Solo backpacking and hiking is a great way to experience the outdoors at your own pace. Depending on your past experience outdoors, backpacking and hiking alone can seem daunting, scary and downright dangerous. As a woman, I am often told that people “don’t backpack outdoors for a reason” and “it’s too dangerous for women”, but this could not be further from the truth. Thousands of people backpack alone every year, whether it be short day hikes on the weekends or major thru hikes on trails like the Pacific Crest Trail. Backpacking and hiking alone can often be stigmatized due to the media reporting on missing people or tragic accidents, but that is only a small fraction of the individuals who experience the outdoors solo each year.
I cannot stress the importance of safety during solo trips like this, especially if you are planning for your first trip. It can be a truly transformative experience for some, and is much different than planning trips with groups. It can give you clarity on things you are facing in your life and feel at peace in nature. Everyone can go on a solo trip, and it is important to prepare yourself as much as possible beforehand for you to feel comfortable and safe to have an awesome experience outdoors.
Pros and Cons of Backpacking and Hiking Alone
My first experience hiking alone was several years ago in college. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had an easy schedule to be able to meet other people who had similar interests or a great time-off schedule to plan things ahead of time. Since then, I have taken dozens of hikes alone, and have been solo backpacking. My first solo backpacking trip was a great experience and I felt like I learned a lot about myself, what I value in hiking partners, and why I love the outdoors.
PRO: Hike At Your Own Pace
You don’t have to worry about trying to keep up with the rest of the group if you tend to hike a bit slower, and vice versa if you are a fast walker! It’s nice being able to stop for breaks, lunch or photos whenever and wherever you want to.
To me, this is definitely the biggest con of backpacking and hiking alone- you don’t have anyone to enjoy it with! To some, this might be a very small issue- after all, you are likely hiking and backpacking alone for a reason, whether it be time to think or time to yourself. I personally really enjoy experiencing the outdoors with others, so loneliness was definitely the worst part.
PRO: Increased Engagement With Nature
When backpacking and hiking alone, I feel like there is a level of feeling at one with nature. If your hiking with others, you might be having conversation or games and you aren’t as focused on the sights, sounds, or things around you. Going solo definitely gives you increased sensations in nature.
CON: Problem Solving Alone
Problem solving can be hard when you re alone and have only yourself to rely on. To some people, this might actually be a huge pro because you only have to worry about yourself. However, it may be difficult for others! For example, crossing a river or blowdown, or encountering some adverse weather and making safe choices might be hard if you have never done it alone before.
PRO: Choosing Your Own Adventure
This goes sort of hand-in-hand with going at your own pace, but a large part of hiking alone is really adapting your experience exactly to your choosing. You can stop when you want to, camp exactly where you want to, and you don’t have to worry about the needs or wants of other people.
CON: Carrying ALL of Your Own Gear
Backpacking and hiking with others can often mean sharing pieces of gear, like tents or water filtration. When going solo, this will add weight to your pack. You can check out my checklist for backpacking gear here
Choosing The Right Trip
One of the most important things when planning a solo trip, is choosing the right trail for your skill level and comfortability. This will look different to many! Your trip may be only a few miles long, or maybe it’s on a trail you have already done before. The might also think about planning a trip that is in a popular area or on a well-hikes trail. If you are uncertain or nervous about being alone, a well-trafficked trail will help. Make sure you are familiar with the wilderness regulations of the area you are visiting and always practice Leave No Trace.
I recommend planning this in advance rather then going to get a walk-up permit somewhere. This will give you enough time to go over your itinerary, anticipate changing conditions, and pack accordingly.
How To Be Safe When Backpacking and Hiking Alone
1. Communicate Your Itinerary (And Stick To It)
One of the most common ways to get yourself in a sticky situations in the outdoors is not telling people your itinerary. Leave your schedule with several people and tell them your anticipated return date. If they do not hear from you, make sure they know the proper authorities to get a hold of, this may be a wilderness ranger station with quick access to parking lot trailheads.
2. Pack The Safety Essentials
↟ One of the best devices you can have for solo backpacking is a GPS communication device like a SPOT or Garmin InReach. Certain devices you can send out messages when you have GPS signal, so you can communicate when you arrive to your location without worrying about cellphone service. These will almost always have an easy-to-access EMERGENCY or SOS button if you are in danger and need help. Make sure that this is accessible, it won’t do you any good to put it in a place where you can’t access it quickly.
↟ Make sure you always pack a first aid kit for your safety. I recommend checking out these premade packs from Adventure Medical Kits. They come in a few different sizes, from 1 person to a large group.
↟ When devices fail, make sure you have an alternate plan. Carry paper maps and a compass, and make sure you know how to use them (if you need practice with maps and navigating, look into orienteering courses). Other devices that you should think about packing are waterproof matches and a whistle.
↟ Be prepared for wildlife! If you are venturing into bear country, know the differences between bears and what to do if you spot them. You do not need Bear Spray if in Black Bear country (unless it makes you more comfortable), because they are easily scared and likely just curious about your food. When in Grizzly country, make sure you carry Bear Spray, like the Counter Assault Bear Deterrent, for your protection. Your Bear Spray needs to be accessible when carrying, so something like this Backpack Holster from Counter Assault will help. If Spray isn’t enough for you to feel alright, check out Bear Bells to tie to your backpack or trekking poles, or a Bear Horn (basically an air horn).
