Like many people who love the outdoors, I would say that I have a good sense of adventure. However, when it comes to danger, I calculate my risks. Not necessarily eliminating risk but knowing ahead of time what can go wrong and having a plan before it happens. I call it Plan B!
So, when it comes to solo backpacking, I study, plan for a successful trip while knowing the risks. The two main questions are 1. is solo backpacking safe? and 2. should I go on a solo backpacking trip?
Solo backpacking, like other adventure sports, carries inherent risks. But, when well prepared and aware of and calculating risks, solo backpacking is a safe sport.
To answer the second question, should I go on a solo backpacking trip, let’s dive in and take a look. It is our job to lay out the evidence. And it is your job to decide to take the trip.
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Is solo backpacking safe?
Let’s examine this question in greater detail.
Should I go backpacking alone?
The answer to this question lies only within you. Meaning, you know you better than anybody. Are you prepared to spend the night alone under the stars? Will you freak out if you encounter wildlife? Do you know how to encounter wildlife as safely as possible? Is this something that keeps nagging at you, like Jack London’s The Call of The Wild?
Reasons why you should go alone
For many people, hiking alone is pure joy; for others, it requires some discipline and minimizing fear. Here are a few reasons to go it alone. First, you can go at your own pace. Whether that is super fast or slow, you can decide the pace.
Second, you can take breaks as you need them. If you get hungry stop, if you are in the zone, keep going. The decision is yours.
Third, 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, get away from it all. Hiking alone is a simple and easy way to meditate and remove the crazy ramblings in your head.
I see many hikers relying on GPS and other electronics during hikes. I suggest that you remove distractions by putting your smartphone in your pack while you are hiking and only taking it out to snap pictures.
Finally, as an introvert, hiking alone helps you break out of your shell and talk to people. Whenever you come across another hiker just say hello. Who knows if this turns into a conversation.
Reasons why you shouldn’t go solo
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.
I am an extrovert so I enjoy talking to others. I was on a trail for 5 days in Colorado and didn’t see a soul. It was very difficult and at times I felt like Tom Hanks in CastAway talking to Wilson.
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.
Are you good with a compass? 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.
Boredom. Some people just get plain bored. If this is you, think about how long it takes for you to become bored and make a plan. You might be able to do a weekend trip, but not a week-long trip. Know thyself!
How do you prepare for a solo trip?
Preparing for a solo expedition comes down to one thing. Safety.
First, prepare your gear list. Know what essentials you will need on the trail. For example, a tent, backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and the list goes on. 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. They can set you up.
Once you have the right gear it is also important to practice with it. How many times do you see someone at a campsite who tried setting up their tent for the first time only to find out that they didn’t bring the stakes?
Or, you get thirsty out on the trail and just ran out of water. That stream looks awfully tempting. Do you know how to use the water filter and purifier that you just bought on Amazon?
Having the right equipment helps prevent injuries while on the trail and keeps you safe and warm at night when in your tent.
Accidents happen. We all know this. But some accidents don’t need to happen. Training ahead of time strengthens muscles, improves balance, and prevents many strains from happening in the first place. 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 frequent it often.
Remember that part of physical safety is knowing when to say when. Knowing your capabilities and remembering to not bite off more than you can chew brings safety up a notch.
I remember mountain biking in Utah. We didn’t have enough water for the trip and it was super hot. However, instead of turning around, we continued to push in the wrong direction. Again, I bit off more than I could chew and it could have been disastrous.
On the flip side, if you do bite off more than you can chew but need to get to a certain point to get out of danger the only option you may have is to ‘keep chewing’. Don’t give up just when it gets tough. Keep pushing forward knowing that safety is just up ahead.
We have all been there. At the end of our proverbial rope. It happens. I find that the more that you challenge yourself mentally, the better your mental stamina and confidence.
It is more important during solo expeditions to have good mental stamina. If nothing else but for this one reason: your friend can’t talk you through it.
With that said, it is very important to get a good night’s sleep when backpacking. It will prevent mental fatigue and allow you to go farther each day.
Map and compass
In the world of electronics, you might think about purchasing a GPS and relying on your smartphone to help you navigate the trails. However, no matter how good your electronics sometimes things go haywire. For example, I have seen smartphones dropped in rivers never to be seen again.
What will you do if that was your GPS and map? You get the point. Learning how to use a map and compass keeps you heading in the right direction and also is a good way to communicate your location during a rescue situation.
Learning survival skills and practicing them
The first survival skills I think of are getting a fire going and finding a freshwater source. This is your first line of defense when setting up camp for the night. Also, it is the first thing to do when lost in the wilderness.
Beyond that what survival skills should you know and practice ahead of time. How about first aid, including bandaging wounds, soothing bug bites, and wrapping an ankle after a sprain.
As the injuries worsen the skill level needs to increase. Being able to set a broken leg or at least protect it is important to know in the wild.
Also, preventing hypothermia can save your life. As night approaches the temperature drops. Knowing how to stay warm prevents hypothermia from taking you by surprise.
Communicating with the National or State Park ahead of time
Whenever you head into the wilderness it is important to let someone know your plans. Before you head out and as an integral part of your planning, reach out to the State or National Park where you are hiking.
The Park Service will provide you with all sorts of details. They have maps, informative brochures, and have 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. Some even require reservations so it is best to get in touch as soon as you decide on a destination.
Other ways to educate yourself ahead of time
I don’t know about you but I am always looking for learning opportunities. If this is you then planning for a trip will be lots of fun. You will learn about all sorts of things and your knowledge of the outdoors will be strong. 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.
But be cautious, sometimes people have different agendas and try to sell you something that you may not necessarily need.
