Backpacking by yourself provides the ultimate test of self-reliance — with a heaping bonus of silence and solitude. But many hikers fear being far from help if things go wrong. Read these tips from expert soloists to gauge your readiness and learn how to enjoy an unfettered adventure. by Kristy Holland Maximize the Payoff
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.
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.
Prevent surprises with pretrip research.
» Scout your route. Rocky Mountain editor Steve Howe, who has done more than 20 expedition-length solos, suggests preempting problems by planning meticulously. He scouts routes on Google Earth, satellite images, maps, guidebooks, and trail reports (like editor-approved trips on backpacker.com). 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, SPOT 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 ($16; adventuremedicalkits.com). 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 sealed in a watertight bag.
» Firestarter: Bring more than one backup. Pack a standard lighter, waterproof matches in a plastic case, and Coghlan’s Magnesium Starter ($9; coghlans.com).
» 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.
» 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 (remove socks). Angle across and upstream, and probe your path with trekking poles while shuffling your feet.
Lighten Your 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-man.
» Cookset/stove: An integrated system with a single-serving-size pot that doubles as a cup can save you a pound.
» Water purification: SteriPEN’s Adventurer ($100, steripen.com) is half the weight of the lightest filters. Bring chemical tablets as backup.
» First-aid kit: Pare it wisely. Bring two, not 10, bits of moleskin, but pack extra painkillers. Consider a prescription of Tylenol 3 for severe injuries. It reduces pain and inflammation but not the mental function needed in self-rescues.
» Food: Splurge on a meal or two, but simplify snacks and lunches. A calorie density of 125 to 150 per ounce maximizes efficiency.
» Camera: Bring an all-purpose lens, or pack a point-and-shoot or camera-equipped GPS for easy sharing. Batteries and accessories pack on pounds.