The standard advice we all ignore is: Never hike alone. It seems that since backpacking is a more highly complex kind of hiking, the directive to never go solo should be even more of an imperative.
If this were true, however, there’d be precious few soloists schlepping overnight kits down trail. As Philip at Section Hiker notes, the logistics of taking several people camping for several days makes it borderline impossible to find anybody go backpack with, even if you wanted to. Going it alone is the option that remains because so many our pals prefer not to sleep on the ground.
In a lot of ways, day hiking is far more hazardous than backpacking. You take far fewer supplies, you pay less attention to details like footing because you’re not carrying a load, you take on more distance than you might be able to handle because you’re forced to come back to where you started, vs. just finding someplace to bed down for the night when you tire out.
Backpackers implicitly take survival supplies along and have at least a few days’ worth of calories and some vestige of shelter if they get too terribly lost. That’s a nice margin of safety.
The main limit on solo backpacking is that you really should leave a detailed route plan and itinerary with somebody back home, and then stick to it.
The real measure of soloing should be: how alone will you really be? Two weeks on the John Muir Trail in mid-August will seem like Highway 101 at rush hour compared to a weekend on the same trail in the middle of October. I read about one guy this summer who plotted an early JMT thru-hike and found himself alone in the High Sierra for days on end and decided to call off his hike because he didn’t feel comfortable out there all by himself.
Amy Racina, author of Angels in the Wilderness, fell down a cliff in a very remote section of the Sierra where almost nobody goes; it was a millimeter shy of a miracle that some hikers found her and she survived (note: her backpacking supplies kept her alive for several days till she was rescued).
As long as you won’t be truly alone, there’s not that much risk to solo backpacking, beyond getting sick of having only yourself for company. Which brings us to a nice question for the crowd: what do you do to avoid boredom on camp-outs in the downtime between, say, dinner and your ultimate sack-out time?
When hiking solo, I usually take the ipod and have the camera handy. Going solo allows for you to set your own pace and not have to worry about being to fast or too slow for someone else. You also can stop whenever or whereever you want…say to take 20 pictures of different flowers or get pictures of the sunset from different areas. Bringing a book and kicking back by a small fire is always a good choice too! Just enjoy the alone time and recharge your internal batteries.
A few thoughts on the solo backpacking questions. First, in answer to “solo or in a group?…” Yes! I like both. They are rather different experiences, but both have their attractions and their downsides. I love the company – especially in the evenings – and the camaraderie of group travel, but I also love the freedom and autonomy of solo travel.
I rarely – never, actually, that I can think of – get bored when I travel alone. For me, perhaps, part of the reason is that I’m almost always busy doing photography. I’ve also learned to enjoy sitting quietly in one place and just observing and thinking. The opportunities to do that otherwise are rare and the pleasure can be quite something. In fact, I often don’t even bother carrying a book on pack trips any more.
As you point out, it is actually very unusual to be truly alone in the backcountry, even if you do not travel as part of a group. While I travel on my own at least half the time, I do not avoid other backpackers, and I often end up in conversation with them.
There are some additional dangers involved in traveling alone, but there are some dangers in almost anything we do. The rewards of solo travel are great enough to accept the limited (and often largely controllable) additional risks. But one should be more cautious. There are things that I might try when I travel with others – crossing a tricky stream, finding my way across a difficult cross-country route, etc. – that I’ll forego when I’m on my own.
I agree with Dan and Gearhouse.
I especially like solo backpacking for three reasons:
1. I get to choose what happens when and where. No need to negotiate or compromise.
2. My brain slows down and I spend far less time thinking about work, finances, and any of the other myriad things that are for the most part useless to think about.
3. I get in touch with my true self and can figure out what I really want in life, what makes me truly happy.
From my few years of regular backpacking, here’s a quick list of things to do between dinnertime and bedtime:
-drink a warm beverage (coffee, tea, hot cocoa)
-use the leftover hot water to wash the dishes
-hide the bear canisters
-fish (if you eat early enough)
-start a campfire (below 10,000′, in established fire rings only, unless otherwise prohibited, right?)