It is also important to know what to do if you encounter other various creatures on trail, whether it be territorial animals like Mountain Goats, or the very-extremely-rare-and-trust-me-it’s-extremely-unlikely-you’ll-see-one-but-learn-nonetheless Cougar or Mountain Lion.
3. Know Your Limits
It is important to stick to your wits, know your body, and be cautious. Don’t get yourself into bad situations because you made a poor judgement call. If the weather is turning for the worse, you feel unsettled by something, or you forgot a major piece of equipment, turn around if you are able! The trail will always be there, and if you cannot complete the trip for whatever reason, you can always come back another time.
4. Encountering People on Trail
Undoubtedly, the most common safety-related question I get about solo backpacking and hiking is about encountering people on trail. Specifically, what to do if you encounter somebody who is sketchy.
I feel like this varies from person-to-person, but here are my thoughts: don’t let the “what-ifs” get too much in the way of what you want to pursue. There are sharks in the ocean, but people still go surfing. There are bears in the wilderness, but people still go hiking. There are sketchy people in this world we live in, but the majority of people you pass or encounter on trail are going to be down-to-earth individuals who are stoked on the outdoors, not the people on the National Park Murder Podcast you listen to (and also you might want to stop listening to that?).
If you do happen to encounter somebody on trail or near your site who makes you extremely uncomfortable, here are some of your options:
1- Find someone to communicate with, whether it be another solo person on trail or group you can hang around. You need to access the potential threat and the best way to do that is to be around others.
2- Send a message to someone back home with your GPS Communication device, and communicate with law enforcement if necessary.
3- Leave. I would personally just leave, whether it be the area or the trail entirely. There is no point forcing yourself to stay somewhere you truly feel in danger and trusting your intuition is KEY for these situations.
The reality of this safety topic is: you are not more in danger in the woods. Statistically speaking, the majority of bad things that happen when you are out on trail or are in public lands are accidents- not crimes. If you are anxious about the possibility of a sexual assault, the likelihood of this is, again, extremely low. Most sexual assault cases are committed by people that the victim knows and not a random person you encounter out on a well-trafficked trail.
If you are hung up on this point regarding safety, you may need more time in the outdoors with others before embarking on a solo backpacking or hiking trip, or maybe backpacking and hiking alone is not for you-and that is totally fine! You may be able to find classes on self-defense (even this specific topic of people in the woods) somewhere in your area, so you feel more comfortable!
5. Getting Over Fear
Going on a backpacking or hiking trip alone can be scary, I completely get it. It took me several years of hiking solo before venturing into the backcountry alone-largely because I was scared. Fear takes time to get over, and often I have found that the more comfortable or used to something I can be- the more minimal my fear. For some, plunging into new experiences or change and directly facing fear is easy, and for others it is not. It is important to recognize where your fear stems from. What exactly gives you the most anxiety? What is keeping you from this experience?
Here are some quotes that helped me understand where my fear was coming from:
“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. Do not misunderstand me danger is very real, but fear is a choice.” -Will Smith
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.” -George Addair
“We should all start to live before we get too old. Fear is stupid. So are regrets.” -Marilyn Monroe
For me, I had a huge fear of being alone. I was not necessarily scared of other people or being alone, but I was scared of animals. I worried I would come around a corner and be face-to-face with a Momma Bear and have her decide I am small enough for her to take. Reminding myself of the likelihood of this helped, and of what to do in an encounter. Irrational thoughts can be a huge part of fear, and sometimes the only way to get over them is to tell yourself just how irrational they are. Always exercise caution and preparedness, but remember the reasons you are doing it too!
Tips for Finding Outdoorsy Friends
One of the most common phrases I hear from people about backpacking is “I wish I could, but I don’t have anyone to go with”.
If solo-backpacking is not your jam yet and you are just trying to gain more experience in the outdoors, finding a solid group of people you can backpack with is a great way to approach it. It’s hard to meet people with common interests- especially as adults! If you are looking to meet new outdoorsy friends, here are a few ways you can try to meet others:
- Social Media Groups (Outdoorsy Gals, Local Meetups) : If you are on Facebook, find a common interest group! Outdoorsy Gals is a massive group that has helped establish connections all over the globe, and many people post their trip itineraries or ideas to connect with other people. Try searching for groups local to you to find people and groups in your area, and post your ideas to find others!
- Bumble BFF: I have heard of several people using Bumble BFF to find others to go on backpacking trips with. If you have never used it, it is very similar to dating apps but just to find friends instead!
- Find Local Events/Classes: Whether they are at a college, an art studio, or community center- this can be a great way to link up with people and find others with common interests.
- Don’t Be Afraid To Reach Out! The worst part about putting yourself out there and meeting new people is getting over the overwhelmingly scary factor of reaching out. Remind yourself that the worst that someone can say is “no” and you will inevitable find someone or a group to connect with! Follow topics or people with a similar interest and message them if they are located near you!
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Have you been on a solo road trip, hike or backpacking trip? What tips have helped you in the past? Comment below!
I hope you have a great experience in the outdoors, at whatever capacity that means for you, and that your trip is successful, safe and inspiring. As always- Happy Hikin’!