So this is something I see pop up a lot. Solo hikers for some reason or another are kinda made out to be part of some fringe group when I feel it either is or should be a very normal thing. I see people glowing when they do their first solo trip which is a hurdle to be sure, but the response I see commonly is “You’re crazy”, “That’s dangerous”, etc. When you read up on a lot of hiking related things a common piece of advise seen is “Hike with a group” which I feel is kind of a disclaimer on their part and nothing more, it’s a knee-jerk response and I kinda want to dive into why that might be.
To preface, I am 90% a solo hiker. On my 1,000 miles of the PCT, 700 of them were by myself which is roughly something like 60-70 days (not exact math, but sounds right to me). My issue is I have social anxiety and found it hard to approach people on the PCT a lot of the time because everyone generally grouped together and for the sake of my own sanity I stayed away from hotspots where people grouped up. There were times I honestly went off trail to hide in the bushes to let the herd trample by me, it just stresses me out. I do better with groups of like three or four. It’s just a thing, I don’t fee inhibited by it and I’m largely totally fine with that aspect of myself. I still had a great time. Beyond that most of my dayhikes are done completely by myself and I’ve never felt I was at a greater risk of serious calamity.
“Solo Hiking is Dangerous”
Humans are by nature social creatures, even people like myself apply there. We have been for a long time and the origins of that were for a good reason. We do better when we’re all clumped up into bubbles of people. Back in the day (way back in the day) it helped our chances for survival when a large portion of our world wanted to chew our faces off. I largely interpret it as a core survival instinct for our race as someone with absolutely no education in anthropology as a whole, but it makes sense at least. The very image of wandering into the unknown alone can bring on a certain uncomfortable feeling, like picture yourself walking into a flat wall of mist on a sunny day and you can just make out beyond it that it’s just dark beyond comprehension (I sometimes feel like this looking out into endless dense forest). A lot of survival instincts kick in at that point. Now imagine you’re doing it with a group of people, you probably feel slightly better about it now right? It doesn’t change the fact that you could be walking into some strange inter-dimensional portal leading to the core of some sun somewhere, but at least you’re not doing it alone.
Beyond instinct, the wilderness is for better or worse not a part of our lives anymore. We are utterly detached from it (though we still impact it) in general and despite it being part of our planet it seems like another world to some. It is – again – largely unknown for a lot of people. But think about this: How much can happen to you on a simple walk to your favorite coffee shop? How many people are out there driving cars that could at any moment screw up and run you over? The system of our human world is so complex that there’s just an inconceivable number of things that can happen to a person while they’re just trying to do their daily things, some of them plausible such as the car incident I described, or some of them implausible like a satellite falling out of orbit and just happening to crash down right on top of you. But that’s part of our world, it’s normal to us and somehow some of the high-risk things that could absolutely happen to us don’t seem that threatening because it’s not anything unheard of. Threats that exist in nature are so far away from our daily lives that they seem extraordinarily dangerous, when they’re really kind of on the same level of threat as things we dodge every day.
To be frank, I feel safer outside walking any number of miles than I do crossing the street when I have the right of way. My actions have more of a direct reflection on whether or not I survive the day as opposed to being at the mercy of another person’s attention span while they’re driving. It doesn’t make me invulnerable to anything and everything out in nature, but the amount of incidents that can happen to a person go down pretty drastically.
For me, the majority near misses I’ve had were 100% my fault. I shouldn’t have tried scrambling along this ridge on all this scree in a no-drop zone, I should have payed attention to the weather while climbing a mountain, I should have just said no. To my recollection there wasn’t a single incident that was just random sans almost being crushed by a falling tree on a day hike, in which case I was still slightly responsible because I had one earbud in listening to music. I was fortunate enough to hear the tree cracking down over the trail with my other ear and jumped forward a bit out of surprise. That’s about as random as it gets for me. In general I have done some really dumb shit while hiking, and I did it mostly out of a desire to expand my skill-set and push myself beyond my boundaries of comfortability. The thing is I could have been smarter about doing it instead of accepting the challenge on the spot IE: “I’ll go out and learn how to climb mountains in the snow by taking on one of the hardest mountains in the area first” where instead I should have improved that skill gradually over increasingly difficult levels of terrain. If I had been injured or died, it’s still an accident because I didn’t intend on the end result but one that I’d classify as preventable.
