Last Sunday I had a little bit of free time in the morning before meeting friends for lunch so I decided to head to the North Shore to do a quick hike. My husband was busy and it was short notice so no one could go with me. I decided that instead of missing out on some time in the forest, I would just go hiking solo. It’s not something I do very often, and to be honest, it’s not something I feel that comfortable doing.
My quick hike was lovely and afterwards I posted a photo from the day on my Instagram account along with a quick caption that included some thoughts on why solo hiking is difficult for me:
“I’m experienced. I’m prepared. So why can’t I be confident alone in the forest? Is it because of the added risk? Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I don’t like being alone with my thoughts? I’m not sure what the issue is but it’s something I want to explore as I go solo more often…”
I’m a pretty chatty person and often I go hiking with friends as a social activity. But my friends aren’t only my entertainment; they are my security blanket. A friend on the trail provides security in case something goes wrong. They provide encouragement when the trail gets steep or spirits get low. And they provide backup when you want to go exploring and do something just a little bit more risky.
But if you are prepared, and if you are confident, you shouldn’t need that security blanket, right? It can be hard to let go. We are worried about getting hurt, getting lost, getting eaten by bears or attacked by people. We are worried because there will be no one to talk to and it will be sad, or lonely or even just boring. And we are worried about not having a good time because we will be busy being worried about all the things I just mentioned!
Sometimes schedules don’t align and we don’t have a buddy to hike with. And hiking solo brings its own joys: Without the chatter of friends you can listen to the sounds of the forest. You can hike at your own pace and stop whenever you like. You can set your own schedule and pick your own trails.
When I tell people that I sometimes hike alone they are often concerned. (Hi Mom!) I’ve been hiking nearly all of my life and have been on some fairly remote adventures. I have a Wilderness First Aid certification. And truthfully, even though as I said, I’m experienced and I’m prepared, sometimes I’m still a bit concerned when I hike alone. But as I said on Instagram, it’s something I want to work on as I try to hike solo more often. It got me thinking about how to ensure I have a great and SAFE experience when I hike alone. So here are my tips for solo hiking:
First of all, you have to be brave and believe you are going to have a great time. You can do it and you will be fine! (No matter what Mom says!) I struggle with this part, so it’s okay if you do too.
When I hike solo I often do more preparation that I would if I was hiking with a group. I try to pick a day with nice weather and then check the weather forecast obsessively so I can pack accordingly. I make sure I pack the 10 Essentials along with warmer clothing than I think I’ll need and way more food and water than I think I’ll need. I also always bring bear spray because it is good defense against bears (duh!) and other big animals like humans, cougars, wolves and badly behaved dogs. Plus it makes me feel more bad ass, as a solo female hiker, that’s always a good thing. (Read more about bear awareness in this post about bear safety.)
Leave a Trip Plan
You should always leave a trip plan when you go on any trip in the wilderness, whether you are solo or not, but when you are alone it is even more important. I leave a written trip plan with my husband or my parents (usually by email) with details of what trail I’ll be on and when I’ll be back. Sometimes I even leave them with a map of my planned route. Once I’m on the trail I try not to deviate from my itinerary, and if I do change my plans I try to text the new info to my contact person.
Stick with the Familiar
For me sticking with the familiar doesn’t just mean sticking with what is familiar to me, it means sticking with what is familiar to the hikers in your area. So when I’m planning a solo hike I choose a trail I have done before or one that is popular in my area where I know I will see a fair amount of other people. I also choose to hike alone at more popular times such as weekends and summer evenings. That way I am aware of any potential hazards in advance and can be confident that I’ll encounter help if I need it.
Stop and Think
I’m much more cautious when I hike alone and spend more time stopping to think before I act. I ask myself: Where could I slip and fall here? Where does that trail go? Should I check the map again? What is that movement in the trees over there? What time is it? How long has it taken me to cover this distance? I constantly assess myself and the conditions before I make a decision. Stopping often to check in like this can be a bit annoying, but I’ve found that it helps me remain confident and safe. By stopping to think I know that I’m going the right way, that I have enough time left to complete my hike, that an easier way to descend this hill is over to the right, and that I saw branches moving in the wind out of the corner of my eye and not a giant bear or a serial rapist. I assess each area of risk and think of ways to mitigate it. I know my limits.
Don’t forget to have fun! You can take amuse yourself taking silly trail selfies or sing your favourite song. (That also works as a bear deterrent, or if you have my singing voice, a people deterrent). But don’t forget to also listen to the sounds of the forest. Stop and enjoy the views and sit in stillness. Set your own schedule and stop for photos or snacks whenever you want. It’s your hike. Do whatever you think makes it fun.
Have you hiked solo? What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Do you have any tips for making your solo hike a success? I’d love to hear them in the comments.