Solo backpacking can be the ultimate meditation experience. You can travel at your own pace, view beautiful scenery in solitude, and really get the chance to tune into your environment with minimal distractions. But, for some, venturing out to the backcountry alone conjures up visions of long, wide-eyed nights in the sleeping bag, wondering what is making that noise outside the tent?
Whether you’re committed to conquering solo backpacking by choice or forced to go alone because your trail partners can’t get time away from work, this article offers some tips to help you make the transition from backpacking with others to backpacking alone with confidence and ease. If you’re already backpacking solo, review these tips for additional ideas for safety and comfort.
Master Backpacking with Others First
If you’re just starting out with backpacking, spend a whole season, or longer, backpacking with others before trying a solo trip. Get your kit dialed and become familiar with how everything works. Get comfortable with camping in the backcountry and develop basic navigation skills with other people around before trying a trip alone.
Tap into your backpacking friends and family to mentor you through the beginning stages. If that’s not possible, look to outdoor clubs, groups, and guided trips to introduce you to backpacking. After you’re comfortable with group backpacking, you’ll be more prepared, both physically and mentally, to try solo.
Plan and Prepare at Home
With all of its benefits, backpacking solo has become wildly popular. In fact, more than 60 percent of hikers surveyed last year started their thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail alone. That’s thousands of people that hit the trail solo last year, and if they can do it, so can you.
The first steps to joining the solo ranks start at home. Use these tips to thoroughly research and plan your first solo backpack trip from the comfort of your couch. Knowing all you can about the area prepares you for your trip and eases any anxiety you might have about heading into the wild alone.
Select a Familiar Area
Choosing an area that you know well will boost your confidence when you’re hiking and camping alone. Start with an area that you’ve hiked many times before. If you’ve only hiked it with company, try a solo day trip before backpacking there by yourself. On your solo day hike, take note of all the major points of interest, such as creek crossings, trail junctions, potential campsites, and major landmarks like peaks and lakes. Track your hike using Gaia GPS and drop waypoints along the way for those notable points of interest. You can pull them up later when you head out on your solo backpack trip.
Choose a Well-Traveled Trail
If you’re feeling timid about being out in the backcountry alone, pick a high-use trail for your first time out. Seeing other hikers on the trail, hanging out at a lake, or camping nearby gives the sense that, although you are by yourself, you are not truly alone. If something goes wrong and you need assistance, you can bet another hiker will arrive shortly to give you a hand.
Another benefit of a busy trail is that you can and should wait for other hikers to come along before tackling any serious backcountry hazard. Crossing a swollen creek and traversing a steep snowfield are safer when you are with a buddy — even if they’re someone you just met a few minutes ago on the trail.
Starting out with a low-mileage trip will help you decide if you like solo travel without making a huge commitment. Plus, a manageable itinerary will set you up for success by increasing your chances of cooking dinner, setting up camp, and getting comfortable with the surroundings before the sun goes down.
Plan a route with daily mileage and elevation gains that are well within your reach and close enough to the trailhead that you could bail out in just a few hours if you decide to pull the plug on the adventure. And make sure you test out a series of one-night jaunts before taking on a multi-day hike. Ease into solo backpacking until you can be sure that you enjoy being alone outside.
Research the Terrain Online
Once you’ve selected an area that you’re comfortable with, go to gaiagps.com and pore over your favorite topo maps. Check out the surrounding landscape using satellite imagery. Get a good sense of the lay of the land, noting major landmarks, your planned campsite, trail junctions, and any side routes that you could use to bail out in case of an emergency. Create a waypoint for these important features and add notes to revisit later. Check for public tracks and, if you find one that matches your exact route, add it to your account. Finally, create a route of your planned hike and share that route with your friends and family so that people back home know your exact plan.
Next, look on blogs, Reddit groups, YouTube, and Vimeo for trip reports. Trip reports often contain images or videos that can give you a clue as to trail conditions, camping locations, and hazards like creek crossings or snowfields. Check in with relevant social media groups for current conditions. It’s amazing what you can find with a hashtag. Visit land agency websites for updates on conditions and permit requirements, call if you have questions.
Camp in a Designated Backcountry Campsite
If you want to be around other campers on your first night out alone, plan a trip to a national park that has designated backcountry campsites. Many parks — Glacier, Zion, and Mount Rainier, just to name a few — require backpackers to camp in designated sites and often these sites are clustered. These designated campgrounds are a good way to test out your solo camping game, but with the security of having other people within earshot.
Scope Out the Animals
Curb your fears about bears, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes by scoping out what animals live in the area you’ll be visiting. Search national park and forest service websites and call the ranger station for information about what animals you’d expect to see. For animals that concern you, find out what they look like, their tracks, the animal population numbers, their specific habitat, and any reports of human encounters. Also, find out what noises animals make in the area you are visiting. Owls, grouse, and elk in rut make significant noise in the backcountry and you’ll save a lot of worry inside the tent if you are familiar with their sounds.
