Backpacking is a fun experience whether you’re with friends, family, or even just yourself. Being out in the wild can be exhilarating, and it’s also a learning process. But many beginners may be wondering if it’s actually safe to go backpacking alone.
It is safe to go backpacking alone if you take necessary precautions and practice good forward planning. Solo backpacking, like other adventure sports, carries inherent risks. But, when well prepared and aware of these risks, solo backpacking is a safe sport, and one that can be very enjoyable.
Below, we’ll talk more about how to safely backpack by yourself, and we’ll go into more detail about the risks of doing so. At the end, we’ll also give you a list of some of the best trails for solo backpackers.
Should You Go Backpacking Alone?
Go At Your Own Pace
For many people, hiking alone is pure joy. For others, it requires some discipline and overcoming of fear. But there are lots of few reasons to go it alone. First, you can go at your own pace. Whether that is super-fast or super-slow, or more likely somewhere in between, you can decide the pace.
Taking Breaks When You Want
Second, you can take breaks as you need them. If you get hungry you can stop, and if you are in the zone, you can keep going. The decision is yours, and you’re not dependent on those around you.
Thirdly, hiking alone helps you enjoy the solitude of being out in nature. It is a way to connect with nature and disconnect from your day-to-day grind. Taking advantage of your solitude helps you reduce stress. Hiking alone is a simple and easy way to meditate and remove all of the crazy ramblings in your head.
While many hikers rely on GPS and other electronics during hikes, you may want to remove all distractions by putting your smartphone in your pack while you are hiking and only taking it out to snap pictures. However, having your phone with you is essential for solo hikes, in case you run into trouble.
Take It Slow
For many people, the thought of hiking alone strikes fear in them like nothing else. If this is you, I suggest that you slowly wean into it. Start with small local trails and work your way up to backpacking. Even an overnight trip can be a cause for celebration the first time you do it alone.
Things To Consider
If you are accident-prone or clumsy, it might not be a good idea to backpack alone. However, preparation ahead of time and a good balance training program helps to reduce the chance of accidental injury.
Being alone in the wilderness comes with inherent dangers, especially getting lost. Make sure if you want to go somewhere remote that you understand and are proficient with a compass.
Finally, it’s worth considering if solo backpacking is for you or not. Some people thrive in their own company, while others struggle with it. If you’re easily bored when you’re on your own, backpacking may be a great way to learn to enjoy your own company. But it might also be a rather boring experience for you, which is another reason to start small, to find out if it’s right for you.
How To Prepare For A Solo Backpacking Trip
Preparing for a solo expedition comes down to one thing: Safety. Your safety is paramount on any hike, but when you’re alone, you need to be extra cautious. All of the things we outline below are essential for preparing for a solo backpacking trip, and they are all linked in some way to keeping you safe.
First, prepare your gear list. Know what essentials you will need on the trail. For example, a tent, backpack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are all essentials. If you are a first timer and don’t have the gear, there are several options.
Renting gear for a trip is a good way to save money and find out what you really need. There are many reputable gear renting companies to choose from. Once you have the right gear it is also important to practice with it. You don’t want to go to set up your tent for the first time only to realize that you don’t know what you’re doing!
Having the right equipment helps prevent injuries while on the trail and keeps you safe and warm at night when in your tent. So, plan well in advance, and make sure you have (and can carry) everything you need.
Training ahead of time strengthens your muscles, improves your balance, and reduces the chances of you injuring yourself on your hike. Find a trainer or a gym and get in shape before you head out.
Also, train on trails that are similar to what you will encounter on your trip. Find a shorter version of your intended trail and hike it several times before your trip. For example, if you are entering hilly terrain, find a hilly trail near your home and get used to it before you head out for the real thing.
Remember that part of physical safety is knowing your limits. Knowing your capabilities and remembering to not bite off more than you can chew makes it easier to stay safe on the trail.
The more you challenge yourself mentally, the better your mental stamina and confidence become. It is extra important during solo backpacking trips to have good mental stamina and to be able to stay calm and relaxed, as there’s nobody else there to support you. It’s also important to get a good night’s sleep when backpacking. This will prevent mental fatigue and allow you to go farther each day.
Learning Survival Skills
Two of the most important survival skills to learn are how to get a fire going and how to find a freshwater source. This is your first line of defense when setting up camp for the night. Beyond these two key skills, it’s worth learning about first aid, including bandaging wounds, soothing bug bites, and wrapping an ankle after a sprain.
Understanding how to prevent hypothermia can save your life, and is vital if you plan to go solo during the colder months. As night approaches the temperature drops. Knowing how to stay warm prevents hypothermia from taking you by surprise.
Communicate With The National Or State Park Ahead Of Time
Whenever you head into the wilderness it is important to let someone know your plans. This could be family or friends, and this ensures people know where to find you if anything goes wrong. But before you head out, and as an integral part of your planning, you should also reach out to the State or National Park where you are hiking.
The Park Service will provide you with all sorts of details about the area. They’ll have maps, informative brochures, and the low-down on recent happenings in the park. They will tell you about bear regulations and what you need to carry during your trip to prevent bears from bothering you. Also, they are the first responders in case you get into trouble.
Most National Parks require you to check in with them before you go exploring. Some even require reservations, so it is best to get in touch as soon as you decide on a destination.
Do Your Research
By planning for a solo backpacking trip, you will learn about all sorts of things, and your knowledge of the outdoors will become stronger. And the stronger your knowledge, the more you can help yourself as well as helping others.
I find that forums, like Reddit, are a good way to communicate with people who have been there and done that. They have lots of knowledge to share and are very willing to help others navigate the planning and implementation process.
