two heads are better than one only when they agree, or when superior advice is not out voted by the less skilled or less wise option.  I have wasted the better part of a day trying to get a group oriented on the map, while they impatiently trudge off, thinking their GPS device will save the day, only to end up further disoriented because they did not understand the coordinate notation used by their GPS device had to match that used on the topo map.  

Ed

whomeworry said:

FlipNC said:

"..Solo increases risk obviously...""

No, not necessarily true at all. 

Studies have shown that group thinking is prone to take greater risks, than choices made when an individual is accountable for the outcomes.

I have yet to find myself better off in a group, when trouble decides to tag along.  I am the one who usually effects necessary field repairs, knows the proper first aid solution, or comes up with the contingency plan.  Thus those hiking with me benefit, while my otherwise trouble free trip gets derailed because others made poor choices, or aren't adequately provisioned, under equipped, or physically in over their heads. 

Two heads are better than one only when they agree, or when superior advice is not out voted by the less skilled or less wise option.  I have wasted the better part of a day trying to get a group oriented on the map, while they impatiently trudge off, thinking their GPS device will save the day, only to end up further disoriented because they did not understand the coordinate notation used by their GPS device had to match that used on the topo map.   

Ed

 I believe the chance of being saved would decrease when solo and suffering a severe injury.

Its easy to say: I'll drag myself home somehow or make shelter while they find me, but a head/neck injury, broken back or leg probably will make that all bravado and I'll guess that's the 'increased  risk' Flip mentioned.

That's what I (and others) generally mean by that statement...while experience matters it's pretty hard to give yourself first aid if you fall and are unconscious.  Even harder to hit the new fancy Inreach buttons...

while my otherwise trouble free trip gets derailed because others made poor choices, or aren't adequately provisioned, under equipped, or physically in over their heads. 

Ed - I would suggest it may be your choice of hiking partners that increases your risk rather than the size of the group:) 

I guess maybe I am pickier...the rare trip with a newbie is usually just a short overnight consisting of an easy walk near a trailhead, limiting chances of issues with a good discussion and review of their kit ahead of time. They will not be coming with me if they are overburdened or under provisioned. 

I just realized...maybe I hike solo because noone will put up with me...

I taught the always under provisioned brother of the afore mentioned Eagle scout above by not letting him eat my food nor drink my water on our 3rd hike together.

He learned right then and there to bring enough of his own and that I was not his pack mule.

Good discussion! As Phil mentioned, he and I have talked about this at length but for me it was a combination of some bad, er, um, learning experiences with others and the frequency and difficulty of the trips I wanted to do that pushed me along as a solo trekker. Finding others willing to backpack 30 or 40 miles in weekend was hard enough, but then actually being able to meet up with them was double tough. For years I've gone out almost every weekend. Too often to coordinate with folks. 

This old trip report details one of those learning experiences for me:

https://www.trailspace.com/forums/trip-reports/topics/99672.html

I think I'm not built to be a guide. I really don't like the stress of being responsible for people. That's why I only join up with people like Phil or Tipi Walter that I know have a ton of experience and competence.  

I also have a small circle of off-trail enthusiast friends that I actually met in a really surprising and remote off-trail location a few years back. I will occasionally meet them out for some ostentatious off-trail route in the Smokies. We sometimes send solo route plans to each other as a safety  back-up as we have more faith in each others ability to help than random SAR personnel. (most of which are great, highly trained and capable, but there was that one time my friends had to lead a ground based SAR team out that gotten confused during a hiker rescue....) 

But yeah, solo trips are usually my best option.

Took the solo canoe out today and paddled up the Carson River.   It is the direction I am heading.  It is about 15 minutes from the house.  No one out there, the cattle are in the hills, very quiet except for the sound of running water.  Lots of birds, Canada geese, white pelicans, great blue herons and cattle egrets.  Saw a couple of beaver dams.  Very peaceful.  My dog settled right in.  We are ready for an overnight trip. 

That sounds really fun ppine. 

Old Guide said:

 I believe the chance of being saved would decrease when solo and suffering a severe injury.

Its easy to say: I'll drag myself home somehow or make shelter while they find me, but a head/neck injury, broken back or leg probably will make that all bravado and I'll guess that's the 'increased  risk' Flip mentioned.

No bravado, I know the risk I take. 

I think if I were making choices on risk, alone, I wouldn't drive to the trailhead - as that that is by far the riskiest part of all of our travels.  Getting in a head-on collision or other life changing highway incident has very low odds; I reckon breaking one's neck or otherwise stricken immobile in the BC has similar odds.  I'm OK with that.