-enjoy a small amount of your preferred mind-altering substance
-tend to blisters
-figure out what you’re doing tomorrow
-extinguish a campfire (very important)
I’m 26 and as my backpacking friends and I get further into “real life” the logistics get tougher. The appeal of going solo (and lightweight) is definitely growing.
As far as safety goes, I’m comfortable going on solo trips. But I’m naturally more of an extrovert, and because of that, I much prefer to go with company. It’s a fascinating experience going solo, but it’s not my preference.
I’ll say that on the solo trips I have taken, I find myself being much more alert and cautious. Dan wrote: “There are things that I might try when I travel with others – crossing a tricky stream, finding my way across a difficult cross-country route, etc. – that I’ll forego when I’m on my own.” I find myself doing that without even conscious consideration when I’m on my own.
Interesting that the replies come from men. As a woman, I am a little more hesitant to backpack solo.
As some who regularly walks solo I would admit there are more risks involved. As anyone who checks out my blogs will see, I have, for example had tricky river crossings, an occasion when equipment failed, another time when clothing proved inadequate and I was in danger of hypothermia. There have been many occasions though when travelling solo have had their own rewards. Sharing a beach with seals. Watching otters, being accepted by deer. Being out there in the wild places; and there are wild places here in the UK; solo is something I am personally comfortable with. It is not something I would suggest people ought to do, but for some of us it is our preferred option.
Well, if I had to really think about the stats, I’m probably safer backpacking by myself alone in the Sierras than hanging out in my neighborhood, but I hear baychic. I’ve never backpacked alone overnight, but I feel like it’s something I may end up doing someday– probably with my dog, who would lick anyone to death, but if you don’t know her, that’s not readily apparent. However, I can’t say enough about the experience of hiking/running by myself. I pay more attention to the details of where I am when I am solo– I’m not involved in a conversation which might be profound but is also sometimes a distraction. I can go at my own pace, taking pictures whenever and wherever I want. I love both, really…
I love backpacking alone, and the freedom to go and do what I want at any time. My longest is 4 days by myself and I didn’t see a soul out there. My wife, though, is not comfortable when I’m solo. A great compromise is to go out with my friends and take off for the day, spend the night alone, and then meet back up somewhere. It’s funny how my comfort level differs with the terrain. I feel much more at ease when I can see the stars at night, as opposed to deep down in a wooded canyon.
I’ve only done one “solo” backpack but many “solo” car camps. I put solo in parentheses because I was never truly alone. As the years go by, the more I camp alone the fewer tricks my mind plays on me, but I definitely find solace in knowing somebody is relatively close in an emergency even if I don’t ever utter a word to another person. I’ve come across quite a few people (they usually strike up the conversation with me) impressed that I even car camp alone saying that they could never do that themselves. I’m not sure I’ve got the guts yet to go anywhere where I’m completely isolated, but someday I would like to try.
On boredom: I’m an “only child” and live by myself (unless you count my cat) and an introvert so I’m a pro at being alone and don’t feel any need to “avoid boredom” or strike up a conversation (however I do talk to myself constantly) — camping alone is a concept that my dearly departed Grandmother could not even come close to fathoming “Well don’t you want somebody to talk to around the campfire???” nope, not really, may not even have a fire… may be too tired out from exploring and doing everything I wanted to do on my own terms.
which brings me to PHOTOGRAPHY… I take better pictures and enjoy it more when other people aren’t around distracting me or making me feel pressured to keep moving or take care of their needs.
I’ve done it before when I didn’t have any responsiblities to a wife and kids. But I wouldn’t do solos now no matter how well I think I can plan on a trip. I don’t think anyone can plan for accidents. Besides, I like to share my outdoor experiences with other people and especially now with my two sons.