Seeking Solitude – Going Solo on the Trail

Being alone on the trail is a soothing, grounding experience. It forces a level of comfort with the self and the here-and-now that the distraction of company doesn’t offer. Getting comfortable with that is, however, a whole different matter.

The Physical

Safety and ability are the most frequently voiced concerns I hear about. I’ll be perfectly honest – I’ve never had these concerns until I took my first solo hike with my son. I’m not particularly brave, simply a compulsive researcher and well-prepared as a result, as well as experienced on the trail with company well before my first solo.

There are two sides to this. On one hand, the trail is generally one of the safest places a person can be. On the other hand, there is a level of heightened risk when going by yourself compared to having backup. These risks can be prepared for with the following:

Skills: Navigation, first aid, gear, and other knowledge. I assessed my knowledge gaps, took a Wilderness First Aid class, got very familiar with my gear, and practiced on the trail. It did wonders for my solo confidence level.

Start experimenting and taking note on dayhikes and backpacking trips long before you embark on your first solo.

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Taking a Wilderness First Aid course helped me trim down AND stock my emergency/first aid kit to essentials with the knowledge that my gear can be repurposed in certain ways to splint, clean and dress wounds, and treat hypo and hyperthermia.

Familiarity: Take note of your own personal requirements on the trail. How many miles can you safely hike in what terrain? How do you respond to altitude? How much food do you really need to eat, and how much water do you drink in arid and hot environments? What do you need to stay warm in cold weather, or cool in hot weather? Start experimenting and taking note on dayhikes and backpacking trips long before you embark on your first solo. This enables you to prepare to be totally self-sufficient.

Research: Trails can be researched to know what to expect in terrain, landmarks and local flora and fauna. You can make a reasonable assessment whether the trail matches your hiking capabilities. The immediate weather forecast is a great place to start, but knowing weather trends that may fall outside of the forcast is also handy information to have and prepare for. Don’t forget the local ranger’s station! They’re a wealth of knowledge for changing trail conditions, animal activity and expected weather.

 If you find yourself in a sticky situation then you have concrete directions and actions to take for a Plan B.

Preparedness: First aid kits. Extra food. The right clothing and the right sleeping system and shelter. When the rainclouds start gathering you won’t be caught unaware and will be glad you’ve brought your rainshells. You’ll sleep comfortably knowing your food is stashed safely in bear canisters and your camp is clean in bear country.

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It started hailing on our hike out of the Grand Canyon. Knowing the weather trend instead of just the forecast meant we brought our rainshells despite the clear skies and mild winter forecast before departing on the trip.

Your research and preperation should also include bail-out points (places that can take you to civilization or help dispersed throughout the length of the trail, if available) and resources, such as emergency phones and caches that some trails have. Include secondary emergency water sources and determine whether they are all-year or seasonal. The Bright Angel and South Kaibab trails in the Grand Canyon have quite a few emergency phones and caches dispersed along the length of these trails and Bright Angel has year long and seasonal springs. If you find yourself in a sticky situation then you have concrete directions and actions to take for a Plan B.

Oh Shit Backups: I do carry a PLB (personal locator beacon). However, I proceed as if I don’t have it. I’ve hit a few hairy situations and obtained some pretty harsh injuries, but I figure as long as I can hike I don’t need to hit the SOS button. Remember that PLBs are a backup and give Search and Rescue a place to start, not a guarantee – weather, terrain and time of day can delay a rescue for hours or even days. Depending on the model, the terrain and the weather it might be difficult to get a signal out. Be prepared to shelter in place or hike a short distance to get signal. You’ll be grateful for the extra emergency food you brought!

Bear spray works for all critters, not just bears, up to and including the human variety. There are so many options for personal self-defense, from mace to firearms, and the choice is a highly individual one. Always be sure to have your defense ready to roll at a moment’s notice and know how to use it correctly and responsibly! I carry mace with me wherever I go as a backup; the trail is no different in mentality, but statistically is safer than my regular walks around the neighborhood.

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Planning my itinerary for the Grand Canyon. Having a map of the area is invaluable for the process!

Always, always, always leave an itinerary including potential bail-out points and spur-trails to points of interest, expected time of return and when to call SAR with a trusted, responsible person. Take it one step further and leave a copy of this itinerary under the front seat of your car if it’s parked at the trailhead each and every time. Most importantly, STICK TO IT! This information and action is priceless to SAR personnel in the event that you do need to be rescued.

The Mental

Many of us live in a culture of fear and conformity. We’re innundated with bad news and calamity in every facet of media and meanwhile we’re socialized to look to others for assurance and guidance for our behavior and norms. We can fight against these influences and concientiously choose to critically evaluate them, but no one is 100% immune to them.