Learn about weather and the first signs of a storm
Have you ever been out on a picnic and all of a sudden it starts to rain? Sound familiar? Well, the consequences aren’t too dire if that happens. The worst that can happen is that your ham sandwich and chips get a little soggy.
But think of this happening in the mountains and you have a different story. The mountains have a way of creating their own weather. It looks great one moment and the next, you are getting hit with torrential rains without any nearby shelter.
Learning about the weather helps you stay safe. Also, in New Hampshire, the White Mountains have their own weather service. The mountains act differently than 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.
Can these moments be avoided? For the most part, yes.
What type of wildlife will you encounter?
One of the biggest fears people have when hiking is that of getting attacked by an animal. While that happens it is 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
Encountering wildlife raises hairs on our heads, however, most animals don’t attack. Learn about and prepare yourself for the animals you might encounter on your trip.
What kind of poisonous plants are out there?
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 make it very uncomfortable for up to a few weeks after the encounter.
Mushrooms. I don’t know why but people get into trouble eating mushrooms every year. One of the first things I learned as a kid was to not eat mushrooms in the yard. Yes, some are edible, but some can kill you. Let’s just say, you really need to know your mushrooms before you stew them up.
Have you thought of bailpoints?
Knowing when to cut an adventure short is a sign of strength, not weakness. Meaning, 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.
Believe it or not, I once bailed off a trail. I had spent 4 days of a 6 day trip on the Colorado Trail. I descended a trail to a small town and realized that my feet were just too sore to continue.
My pack had been too heavy for the entire length of the trail, I couldn’t get my camp stove to work, and I ate Boston Baked Beans candy for 2 days (Let’s not bash me for nutrition, I was young).
Either way, I had a decision that I needed to make. I sat at a small country store for a couple of hours before calling my friend for a ride home. I believe I made the right decision. However, I also learned a valuable lesson about the essentials required for a backpacking trip.
Final words on preparing for a solo backpack trip
So, everything is planned and you head out soon. A couple of things to think about before you leave.
Did you bring extra supplies? Like an extra pair of socks, some more food, a wee bit more toilet paper.
And most importantly, stick to the itinerary. Choose well-marked trails, let your friends and family know where you are off to, and don’t veer from that plan.
What if I get lonely on the trail?
Dealing with loneliness and being alone on the trail can be difficult. While I am not a psychologist, I find that some people have a hard time just being alone. But there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
Psychology Today defines “loneliness as the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.” If you are lonely, going out on a 5-day solo backpacking adventure may not be the best thing for you.
However, feeling alone on the trail is a different situation. Coping with feeling alone on the trail may be as simple as keeping a journal, playing an instrument (harmonica comes to mind), playing games.
For example, play mind games. I do this when hiking naturally. Like trying to remember how to do math problems, how does condensation work? Or even going existential for a moment and thinking about where we came from.
It can also mean just trying to think of nothing and accepting being alone. I find that alone time helps get rid of the ‘jumbles’. That is what I call all the clutter in my brain. Being alone helps to sort things out and get a clearer mind.
How to reduce fear and anxiety when solo backpacking
Whenever I start to think of a new situation, I get a little anxious. Something as simple as hiking a new hike in the White Mountains of NH. I start to play mind games and think of not being able to make it or what might go wrong.
I have found that the only way I can alleviate I fear to be in the moment. Meaning, start that hike and get moving. The fears dissipate as you move down the trail.
I think this is why most people don’t start things. Like writing a blog, learning how to play an instrument, or driving a motorcycle. I believe people conjure up the worst instead of preparing for the worst.
Think of the worst-case scenario and work back from there. It will be alright!
What do the numbers say about safety?
When it comes to danger and real injuries from backpacking, the numbers aren’t as bad as you might think. However, people do get into trouble at times. The risk is low.
Let’s look at an exerpt from the National Park Service.
Since Yellowstone was established in 1872, eight people have been killed by bears in the park. More people in the park have died from drowning (121 incidents), burns (after falling into hot springs, 21 incidents), and suicide (26 incidents) than have been killed by bears. To put it in perspective, the probability of being killed by a bear in the park (8 incidents) is only slightly higher than the probability of being killed by a falling tree (7 incidents), in an avalanche (6 incidents), or being struck and killed by lightning (5 incidents).National Park Service
What is the best season to go solo backpacking?
The obvious answer is summer, right? Well not so fast. I find many reasons why summer is not the obvious seasonal choice.
I will be blunt, the reasons I don’t find it ideal to do a solo backpacking trip are the following:
It is too crowded. People are on vacation, the trails are crawling with weekend warriors. So, I don’t find that peaceful.
Also, bugs. I hate bugs, I would rather hike in the cold than take a hike with bugs. I guess that might be taking it too far. But I think you get my drift.
So, what season do I like to do a solo trip? It really is two seasons: September. In New England, the bugs are 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, ranging from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the valleys and cooler in the mountains. But these temperatures are great sleeping temps. With the right sleeping bag and tent, the night is cool and comfortable.
What about the other seasons?
Winter in New England is dangerous. With that said, it is ok to go solo for short winter trips. However, longer trips tend to have much more involved in planning than I would like.
Springtime is beautiful in New England…eventually. At times, the runoff from the melting snow makes for treacherous trail conditions. And if you go too late in the spring, the bugs make their way back onto the trails. Oh, I don’t want to forget, the bears are coming out of hibernation. Not usually a bad thing but a greater chance of seeing them out and about.
What is the best destination for a solo backpacking trip?
Top 10 solo backpacking destinations in the U.S.
The United States has a ton of great places for solo hikes. Here are 10 reputable destinations. They are roughly week-long or longer trails.
Have you made up your mind?
If you want to go but don’t know if you have the right equipment then head to our article on the top 11 gear renting options.
Well, if you haven’t decided, in the famous words of the Greek Goddess Nike – Just Do It!