Thoughts on hiking solo

Joan is a very experienced backpacker both with popular routes such as on the Pacific Crest Trail and the Arizona Trail or planning her routes and going off-trail here on The Colorado Plateau. Joan agreed to write her thoughts about solo wilderness adventures. -PM


This spring marks my tenth year of solo backpacking. While I now have a partner who loves backpacking as much as I do, I still make time to take backpacking trips by myself — not just weekend trips. But my long-distance hikes such as last summer on the PCT.

Many people are surprised at this. But I honestly like to go solo. I do it because I love getting to do my own thing at my own pace. I chase butterflies, explore, take endless side trips, go swimming, and goof off. And I find peace in being with my thoughts for long periods.

Ten years ago, going solo for the first time was a massive deal for me. I struggled with many fears. I was especially afraid of being attacked by a stranger. And of critters.

For me, the most challenging thing about solo hiking was the anxiety I felt during the time between crawling into my hammock, and when I fell asleep. It’s when I felt most vulnerable. Like something or someone could easily attack me, and I wouldn’t be able to get away. Maybe that sounds ridiculous to you. But that’s what scared me the most until I figured out a way to deal with it.

Hammocking solo in Montana

Now, the fear doesn’t stop me. I do things differently when I am alone. I camp out of sight of the trail far away from anyone. And unless I’m cowboy camping, I sleep under a camouflage-patterned tarp. Not because it makes it harder to spot. But because if you came across a camo tarp, wouldn’t you just assume the occupant was a guy or someone with a gun? I like thinking about this. It is a story I can tell myself to make myself sleep soundly through the night.

Solo camp in Canyonlands National Park

I’ve discovered a side benefit to sleeping out of sight of the trail. I’m almost always in a spot no one has ever camped before, which is easy to do with minimal impact in my hammock. I’ve discovered that it gives me the feeling of a wilderness experience.

Compared to ten years ago, it seems like now that there are more solo women out there. I noticed a huge change this past summer on the PCT. Not just more solo women, but also fewer people being shocked when I said I was solo. I’m glad for this change, and I hope it makes it easier for others to find the courage to go at it alone.

Solo backpacking in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. With a trusty umbrella.

If you are hesitating about your first solo trip, I sure hope that you don’t let fear stop you.

Here are my tips for staring out:

When first going solo, start small.  I’d go to places where I was very comfortable- state parks where I could sign in at the park office or familiar trails where I knew I would see fellow hikers.

Take care of yourself Listen to your body, stop when you need to adjust your pace and watch the weather. Give yourself permission to bail and go home if things don’t feel right.

Create a safety net.  I tell my emergency contact where I’m going, where I’m parking, and when I’ll be back and who to call if I fail to check-in at a particular time. I carry an InReach. I check back in after I return, so my friends always expect mine follow up text.

More info on communication technology available here. -PM

Don’t get lost. Until I was very comfortable going solo, I’d stick to routes I knew. I still always carry a map and compass, and I know how to use them. I pay attention to my location and where I am going, and I backtrack if I have any doubts.

Bring music or podcasts to listen to before you go to sleep.  Or bring earplugs.  It helps keep away the sounds of night-time monsters.  These night-time monsters don’t creep me out anymore (much), but it used to.

Enjoy yourself Do exactly what you want, when you want. Linger at waterfalls. Take a nap. Or hike an extra few miles. Savor every moment.

Appropriately enough, enjoying the plants on the Bartram Trail.

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16 Replies to “Thoughts on hiking solo”

  1. Joan, you summed up my own experiences with hiking solo. My first backpack is a camo pattern for exactly the same reason. The time in my tent before sleep can feel the most vulnerable, but not as much as it used to. I use some of the same techniques, too. I still get wide-eyed looks (or sometimes sideways looks through narrowed eyes, as though the unspoken words are “Are you NUTS?!”) when people hear that I trek alone. How refreshing it was on my fall Wild Basin backpack that 75% of the other hikers were women, and at least half of them were hiking solo. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Debby– Nice to hear you’ve had a similar experience! It really makes a difference to find those places where there are more solo women. I love that feeling of camaraderie.

