This is me on a backpacking trip when I was about 7 years old. It was around that time that my family moved to a new house in New York which had a large woods behind it.
I would spend hours hiking through the woods, making forts out of branches, and exploring near a pond hidden in the brush.
It was my own private paradise which was only shared by the occasional owl, raccoon, or fox that I saw.
Looking back on that aspect of my childhood, it seems amazing that my parents let me go into the woods alone at the age of 7. True, I did know how to read a map and was beating older kids during Orienteering meets. But the fact that I was Orienteering alone is also incredulous in today’s world where kids are overprotected and coddled.
It is funny how fearless I was of hiking alone as a kid. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t get scared sometimes now.
But, if I let that fear get hold of me, I would never go anywhere.
You Need to Acknowledge the Risks…
There are some very-real risks of hiking alone. As Hiking Dude talks about…
You could get lost.
You could get mauled by a bear.
You could get injured.
You could succumb to natural events like flooding or falling rocks…
I know a lot of people promote “positive thinking” strategies and tell you to never even think that something bad can occur. But positive thinking will NOT prevent a tree from falling on your head!
As I talk about in this post about Overcoming Fear of the Outdoors, sometimes fears are completely justified. If you aren’t comfortable doing things like reading a map or know what to do if you see a snake, then maybe you shouldn’t be hiking alone yet.
A good strategy for overcoming fear is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” This way you can assess the risks and come up with a plan for dealing with them (more on practical safety tips for solo hiking later).
Once you are aware of the risks, you can determine whether the risk is worth the reward.
In Most Cases, the Reward Is Very Worth Any Risk.
For me, it is very worth the risk of hiking alone. I get to…
Enjoy nature in uninhibited silence.
Go hiking more often because you I’m not dependent on someone else’s schedule.
Set my own pace and take breaks whenever I want.
Change paths if I want.
And hiking alone has taught me to enjoy my own company and the benefits of solitude.
For most people, this is the biggest benefit of hiking alone. There is nothing like solitude while surrounded by nature to confront your demons and examine your life. Not everyone likes this or needs this. But, if you do, you’ll find hiking alone can do wonders for your sense of self.
You’ll Rarely Be Alone when Hiking Anyway…
I recently spent a month in the jungle of Peru. It was the first time I realized that there are still large swaths of land which are uninhabited by humans.
Aside from the jungle though, you’ll probably be hard pressed to find somewhere to hike completely alone.
On the Pacific Crest Trail, for example, Overland Undersea says that you can’t go more than a day without encountering other thru-hikers. Though Mac at Halfway Anywhere said he went 3 days without seeing anyone…
This is actually what apparently scares people (especially women) most about the idea of solo hiking: The idea that anyone they meet is a psycho serial killer.
The strangers you meet on hiking alone trail are not serial killers. They are other hikers and travelers who may also want some (temporary) company. My dad, who does a lot of solo thru-hiking, often will pair up with another solo hiker he meets on the trail for part of the journey. Eventually they go their separate ways (not sure how trail etiquette for this works – how you tell someone your done hiking with them and want to go solo again…).
One of my best moments while traveling in Georgia (the country, not state) was when I went solo hiking around some village where there were supposed to be some cool old churches. It was going to be a long walk up the remote road just to get to the trail head. So, when a car passed by, I stuck my thumb out.
The guy (who was home visiting his elderly parents and I inferred bored out of his mind in the village!) not only drove me to the trail head. He took me to hidden ruined church that I didn’t know about.
I didn’t get raped, killed, or robbed.
I instead met a very kind, interesting guy who shared his culture and village with me.
I actually hated traveling in Georgia. If it hadn’t been for these few moments where random strangers showed me hospitality, I wouldn’t have had hardly any good memories from the country.
But You’ll Still Get Scared Sometimes…
By now, I usually don’t feel scared when I set off solo hiking. The excitement of the trip and my confidence in my abilities overcomes any innate fear I may have.
But there are those moments on the trail where I must face my fears.
For me, those fears usually come in the form of dark holes like caves, remote rock churches, and tunnels.
One of the most thrilling hikes I had was in Western Ukraine. Most people don’t know that Ukraine has dozens of old churches which were cut into rock. They are in remote areas (that I had to hitchhike to because no bus goes there).
There was one old church which I stumbled upon by accident while hiking around a remote monastery.
When you come to a ladder ascending a rock face, you have to climb it!
Did I hesitate?
Did I climb ridiculously slowly?
Did I finally enter the small church at the top of the ladder?
Admittedly, the cave church wasn’t anything spectacular. But it was all the more majestic and powerful because I had to face a fear to get to it. If I hadn’t hiked there alone, I don’t think I would have appreciated that moment as much.
Some Basic Safety Tips for Solo Hiking
As I said before, sometimes your fears of solo hiking might be completely justified. Here are the main things you need to be aware that could go wrong, what you need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen, and how to prepare just in case the worst does occur.
- Bring a map and a compass and know how to read it.
- Bring a portable navigation system and make sure the batteries are charged.
- Bring a whistle.
- Bring a firestarter in case you need to spend the night and/or signal for help.
- Tell someone where you are going and when you will be back.
- Know how to make an emergency shelter in case you need to spend the night.
- Stick to the trail.
- Always bring enough water for the hike. Bring a water filter in case you run out.
- Always bring some trail snacks with you (like GORP). You’ll need energy for the hike!
- Make sure you’ve told someone where you are going. That person should have instructions to call search and rescue if you aren’t back by a certain time.
- Learn first aid! Carry a first aid kit with you.
- Know how to avoid common hiking risks like falling rocks and heat exhaustion.
Animal and Human Attacks:
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Learn what to do if you see a bear or see a snake.
- Carry bear spray with you.
- Some people like to carry a firearm with them.
- Check the weather report before you go.
- Always bring a poncho or rain jacket with you hiking. It can start raining quickly and being cold and wet is a terrible combination!
Do you go hiking alone? What’s the biggest benefit for you?