We tend to focus on the sensational, while underappreciating the more sundry hazards in our midst.  If you are a skilled, wise, camper the members of your party may present more risk to your personal safety, by being the source of events that you otherwise would not have to deal with.

The people I typically camp with would not be of much help in an emergency.  They could summon help, but so can an eperb. (FWIW: I rarely solo off trail, usually following well used trails, camping in customary location along the route.)  My buds are not first aid savvy, for the most part.  The one time I broke my arm (poor judgement) I was the one who took control of the situation.  Otherwise it has always been one of the others in my group that required assistance, be it a blister repair, not warm enough, dehydrated, AMS stricken, or skeletal injuries.  I usually end up being the shot caller. 

It is my opinion that many kinds of incidents can set in motion a series of events that often cascade into dreadful outcomes.  A broken stove leads to a wood cooking fire, but someone gets injured busting up wood.  Now someone is compelled to risk a night hike over a rustic trail by flash light to evacuate the victim; or someone is compelled to descend down a sketchy incline, because someone in the group just did a header off the trail, caused by favoring a blistered foot.  There have been maybe a dozen situations where mishaps jeopardized safety, and scores of minor mishaps that had potential to cascade into major incidents.  I do more solo hiking than with company, yet none of these incidents happened while I was soloing.  That is my experience through decades of camping.  I'm OK with that.

Ed

x

Agree on the road dangers.  Might be safer to fly to a trailhead and parachute in!

I get your reasoning on the domino effect...several ways to look at dangers, and skin cats...which I would only do in an emergency by the way.

Looking back over the past three years, I have logged 30 multi-night trips (I wish it was more but had some health issues myself and in the family the last couple).

  • 21 were solo
  • 6 with my wife so very leisurely and pretty low risk (but no less fun)
  • 3 with Patman

The latter category I don't think should be considered group hiking but is a good example of what I have done in the past with a very few select folks over the decades (I can count three)...I think Patrick and I tend to hike "solo together" - both stick to mostly our routines around camp separately, except there is a bit more chatting between us than I usually do with just camp squirrels as companions.  About the only real adjustment is Patrick has to dial his mileage way back if he expects to see me at lunch or camp!  (Which he kindly does on our occasional trips.)

I don't think either of us increase the others risk and likely decrease it.  So its the choice of companion that is the largest variable for me rather than comparing solo vs group hiking...then again my opinion is subject to change as I have never had an experience like you or Patrick describe in well over 35 years of traipsing around the woods so either lucky, picky, or I have just jinxed myself... 

Scary stuff guys. Lol

My solo days have been over for a while. Girlfriend always wants to go now. She has very good judgment and we have always made a good team. She came from the scraggly eastern woodlands and was shocked at the canyon country and mountainous terrain but learned quickly. We don’t even have to drive to do this anymore. We just walk and agreed on the driving danger. Someone recently said that your life expectancy does drop the more you drive. 

Hiking solo in the dark probably has its risk but I did a lot of that in the past out of necessity to get into the hinterlands by sunset to get a particular photo and then try to make it out of a trail less place. It was spooky and a bit dangerous but I loved it and learned to run routes through very specific points that had to be met precisely.

We obviously do accept risk and try to mitigate it but no mistake about it, there is risk on various levels. The fact is, there are some crazy, hidden worlds out there and it is too thrilling not to go. 

I had a serious injury only once.   I had a companion or I would still be out there.  It took all day to get to a hospital even with a lot of help.  Your first job in the back country should always be don't get hurt. 

Nice post, Ghostdog.  Like you, I usually backpack with my wife, and we make an excellent team.

solo day outings, with or without the dog, are fine with me, it's the only way i can effectively stay in good shape and clear my head sometimes.  longer trips, i prefer company.  for me, having the opportunity to unplug and share the experience with friends or family is more fulfilling than being on my own.  i'm fortunate that both my siblings love being outside, and our kids are reasonably self-sufficient hikers themselves.  

if people exercise good judgment and intelligent risk-avoidance (don't go up a mountain/onto the water into bad weather, know your escape routes, carry the right stuff, don't play in avalanche-prone areas, etc.), i feel pretty safe hiking or canoeing alone.  

i can think of a few situations, which i discuss below, where being solo would have been problematic.  i can also think of multiple situations where others had issues, and i ended up carrying some of their stuff, sharing clothing or a stove because others hadn't planned well or their stove failed, sharing food with others who were stuck without much/anything to eat.  My own follies:

-canoe trip in Maine with a friend, a strong wind kicked up and made getting around Mooselookmeguntic....unpleasant.  Had to get off the lake fast, no way we could keep going toward our destination, camped at some random site. Nearly swamped the canoe.  getting to shore with a friend in the bow was very challenging, solo would have been impossible.  

