Hiking buddies are great and all, but solo trekking might be even better.
Hiking alone offers the chance to unplug and savor a bit of solitude. It allows you to set your own pace. It can even lead to memorable encounters with reclusive wildlife.
Hitting the trail alone also provides an opportunity to test your mettle and build confidence.
Of course, heading out into the wilderness alone also inevitably involves greater inherent risk. But with the proper planning and preparation, a solo hike can be a truly life-affirming experience—and may even inspire more solo adventures. Here are some things to know.
First off, “Start small, and just enjoy!” says OrthoCarolina physical therapist Rebecca Ayers, an avid hiker and backpacker. “Your first solo hike doesn’t have to be all day. Just start small and build confidence.”
Choosing Your Destination
While it may be tempting to explore a new trail or choose a hike with a big aesthetic payoff, consider your first solo hike a practice run.
When just starting out, hone your hiking skills on a trail you’re familiar with, and make sure there’s not too much technical terrain. Plan to avoid routes with risky attributes—like precarious rock scrambles, river crossings, or exposed ridgeline traverses.
Also, be mindful of your physical abilities, and stick with a hike within your comfort zone.
Another thing to keep in mind when choosing a destination is foot traffic. For first-time solo hikers, you probably don’t want to pick something so remote it could appear in an episode of Man vs. Wild.
The key is to choose a trail where other hikers are bound to be exploring as well. This way, in case there’s an emergency, you won’t be on your own.
Later on, once you’ve built up your solo skills and confidence, you can gradually seek out more off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Assessing and Managing Risk
First of all, do your homework. Meticulously map your intended route and pay close attention to the terrain to identify any potential challenges you may encounter along your hike.
Some things to be on the lookout for include: stream crossings that get dicey after a storm, exposed ridgelines notorious for fickle weather, or stretches of trail prone to washing out in the rain.
Once you’ve covered the initial basics, dig in and research your chosen destination to identify any other potential risks. Consider factors like wildlife you might encounter along the trail, seasonal temperature extremes, or stretches of trail that are notoriously difficult to navigate.
Finally, make a plan for minimizing the risks associated with these challenges. This could mean bringing bear spray on a trail known for bear activity, stocking your first aid kit with a few destination-specific items, or packing extra outerwear in case of rapidly fluctuating weather.
Let’s talk tech. While smartphones are not always reliable on the trail, these days there are a number of backcountry communication devices that offer an added safety-net for solo hikers.
In a bind, gadgets like the Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Communicator, the Spot X Satellite Messenger, or the Somwear Global Hotspot can provide the details of your location. They can also allow you to keep in touch with friends and family or contact emergency services while in the backcountry.
Before You Head Out
Another great thing about solo hiking? So much of the safety legwork can be done before your legs even hit the trail. Here are some simple prep ideas.
- Let a friend or family member know the specifics of your intended hike, including the time period you expect to be out on the trail. Also, make a plan to check-in when you get home, too.
- Pay attention to the weather at your chosen destination the day you head out, and have a contingency plan for potentially hazardous conditions.
- Don’t forget to check all necessary websites for any last-minute trail closures or other advisories, and adjust your plans if needed.
- Don’t forget about the physical component of your trek. “It’s great to warm up before hitting the trail with ankle circles, heel raises, and gentle dynamic warm-up stretches,” Ayers says.
What to Pack for a Solo Hike
Whether you despise packing or look forward to it with the organizational zeal of Marie Condo, it’s an essential part of the solo hiking experience. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Make a list of gear specifically tailored to your destination.
- For example, if there’s rain, be sure to dress in layers with a waterproof shell.
- If the terrain is highly technical (with rocks and roots), consider boots with over-the-ankle support.
- Before loading your backpack, lay out all your gear and be sure you have included everything on your list—even if that means going item by item as you pack.
- “It’s better to be over-prepared than caught off-guard,” Ayers says.
- Even if you are just heading out for the day, it’s best to bring essentials like navigational tools, a fully stocked first aid kit, multi-tool, headlamp, and emergency bivvy or space blanket, along with plenty of water, trail snacks, and extra clothing layers.
- For solo hikers, innovative navigation apps like Gaia GPS, Hiking Project, PeakVisor, and ViewRanger can be invaluable sources of information both before you head out for your hike, and once you are actually on the trail.
- Keep in mind though: technology isn’t always failsafe, and sometimes things go wrong. It’s always best to bring along a traditional map and compass just in case of technological glitches.
On the Trail
Once you’re out there on a solo hike, the famous phrase “hike your own hike” takes on new pronounced meaning. To ensure it’s a good one, consider doing the following.
- Trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right—if you’re unsure of your skills or feel like you’ve reached your physical limit—don’t be afraid to alter your route, or bail out altogether.
- Without a hiking buddy, it’s much easier to get spooked on the trail. Sometimes, this can lead to hasty decisions.
- Don’t forget about the mental component of heading out alone. And consider practicing a calming technique, whether it’s a meditative breathing exercise, an encouraging mantra to repeat as you hike, or something as simple as singing an upbeat song to yourself.
- “Don’t over-schedule yourself,” adds Ayers. “Give yourself time to enjoy and birdwatch, to stop and smell the flowers. You don’t want to rush.”
Finally, don’t forget this age-old advice: practice leads to improvement. Consider your first solo trip a learning experience.
“Each time you hike, you’ll find out what you need and what you can do without,” Ayers says. “The important thing is to take time to slow down and be present in the moment. Remember: being in nature is a stress reliever.”
Find a trail near you on the Carolina Thread Trail Map. Choose your desired distance & difficulty, view trail features and have fun planning your next hiking adventure.
Rebecca Ayers, PT, DPT, OCS, is a physical therapist at OrthoCarolina South Park Physical & Hand Therapy. In her free time, Rebecca enjoys running, hiking and camping with her husband, daughter and their dog.