Learn About The Weather
Learning about the weather helps you stay safe. The mountains may see drastically different weather to the surrounding towns and are unpredictable, so you can’t rely on the weather forecast from the towns even though they are right next to the mountains! It’s therefore good to be able to “read the sky” and understand the signs that the weather is about to change.
Consider Wildlife You May Encounter
One of the biggest fears people have when hiking is that of getting attacked by an animal. While that can happen, it is very rare. Most animals, like the black bear, want nothing to do with humans. They flee as soon as they smell or see a person.
Other animals aren’t so skittish, so it is good to learn more about them. The dangerous predators in the United States include:
- Grizzly Bear
- Black Bear
- Mountain Lion
- Rattle Snakes
- Yellow Jackets
- Deer Ticks
- Fire Ants
- Brown Recluse Spider
- Feral Dogs
- Fisher Cat
Learn about and prepare yourself for the animals you might encounter on your trip.
Consider Other Natural Hazards
But it’s not just animals you need to think about, as plants can be dangerous too. The most common poisonous plant and noxious weeds include poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. Other noxious plants include the stinging nettles. While these plants won’t kill you, they can make you very uncomfortable, often for a long time after the encounter.
Have An Exit Strategy
Knowing when to cut an adventure short is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you encounter unbearable weather, the terrain gets washed out, or becomes more dangerous than your skill level, then it is time to bail out. Understand the routes home, and know where you can get help if you need it.
How To Deal With Loneliness When Solo Backpacking
Dealing with loneliness when solo backpacking is all about keeping yourself occupied. You might do this by playing games with yourself, singing as you hike, or just focusing on the things around you. If you’re prone to extreme bouts of loneliness, solo backpacking may not be right for you.
When Is The Best Time To Go Solo Backpacking?
While you might think the warm, dry weather of summer is the perfect time for a solo hike, there are often more things to consider than the sun. For example, people may be on vacation, and schools may be out, which can lead to very busy trails. This isn’t always great for those seeking some solo solace!
Some of the best hiking conditions come in September time. The bugs are usually mostly gone, the temperatures are down during the day but not too far down, and the crowds are back where they came from. The nighttime temperature is cool too, which is ideal for sleeping. With the right sleeping bag and tent, the night is both cool and comfortable.
Top 9 Solo Backpacking Destinations In The USA
1. John Muir Trail
State: California | Distance: 211 miles | Duration: 20-30 days
Running from the Yosemite Valley down to Mount Whitney, the John Muir trail is one of the most scenic in the US. Coming in at more than 200 miles in total, this is a solo hike for the bravest and fittest, that want a true taste of some of the best hiking that the country has to offer.
2. Long Trail
State: Vermont | Distance: 273 miles | Duration: 20-30 days
The longest trail on our list, the Long Trail in Vermont is a true challenge for solo hikers. You’ll need to set aside at least 3 weeks for this one, but you’ll be able to take in the views from the bottom to the top of the state of Vermont.
3. Wonderland Trail
State: Washington | Distance: 93 miles | Duration: 12-14 days
Encircling Mount Rainier, the Wonderland Trail lives up to its name, taking you through forests and valleys, and into higher alpine areas offering incredible views all the way. This is a good one for solo hikers that can’t commit to the longest trails, but still want to push themselves.
4. Teton Crest Trail
State: Wyoming | Distance: 45 miles | Duration: 7 days
There are a few routes to choose from on the Teton Crest Trail, but all in this hike is between 35 and 45 miles. It will take you about a week, and along the way you’ll explore a glacier and a proglacial lake.
5. Greenstone Ridge Trail
State: Michigan | Distance: 40 miles | Duration: 5 days
The Greenstone Ridge Trail is another 40-mile option for those that want to get away for a few days in the wilderness, while exploring Isle Royale on Lake Superior. While you’re likely to deal with many mosquitos on this trail, you might also get a chance to see wolves and moose too.
6. Pacific Crest Trail Section J
State: Washington | Distance: 75 miles | Duration: 5-7 days
The Pacific Crest Trail is gargantuan, but you can tackle individual sections and still feel a great sense of accomplishment. This is a true challenge for any solo backpacker, offering elevation changes of around 16,000 feet, and plenty of varying terrain, this is an ideal choice for backpackers looking for a real test of their abilities.
7. Zion National Park Traverse
State: Utah | Distance: 51 miles | Duration: 5-6 days
The Zion National Park Traverse is one of the most beautiful hikes in the country, and it takes you through narrow canyons, across deserts, and through ponderosa forests. This is another elevation-heavy trek, with a peak of about 7,500 feet.
8. Ouachita National Recreation Trail
State: Arkansas/Oklahoma | Distance: 223 miles | Duration: 15 days
The Ouachita National Recreation Trail takes you through the Ouachita Mountains in Oklahoma and Arkansas. You’ll probably want to take on this trail in early spring or late fall, as it’s often too hot in the summer and there’s little in the way of water sources when it’s been very dry.
9. Tahoe Rim Trail
State: Nevada/California | Distance: 165 miles | Duration: 10 days
The Tahoe Rim Trail takes you around the Lake Tahoe Basin, with a total elevation change of 24,400 feet. The best time to take this trail on is between July and September. This is a good one for solo hikers that like a swim, as there are lots of beautiful lakes and streams throughout this trail.
It is safe to go backpacking alone, as long as you understand the inherent risks that go along with it. By planning in advance, doing your research, preparing mentally and physically, and by taking the right gear with you, you can stay safe when backpacking alone.