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Skills

How to Backpack Solo and Love Every Minute of It

Read these tips from expert soloists to gauge your readiness and learn how to enjoy an unfettered adventure.

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According to Andrew Skurka, who’s hiked more than 30,000 solo miles, achieving real comfort on your own can take time. But the rewards are ultimately greater when you’re alone. What rewards? The benefits for Skurka have been a deeper knowledge of himself and a more intimate relationship with nature.

“Knowing my strengths has giving me self-confidence that has translated to all parts of my life,” he says. “And hiking without distractions has actually given me functional knowledge that makes wilderness travel easier—noticing how animals move, for example, allows me to predict where I’ll find useable game trails.” His advice: recognize that there’s less risk hiking solo than driving to the trailhead—and take the plunge.

Are You Ready to Hike Solo?

Hitting the trail alone isn’t dangerous the way BASE jumping or rally car driving are dangerous. But it gives you less margin for error: Minor injuries like badly sprained ankles can escalate from frustrating to potentially life-threatening when you don’t have anyone around to help you.

First of all, make sure your skills are solid, from navigation and making camp to first aid. Second, pick the right route: You don’t want to push your limits alone. For your first overnight, focus on trails well within your comfort level, not epic summit pushes, talus slogs, or slippery snowfield crossings. —Adam Roy

Share Your Itinerary

Make sure someone knows your agenda, and don’t cut corners.

Leave details with a trusted friend. Give your emergency contact a detailed trip schedule, a trail map (marked with your route, planned campsites, bailouts, and side trips), a list of your gear and supplies, and contact information for rangers and rescue personnel. Ask your contact to alert them if you haven’t touched base within a two- to four-hour window of your planned check in time.

Check in with rangers before hitting the trail. Make sure conditions are clear on your planned route, ask about backcountry patrols and other resources (like shelters) that might be useful in an emergency, discuss your plans, and leave a copy of your itinerary and contacts.

Sign trail registers. Leave name, time, travel direction, and a status update.

Stick to your route. If you provide the info above, then abandon your itinerary to take a shortcut or explore off-route, rescuers will search in the wrong place if you get into trouble.

how to read a topo map
Learning how to read a topo map will keep you safer and give you more options to navigate in the backcountry. (Photo: JeffBanke / iStock via Getty)

Plan Thoroughly

Prevent surprises with pretrip research.

Scout your route. Former Rocky Mountain editor Steve Howe, who has done more than 20 expedition-length solos, suggests preempting problems by planning meticulously. He scouts routes online (Gaia GPS is a good place to start, and available with your O+ subscription), and looks at satellite images, maps, guidebooks, and trail reports. He adds, “Scribble bailout options on your map and take those guidebook pages with you.”

Avoid hazards. Skip trails with difficult river crossings, loose boulders, surging tidal zones, extreme weather, or advanced navigation.

Check hunting seasons. Lone hikers are more likely to be mistaken for game.

Pack communication. Either hike in an area with cell reception, or buy/rent a locator beacon, satellite messenger, or sat phone.

Pack Emergency Supplies

For day or overnight solos, make space for these lifesaving essentials.

Survival blanket: Affordable, heat-reflecting blankets provide extra warmth if the weather turns, and quick protection if you’re injured and unable to set up your tent. Try Adventure Medical Kits’s sleeping bag-size SOL Emergency Bivy. It’s printed with survival tips and weighs less than 4 ounces.

Signal device: Minimums for soloists: a 2 x 3-inch signaling mirror, a plastic emergency whistle, and a cell phone (waterproof or sealed in a waterproof case).

Firestarter: Whether or not you plan to light a campfire, it’s an essential tool to have in an emergency. Bring more than one backup. Pack a standard lighter or waterproof matches in a plastic case.

Knife: In survival situations, a sturdy stainless or high-carbon steel blade (locking is best) is valuable for shaving tinder, cutting sticks for a shelter, and more. You don’t need much: Our Executive Editor Adam Roy is a fan of the 1.9-inch Kershaw Ken Onion Chive.

Gloves: Because none of the above work if your fingers go numb.

Cross Streams Safely

Be conservative near water—it kills. Since you can’t lock arms with hiking partners, use extreme caution around rivers. Study the water—and the consequences. Is the current strong enough to sweep you downstream into hazards? Is the bottom covered with slick or loose rocks? Is the water more than knee-deep, creating drowning potential? If you answer yes to any of these, search for a safer crossing. If you answer no, unbuckle your straps and keep shoes on. Angle across and upstream, and probe your path with trekking poles while shuffling your feet.

Lighten Your Load

When you hike alone, you can’t split the load. Refine the essentials to shave pounds.

Tent: Downsize, but consider your region: If it’s wet, an ultralight two-person will be more comfortable than a cramped one-person.

Cookset/stove: An integrated system with a single-serving-size pot that doubles as a cup can save you a pound. (Alternatively, cold-soak your meals. Who are you trying to impress, anyway?)

First-aid kit: Pare it wisely. Bring two, not 10, bits of moleskin, but pack extra painkillers.

Food: Splurge on a meal or two, but simplify snacks and lunches. A calorie density of 125 to 150 per ounce maximizes efficiency.

Where Should I Hike Solo?

The most important factor for solo hiking is your own comfort: pick a place where you know you’ll be able to handle the challenges of the trail, and try to avoid objective hazard, like streams that could cut you off from escape or peaks prone to thunderstorms. Apart from that, you should use it as an opportunity to revel in the things about hiking your partners don’t always appreciate. Love photographing flowers? Build it into your hike. Dedicated stargazer? Prioritize open skies over windbreaks at your campsite. If you’re still looking for ideas, check out our trips section for some of our favorite trails near you.

Originally published in 2011; last updated July 2022


From 2022