  2. I prefer to hike solo as well for the same reasons you’ve stated in your article. I have also experienced similar challenges with the unknowns after dark. I’ve learned to accept that if that “bump in the night” is going to get me, there really is anything I can do about it. But, that grapefruit sized rock in my hand might help. I’ve also had people question my sanity when I tell them I go alone. I simply tell them it has it’s risks and it’s rewards.
    When I encounter solo female hikers on the trail I feel uneasy. I’m afraid they are viewing me as a potential threat. I am not a threat to anyone, but I understand. I try to greet all hikers with a smile and a hello. Most of the time I get the same in return.

    1. Solo trips sure do have their rewards. I laughed when I read about the grapefruit sized rock. I’ve kept one handy too on one night when there was lots of rustling critter noises. 🙂

  3. I am blessed (or perhaps cursed) with a lack of fear or anxiety about what “might” happen. So that hasn’t stopped my from thru hiking. But my son and hiking partner is getting married, so I’m thinking about hiking the CT solo. What I’m worried about is loneliness. How do you go days and weeks without talking to someone? Who will I argue with about where to set up the tent?

    1. I actually enjoy being by myself for a few days at a time. At night, I may listen to podcasts or write to feel engaged and to stay positive. Then when I get to town, which I usually do every four or five days, I’ll write emails and/ or call my friends and family.

      On the more popular long trails, it’s actually hard to stay solo. I’ve met lots of great people, and may strike up a conversation for a few minutes or a few hours. Most town stops, I’ve found fellow hikers to hang out with.

  4. I loved this article. Thanks, Joan. I have done a handful of solo trips and I truly enjoyed them. They are a different animal from my trips with friends–I find the mental preparation to be intense, having to convince myself that it is good for me to be alone every now and then. I don’t know if I prefer solo trips over trips with friends; they are just different, both rewarding in their own way. I tell people to try it and if they are hesitant, one way to dip your toe into the water is to go with a friend, but to spit up at some point, maybe camp 1/4 mile away from each other to get a feel for being solo but having a safety net somewhat nearby.

    -Michael

    1. Good suggestion to ease into solo backpacking by having a buddy system and camping apart but closeby!

      I agree that the mental prep beforehand is more intense with solo backpacking. My strategy is to create compelling trips for myself that I doubt anyone else would be interested in. Like looking for obscure plants. Or trying to hike all the canyons in a drainage. Whatever idea seems interesting that will get me to the trailhead.

  5. I’m lucky not to be bothered much with fears of animals/people. I think that goes back to my first solo backpacking trip (37 years ago–the looks I get are because I am a woman AND white-haired). I had a wolverine come into my camp the second night. Quite the hair-raising experience, but no harm done. After that, the various little rustling nighttime noises don’t worry me much.
    Kim

      1. It was pretty tense at the time–he circled my tent for several minutes. I could see him through my little vent window. I finally yelled at him and struck the side of the tent where he was sniffing around (actually peeing on the guy lines), and he did head off into the woods. But seeing a wolverine is a one in a lifetime kind of thing, so it was, in retrospect, pretty exciting.

  6. I have always admired your forays into the wild solo! For now I’m doing good to do day hikes alone and the one I did last Friday was fantastic. I do like your camo tarp set-up idea, though.

  7. I’ve always preferred hiking solo, didn’t even stop to think about it…probably the result of manning a remote Forest Service lookout for three seasons when I was a young twenty-something. Hardly had a visitor during the entire time and didn’t mind. I’ve found that one can’t learn to be truly comfortable in one’s skin or find a non-doctrinal spirituality in the noise, dust, pollution and corrosion of the city, but hiking solo surely gives one insights. Well, enough of that.

    The last couple of hiking seasons I’ve been using a hammock and love it! So, out of curiosity, what kind have you been using?

    1. I really like my Darien Dream Hammock- very lightweight but with an integrated bugnet. They have excellent customer service too.

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