-heading up Mt. Adams in the White Mountains a long February weekend,  group of 4, my legs were shot from stupid work travel, primarily an 18 hour return flight from Singapore.  Dropped my pack about 3/4 of a mile from the planned destination, went the rest of the way, & two others in my group emptied a pack, descended, split my stuff between my pack and the empty one, and carried it up.  Alone? i probably would have had to bivy in the woods.  

-hiking over Mt. Washington & Jefferson in the winter, i had borrowed strap crampons that cut off circulation in one foot - only way i could keep them on the boots.  Group of 8, 4 people per tent.  The hike went fine in pretty ugly conditions, but between the too-tight straps and my core temperature suffering because it was extremely cold and windy that day (gusts in the 80-90 range, air temps in the -5/-15 F vicinity), i couldn't feel any of the toes on my right foot by the end, and i was probably scratching the front end of hypothermia.  spent a long time that evening with my bare foot sitting against a friend's stomach or in his armpit.  when the circulation returned (fortunately), worst pins and needles feeling i have ever experienced.  Alone, i could have boiled water for tea and dinner and parked in a sleeping bag, but i'm not sure how it would have turned out.  

Situational awareness and pre-thinking each movement beforehand go a long way in reducing misadventures. 

I can see not intentionally soloing a Mt Washington in those conditions... :)  Conditions like that just goes to show why some of America's finest mountaineers hark from down east.

Pins and needles frost nip:  sometimes feels like a fresh opened 2nd burn blister, with AC current being passed through the flesh.  I am good with dealing with pain, but frost nip has a quality to it that drives one to distraction.

Ed

I am currently reading Colin Fletcher's book "River" about his solo raft trip down the Green R to the Colorado and the Pacific Ocean.  He write eloquently about the process of solo travel on a 6 month trip.  The ability to make quick decisions, the importance of deliberate actions. 

It is quite clear in his book "The Thousand Mile Summer" that his dedication to hiking pretty much destroyed his relationship with his significant other.  That's not a sacrifice I am willing to make for hiking.  

I liked the Thousand Mile Summer first time I read it but decades later on rereading it, I was much less enthusiastic. His murderous obsession with rattlesnakes irked me to no end. And I would never leave Girlfriend, married almost 37 years now, to do anything but she is as game as they come so no dearth of duo adventures here. Lol

River is the least favorite of the books by Colin Fletcher as he whined away about Lake Powell. I realize that many of us don’t like the landscape being buried by the dam as it has been from the ‘60s on to full pool in the early ‘80s to now.  but it bewilders me how one can be in there and fail to see the incredible beauty. His negativity really turned me off. That is an area I’ve spent a lot of time out of opportunistic good fortune and other times of diligent pursuit. 

I found The Man Who Walked Through Time more interesting after reading more on Harvey Buchart in Grand Obsession and their friendly, sort of, rivalry.  

Mt Washington does indeed have some of the worst weather in the country with its ferocious winds and cold, wet climate even when it is sunny and perfect down in the valley. But a six year old can walk up it. Avoiding the bad weather would be on my short list for any adventure and most of all in an infamous place like that. When I summited via cog railway during a family gig it was sunny and warm below and foggy, wet and cold on top. The through hikers looked like zombies and nobody having any fun. 

ghostdog,

Lake Powell is the greatest boondoggle and waste of taxpayer money in history.  It provides no flood protection and no irrigation.  It does have some recreational benefits, but so did Glen Canyon in its natural state.  It evaporates vast quantities of water in a land where water is scarce. 

I have worked in the vicinity a lot and did one house boat trip on L Powell.  Dr Dan Beard is right in his book "Dam Nation" that L Powell was a mistake.  He is the former director of the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Some day the dam will be removed.  Then all of the water stored in L Powell will end up in Lake Mead where people can use it.  All of the evaporation will be eliminated. 

This is a terrestrial group, so it makes sense that you would not care about a river trip.   But a 6 month trip all the way to Mexico in 2 countries was a big deal. 

First summer hike up Mt. Washington, i was 11 or 12; in reasonably summer weather, it’s a strenuous and do-able hike for kids.  In the winter or a storm, taking a 6 year old up there would be unthinkable.  

ppine said:

ghostdog,

This is a terrestrial group, so it makes sense that you would not care about a river trip.   But a 6 month trip all the way to Mexico in 2 countries was a big deal. 

 
never said I don’t care about river trips. That is a false assumption on your part. I didn’t like Fletcher’s book.  Nothing to do with you.
 