It’s just part of being human. According to ‘Sapiens’ author Yuval Noah Harari, we are psychobiologically middle-tier predators who were launched into ecological supremacy. We rose to primacy and survived (perhaps decimated) other human species thanks in great part to our sociality and our ingenuity. With our lagging evolutionary trajectory in comparison to our prime spot on the food chain, it simply makes sense for us to be scared and dependent even when the benefits and statistics are telling us that this risk is one worth taking. Lions and sharks had eons to evolve the confidence they need to match their capabilities.

. . . speaking on the evolutionary timeline, we’re still the scared middle-tier primates who need an over-active imagination that tends to focus on fear . . .

We evolved complicated brains that gave us the gifts of ingenuity that made us into such a powerful force on this planet, but speaking on the evolutionary timeline, we’re still the scared middle-tier primates who need an over-active imagination that tends to focus on fear to avoid the big top-tier predators that had the time to evolve into their own skin.

Understanding where our fears come from and what influences them helps us overcome them. This takes time and introspection. Maybe the challenge of a solo hike is just what is needed to gain insight into our own minds.

It’s a tall order for us to fight our own evolution, though. There are tips and tricks to get around our hardwired fear while we undergo that lifelong process.

Get tired: If you find yourself with a little bit too much time to ruminate, maybe it’s time for a longer, more challenging hike. You’ll get to camp ready for nothing but food and sleep and without patience for whatever fearful nonsense your brain wants to indulge in.

Be distracted: Worse comes to worse, bring a distraction! Painting was that for me, until it became an integral part of how I experience the trail. Being able to paint without the constrictions of another person’s concerns and commentary changed how I view the landscape and how I experience it as well. For others it’s a good book, photography, music to enjoy (at a respectable level) in camp, a musical instrument to play, a good cigar and drink after a long day hiking, practicing backcountry skills, the list is pretty long. What can you carry in that lifts your spirits and fascinates your mind?

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Painting helped calm my fears on my first solo hike with my son.

Just Fight: I have an over-active imagination. On my recent truncated solo on the Trans-Catalina Trail I started hiking before sunrise without a soul in sight. It was great. Mostly.

Except for the mental images of horror movies my brain kept going back to. There really is no other way to get around some fears, especially silly, pure-adrenaline fears other than bolstering the backbone and pushing forward, knowing fear does end and the sun does rise (and horror movies aren’t real).

The External

There are two types of people who’ll naysay your solo aspirations. The first are those who are concerned and simply don’t understand. These voices come from a place of love, and it’s worth the time helping them understand these fears and the benefits to you of your solo time. If their words come from a place of love, then knowing how good alone time on the trail for you is should mollify them a bit. There’s a difference between worry and oppression, and it’s up to you to determine how much worry you’re willing to accomodate from others.

The second type is a straight-up buzzkill. Jealousy or uncaring negativity, whatever it may be, is annoying but remember where it comes from. If it isn’t out of concern for you and your wellbeing, then it isn’t worth your mental and emotional resources.

We are nonetheless social creatures, as mentioned above. It is incredibly nurturing and reassuring to have support as you embark on your solo adventures. It’s a huge confidence-builder to be able to share your experience, listen to the experiences of others and learn from each other. So find your tribe. There are many hikers of all stripes who go solo, and they’re easier than ever to find online or in hiker groups. For outdoorswomen I cannot recommend the All Women All Trails facebook group enough! If you want the online company of a group of welcoming, tough, diverse, adventurous women, that’s a group to check out posthaste.

My final piece of advice: go for it!

With preparation and the willingness to grow your skills and horizons you’re so likely to be far more capable, strong and adventurous than you give yourself credit for! Being solo in nature can be a time to recharge without external pressures, a thrilling time of challenge and peace, and a time to discover the land and yourself.

What are your recommendations for going solo for first-timers or experienced solo hikers? If you haven’t gone solo yet but want to, what’s stopping you? Feel free to vent it all out in the comments. It might help!

Resources to Get Started:

On Personal Locator Beacons: From NOAA: An over-view, PLBs are covered at the bottom of the page. Outdoor Gear Lab compares models, prices and capabilities.

On Bear Spray from Get Bear Smart: How to use, how it works, what’s good to purchase.

On SAR rescues from Outside Online and Hiking Itineraries from Washington Trails Association. 

Classes Available at REI

Classes and Articles Available through NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School)

For more classes, check out your local Sierra Club Chapter and Park-Specific Outdoor Organizations. Many of them host group hikes, backpacking trips, and have great information on the trails you might wanna hit solo.

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