Plenty of people enjoy hiking and many of them, male and female, prefer to hike solo. Though rewarding, solo hiking can be risky too thus you need to know not only the pros and cons but also the dangers related to hiking alone so that you can plan your hiking trip accordingly. This will help you take into account and evaluate risk in order to carry out a careful risk-benefit analysis to determine whether solo hiking is for you or not.
Like most things in life, solo hiking is not for everyone as you can distinguish, basically, among three types of backpackers according to their preferences and inclination toward this type of hiking experience. They are the following:
- Type I
These people enjoy nature alone all the time. They’re OK with being alone all with themselves as it is relaxing and may also provide a sense of independence and accomplishment they cannot get when they have partners. The freedom to hike their own hike and be responsible for themselves is also among the most common reasons for hiking alone.
- Type II
Representatives of this type may occasionally do solo hikes, though they won’t refuse treks with traveling companions. Their reasons for solo hiking vary from the joy of hiking itself to the need to leave the whole world behind for a while and stop worrying about anyone else. Some prefer to hit the trail alone and use the solitude of such an experience for personal development as a hiker and/or human being.
- Type III
We can call these opponents to solo hiking. They usually claim that it as a bad idea for anyone to hike alone. The reasons may vary but certainly among the most widespread ones are the fear of getting an injury (for some people it’s enough to watch the movie 127 Hours once so that they’d never want to hike alone) without being able to get out by themselves or ask for (and receive) help when they need it or the risk of close encounters with wildlife or potential harassment.
No matter which type you are, there are various pros and cons of solo backpacking. Let’s start from the advantages.
Solo hiking pros
Hike your own hike
This is probably the main reason for solo hiking because it allows you to feel independent – you are your own master! You can start hiking as early as you want, you can hike for as much time as you want, you can go as fast or as slow as you want and there’s absolutely no need to conform to anyone else’s schedule. Moreover, you can set the pace you want without being uncomfortable or having to make any compromises about your timing, rests or the location of your campsite. Oh, and you don’t have to rely on others just to learn that your hiking trip has been called off because of someone else’s considerations.
A sense of independence and accomplishment
Walking alone is often relaxing and though it can be tough at times (especially in the beginning, but the beginning is always the hardest part), it also provides a sense of independence and accomplishment that you can’t get when hiking with partners. Simple things that may seem mundane and trivial when hiking in a group such as building a campsite or route-finding or even making a fire in bad weather are much more rewarding.
Time to know yourself better
You can use this time to know yourself better, to learn who you really are as a person. Solo hiking is a very interesting experience and a great thing for the mind – it’s a perfect opportunity for you to give yourself some positive energy and attention. See this as a time that’s totally set aside for you, an opportunity to be by yourself and to be with yourself and see that it’s OK. There’s something spiritual about this type of hiking as it gives you time to think and to process your feelings – it definitely helps you see things clearly. Additionally, it is a chance to hone your skills as a hiker. You’ll have to be astute, resourceful and creative because you can’t rely on anyone else but yourself.
Connect with nature
Nature has so many things to offer. You can enjoy fresh air, amazing views, beautiful sceneries, even close encounters with wildlife much less likely to occur if you’re hiking in a group. You can also connect with your natural surroundings and enjoy the vast wilderness and bird sounds. Don’t be surprised if you come back from a solo hike feeling rejuvenated.
Solo hiking cons
This is the main psychological disadvantage related to solo hiking. Especially for those who are more sociable and cannot stand without hearing someone else’s voice around at least for a while. Having a vivid or overacting imagination doesn’t help either because it often makes things out far worse than they are. The mind of imaginative people goes to terrible places and as a result, they see many more dangers than actually exist. Thus, the chances are that such a person may wish to end a solo hike not from fatigue but from psychosis. If you’re such kind of a person, you may wish to avoid hiking alone. Anyway, you will feel less lonely on the trail and in camp if you just download some podcasts or audiobooks prior to your trip. They will help you mitigate the effects of not having a partner for those lonely moments.
Photo by Matthew Henry
Not having someone to go for help if needed
Safety should come first, especially when you’re hiking right out in the country. However, on solo hikes, you won’t have anyone to help you and will have to rely on yourself if an injury or illness occurs. If it’s some kind of a minor injury you won’t have a problem dealing with it. If it’s something serious and your mobility is restricted or you can’t keep going on your own, you might be in big trouble. You may wish to carry a satellite communicator in order to have reliable means of signaling for emergency rescue instead of just waiting or hoping for other hikers to find you by accident. Remember that every small detail can be the difference between life and death in case of an emergency.
You have to do everything
Some people don’t mind doing everything, including setting up camp, finding a water source, collecting firewood, cooking, and cleaning. Well, if you’re one of these, there’s some good news for you. Being alone in the wilderness requires that you do everything yourself. Sharing equipment or chores is not an option so you’ll have to carry a heavier backpack than your average hiker in a group and do the chores yourself.