If I had my way that dam would have never been constructed as it buried countless amazing canyons and ruins  but it has been there for more than 50 years. That existential fact does not drive me away from the beauty and some rather extensive exploration of its surrounding canyons. A security guard downstream at one of the dam tunnel bypasses once chased me but h couldn’t follow where I went. Then he radioed it out and two hours later a couple of NPS rangers brought me to ground.. One was a very attractive tomboyish female who even gave me personal information about herself, never will forget her. They were good, level headed rangers and shrugged off that security guard’s outburst. It was a thrilling day with a camera full of amazing images.  I’ve jumped  d into the Colorado River in many places all the way down to Yuma. With the many dams is is pretty tame now. That isn’t particularly good for the native fisheries etc. 

Andrew, I agree, don’t take a six year old up  Washington in winter or any bad weather. 

Someone will take their young child up Washington in the winter and they'll tell everyone and then others will, eventually ending in tragedy.

I envy you guys who get to do most trips with their partner.  I do enjoy our couples trips but her back and feet issues prevent anything more than an occasional overnight trip.  We are looking forward to one this month.  The rest of the year she kicks me out once a month to go wandering...

Colin Fletcher had some amazing trips and books, but if you want a look at the man behind all that this is an interesting read:  Walking Man - The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher.  His writings got me into this passion and some are still a great read, but I never wanted to follow in his footsteps.

FlipNC said:

Colin Fletcher had some amazing trips and books, but if you want a look at the man behind all that this is an interesting read:  Walking Man - The Secret Life of Colin Fletcher.  His writings got me into this passion and some are still a great read, but I never wanted to follow in his footsteps.

 

I’ve always wanted to read that book but it isn’t available in a suitable format, audio. If I recall that is supposed to be a very telling book. The Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher is on my list and is available. I have downloaded it and will start it next. 

A couple of his books I’ve read twice. 

While there are risks of course as the Ppine said in starting this thread, I'm firmly in the camp of, "it's worth it" to do solo trips. Having someone or someones along would completely change the experience. Sure, that can be a good experience too, but it's not the same experience.

Besides, we face risks even if we don't leave home. The other day I slipped on the stairs leading down to my garage. I was home alone. I caught myself before falling, but if I had fallen & smashed my skull on the concrete wall at the bottom, I wouldn't be here typing this now. Sorry to be graphic :) but my point is an at-home accident can be as bad as slipping off a log bridge and falling into a creek, without even leaving home. 

I vote for taking risks (contentiously mitigating them to the extent possible) in the wild. :)

I just finished Chris Townsend's book about walking through the Yukon in the early 90's.  After 1000 miles of a "high risk" walk in a lot of uncharted remote areas, he hitched a ride back to the closest town - the truck blew a tire and he ended up, luckily, with just a concussion.  Riskiest part was the drive (as someone previously stated) although this is an extreme example.

This guy has put in a few solo miles in Alaska and elsewhere. Bear encounters at about 14:00, and things get a bit emotional at 22:00.

Skurka has the miles under his wheels. He's on the extreme side of the range as far as solo hikes, which drastically increases the risks. Most of us fall way back within the center of the bell curve of "normal" backpacking trips which in itself reduces risks, although nothing eliminates them.

Thanks to BigRed for the video.  

Skurka has clearly forged his personality from spending all of that time in the bush.   Spend time in Alaska and you will see the wildlife.   His emotional reaction to the ancient caribou trails is very powerful.  I have always wanted to see the great herds in the Barren Grounds. 

Had to cancel a solo trip this weekend for health reasons...though of this thread while reading an old book and found one of my favorite Colin Fletcher quotes:

"But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.” 

Fletcher writes his way into some black holes.  Maybe that is why I keep reading his books. 

PhilNC said:

Had to cancel a solo trip this weekend for health reasons...though of this thread while reading an old book and found one of my favorite Colin Fletcher quotes:

"But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either – or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.” 

 This from a guy who couldn't manage to maintain any personal relationships....seems like he chose physical "adventure" and "daring" over others...just saying... 

Yeah...by "favorite" I mean it's thought provoking and part of an interesting read. Not meaning I agree with him entirely or his chosen path...a controversial and contrary personality and writer.  I have some mixed feelings about him while enjoying the reading, and similar thoughts on some other outdoor writers like Ed Abbey.

Not to mention Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of withdrawing from society while his sister brought him cookies every day...

Thoreau and Muir were the guys that first sent me down the path to having an outdoor career. 

After working in northern AZ and Utah for decades, my conclusion is that Abbey, much like Hunter Thompson were both radicalized much more by drugs and alcohol than be politics.  I have seen first hand the results of the Monkey Wrench Gang on the Navajo Res.  Wanton vandalism is all it is. 

October 23, 2020
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