Answering these questions will help you assess the risk of experiencing an animal encounter when you’re out on the trail alone. For example, you might learn that you will be traveling through bear habitat, but that the bear population is diminutive, mostly confined to the area’s lower elevation valleys, and there exists no prior history of human interaction. Knowledge can help you make decisions about where to camp in bear country and control your worry and vivid imagination.
Pick the Perfect Time
The perfect time for solo backpacking is when the conditions are the most comfortable. Don’t plan to go in the rainy season, during peak bug levels, or in the late fall when there are minimal hours of daylight and cold temperatures. All of these situations will have you cooped up in your tent for long hours.
Instead, research the area and call the ranger station to find out if the bugs are on the decline. Look up weather patterns and pick the month with the least amount of average rainfall. Go when the days are long and bright if conditions permit.
Share Your Itinerary
Tell someone at home exactly where you plan to go. Give them all the details. Write down or send an email letting them know which trailhead you will start and finish from, where you plan to camp, and when you will notify them upon return to town, and when they should start to worry. Give them an exact date and time when they should call for help if you fail to contact them. Share your Gaia GPS recorded track with them. Have a plan and stick to it.
Learn the Skills to Stay Safe
Get First Aid Training
Take a wilderness first aid class before venturing out on your first solo backpack trip. Studies show that the top three backcountry injuries include soft tissue injuries, lacerations, and sprains while the top three illnesses include chest pain, dizziness, and diarrhea. Take a wilderness first aid class to prepare you to deal with a variety of medical emergencies should one arise. Knowing some first aid is beneficial to you and anyone you might come across in the wild who is sick or injured.
Take a Backcountry Navigation Course
Solo hikers are more likely to get lost than hikers who are part of a group, according to one study conducted in Yosemite. Knowing how to read a map, use a compass, and understand electronic navigation will help you stay found in the backcountry. As a solo hiker, you’ll be making all the decisions on where to go and having the skills to navigate around the backcountry will boost your confidence outside even if you stick to a well-defined path.
Gear Considerations for Solo Backpacking
Backpacking solo requires the same gear as backpacking with friends. But without friends, there’s no chance of splitting up gear and your pack will be heavier when going solo. Those items you’re used to sharing, like a water filter, tent, first aid kit, and stove, you’ll be carrying on your own.
Solo backpacking is a great opportunity to scrutinize your gear list and shave any unnecessary weight. Focus on dropping pounds with a lighter tent, sleep system, and backpack, and then move through the rest of your gear to determine if any ounces can be left behind. Ditch luxury items like a camp chair, heavy food items, and extra camera gear to keep your pack at a reasonable weight when soloing.
Get a Satellite Communicator
Invest in a good satellite communicator device. This device will allow you to send text messages outside of cell range. You can text your family at night to let them know your status. You can also press the SOS button and send a message for help if the need arises. The goal is to never have to use such a device, but having the capability to send for help in case of an accident is well worth the cost in both money and extra weight in your pack.
Hike with Confidence
Many solo hikers are more concerned about encounters with people than run-ins with wild animals. Think through a plan on how you will act if you run into sketchy people in the backcountry. When approaching people you are concerned about, try sprinkling a little confidence in your step. Walk by them briskly, leaving no time for conversation.
If you get caught up in questions, be vague with your answers. Don’t tell strangers exactly where you plan to camp, how long you’ll be out on your trip, or that you are traveling alone. Have a fake story ready if someone who gives you the creeps starts asking too many questions. Be ready to tell them about your imaginary friends who are just a half-mile behind you, the made-up ranger who checked your permit 10 minutes ago, and make up a campsite location that is no less than 10 miles in the opposite direction from your planned stop.
Finally, don’t broadcast on social media where you will be spending your time alone in the backcountry.
Camp with Purpose
Consider what makes you more comfortable: camping within earshot of other backpackers or finding an out-of-the-way spot where no one would stumble upon your campsite in the dark. If you like to be near people, choose popular destinations like lakes and river crossings for camps. However, listen to your gut instinct. If you feel uncomfortable camping around people, or you get to the high-traffic camping area and the people don’t seem like a crowd you can trust, load up on water and dry camp down the trail. Choose an isolated, elevated spot so that you can peer down on any person approaching your campsite.
Get into camp well before dark so you have time to set up and watch the sun go down. Getting used to your surroundings in the fading light takes the mystery out of the darkness. Make a plan where you will go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Finally, keep a clean camp so you don’t attract animals.
Conquer Solo Backpacking with a Friend
Finding a friend to practice solo backpacking seems counterintuitive, but it works. Plan your hikes together at home but stay separate on the trail by starting two hours apart. Camp on different ends of the lake and agree to refrain from contacting each other unless an emergency arises. Plan to meet at the car at a certain time at the end of your hike for a quick debriefing on how the trip went.
Another way to hike solo with a friend nearby is to thru-hike an area. You start at one end of the hike, and your friend starts at the other end. Your paths cross somewhere in the middle of the hike, where you exchange car keys. You’ll be miles away from your friend for most of the trip, but knowing that you will meet a familiar face along the way provides encouragement and incentive to keep going forward.