Dangers of hiking alone
The dangers of hiking vary from place to place and season to season and, as a rule, there is no big difference between hiking in a group and hiking without partners as far as the essence of various dangers is concerned. The main difference, however, is that when backpacking alone if you get in trouble, you’re on your own. Though in certain circumstances this won’t be a problem, there are times when you’d prefer to have your buddies around. However, no matter if alone or with others, the most important thing is to be properly prepared – mentally, physically and know how to save yourself in the event of a variety of emergencies.
Snakes, bears, bees, mosquitos, biting flies, poisonous plants the list of potential unpleasant and undesired wildlife that you don’t want to meet on the trail is endless. Certainly, some of them present more of a psychological problem than a real-life threat, though for many people it is mentally and physically exhausting to cope with this burden when alone. Avoiding such unpleasant encounters is desirable and often possible, however, you have to get used to the thought that on other occasions you might end up itchy. Connecting with nature and observing wildlife is cool but unfortunately, seeing bears and poisonous snakes from a too close distance can turn into a life-threatening situation quickly, especially when hiking alone. Take adequate precautions such as: be aware of your surroundings, if you notice bears (especially if it’s a mom and babies) enjoy the view at a reasonable distance, carry a bear spray, and use common sense to avoid or mitigate risk.
The majority of the trails are well marked and following them won’t be a problem for a single hiker so there’s a small chance that you get lost. However, every now and then, even the most seasoned hikers make mistakes and get lost, especially if going off-trail or when hiking in an area they don’t know well. If you are alone and get lost while hiking, you have a few options. In such a case, the best thing you can have essentials such as a good map, a compass, and solid navigation skills. If you don’t have a compass or navigation skills, or just can’t orient yourself, try to climb up some higher hill to examine the area better. You might be able to identify a landmark, a specific place or anything else that can help you orient yourself. If there’s an unfamiliar river nearby, always follow the water downstream to go to civilization. Additionally, before going on a hiking trip, you should tell someone what trail you’re going to hike and what time you expect to be back.
Photo by Samantha Hurley
Getting an injury
This is probably the biggest danger when you’re alone in the wilderness. Breaking your arm or leg, twisting an ankle, surviving a bear attack or snake bite, the list of possible injuries is long enough. Since you cannot rely on someone else to go for help, you have to rely on yourself, your skills and abilities, repair kit, cell phone, and GPS unit to get out of trouble. As they say, prevention is better than cure. The best prevention of such accidents is to try to remain vigilant and focused on the trail. However, once you get injured, you have to switch to the emergency plan you’ve made before your trip. Don’t you have one? “Failing to plan is planning to fail” so devise an emergency plan.
You can get into serious trouble if you hike in an area without a natural water source and don’t carry enough water with you. A hot day without water can turn a pleasant hike to a disaster. For some hikes, you’ll have to carry a lot of water because in certain areas you may hike for 50 or more kilometers without encountering a single water source. Be extra attentive to the information about water supply availability when planning your hike because you can end up in serious trouble, especially since solo hiking presumes that you don’t have a partner who can lend you some water in case you need it.
Always try to stay warm and dry when hiking in cold environments. Exposure to the elements can be more dangerous when hiking alone, especially during storms with lightning and/or in the mountain. The combination of low temperatures and strong winds is a recipe for a disaster. Is it supposed to rain? If so get your rain gear. If not, you might consider leaving it at home. Always check the weather forecast during the planning phase of your trip and know the prevailing weather patterns for the destination you’ll be hiking in.
Hunters can be a real threat to backpackers who hike alone in certain areas, especially during the hunting season. The reason is quite simple – it’s much easier to confuse a solo hiker with a wild animal than to confuse a group of hikers with game. Maybe that’s why hunters often tell hikers to wear orange or other bright colors, just in case.
Solo hiking is not for everyone, but it’s a very interesting experience and can be enjoyable, rewarding, and rejuvenating. Hiking alone is a unique way to experience the outdoors and has its pros, cons, and dangers. However, as long as you don’t take extreme risks, you should not have any problems.
What frightens people about hiking alone in the wilderness is the unknown. You just need to plan carefully prior to your trip and stick to your plan on the trail because planning is more important when you’re solo hiking. Safety is the most obvious concern because dealing with injuries and getting lost is harder when on your own. So you need to lessen the impact of some of the risks of being alone. Make contingency plans as well – think thoroughly about what can get wrong and plan your actions accordingly. Remember to pack your backpack in time, and above all – pack your brain so that when you need it you’ll be prepared to use common sense to avoid or mitigate risk.
There’s so much to explore and you need to be smart to avoid and get out of possible dangers while traveling alone. But above all, hike your own hike and have a great time!