That being said, each time I go out and do something stupid it adds weight to my outdoorsy shoulders and I become more and more aware of my actions out there. It’s part of a learning process and I’m more likely to say no to crazy shit anymore because I’d rather not die over 5 minutes of fun and 30 seconds of terror when I can continue to live and see more/do more.
Then you have people who do things cautiously, follow every rule in the book, but still find themselves in the face of an “oh shit” moment and don’t come back from it. I’m not going to kid you, the wilderness can be dangerous and you can die out there. As much as I’m not big on fear mongering, you as a hiker have to accept that one day you might not come back. You can be the best of the best and still die outdoors. There was a local man in Washington last year who was well known for his climbing skills but was unfortunately taken out by an avalanche. A man who has every reason to avoid being hit by something like that fell victim to it. I’m not quick to criticize him or his actions over it, shit just happens.
The same could be said when you leave your house at any given time. Hell, you don’t even have to leave your house, your furnace could malfunction at any moment and you could die from CO2 poisoning. There is absolutely not any setting or circumstance where you are invulnerable to incident, ever. Endless calamities hang over your head every single day and it doesn’t just begin the moment you wake up, it’s a 24/7 thing but we all somehow don’t panic over it because the majority of us realize we wouldn’t enjoy life worrying about it all the time, it’s no way to live.
Is it actually dangerous?
For the most part ignoring what I’ve already covered, I don’t feel it’s unusually dangerous. There’s nothing extraordinarily different about solo hiking from group hiking, but I’ll cover the few differences that do exist in a moment. First let’s go over some things a solo hiker should keep in mind.
Assume that you alone are responsible for yourself in case of an emergency, don’t rely on other people on trail to be around to help you out if you get lost/injured. A good deal of solo hikers I’ve met had a good grasp on this concept and packed out the gear it would take to ensure they survived a good number of incidents. If you don’t, it’s a good idea that you do (basically the 10 essentials). I go the extra mile and just take all my gear sometimes because A: My backpack/gear is home to me, and B: My setup isn’t all that heavy and I can get away with it). You don’t have to bring an entire year’s worth of survival gear, just some things that make sense that can all fit into a hydration pack.
I go the extra mile and carry a Personal Locator Beacon with me when I hike as extra insurance. I don’t kid myself by thinking it makes me invulnerable a-la “Anything can happen to me but all I have to do is push the SOS button and I’ll be rescued”. SAR efforts can be crippled by any number of things from trail conditions to weather to jurisdictional boundaries even (from what I’ve seen). It could be hours before I even know anyone’s close to rescuing me if I can’t crawl out of there. There could even be a rare moment where I don’t get signal, who knows? But in general these rules apply to having a friend run back to get you help as well, so there aren’t many extra flaws with the system at all.
A common response I get to this is that “Electronics are destined to fail, we’re doomed! The end is nigh!”. No single item of gear is going to be impervious to failure/damage, not even maps/compasses. Take care of your shit and your shit will take care of you. That being said, most PLBs are designed with the assumption that they’ll take a beating. No they’re not invincible or impervious to mistake, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to have one on you. People who downplay this for the sake of sounding like navigational/outdoorsy gods piss me off, it is a fantastic thing to have on you as a solo hiker. I wasn’t a fan of the idea of it on me on the basis that I get out in the wilderness to disconnect, but was eventually happy to have it on me once I realized the benefits of having one. There’s a lot of missing hiker cases that could have been solved by this item alone, though I’m not saying I hindsight-shame people who didn’t have one. Just think about adding it to your gear list.
As a man I can’t comment on this too much because I don’t understand the full scope of what it’s like to be a woman, but a common thing I see with solo hiking is women in particularly feel more at risk and avoid solo hiking as a result. My feelings on that aren’t really one way or the other, but one thing I want to say is I’ve met a ton of women who go out and do stuff like this completely alone and have been for years. I’ve read stories from women who go out and travel in areas that are perceived as hostile and come out with nothing but good stories. I’m not going to say your feelings on the issue are silly because I genuinely don’t know what your feelings are, but I just want to say that it’s something to consider. I do feel that some fears/cautions are hyped to an unhealthy level. But I’m not the one to comment on it, I absolutely encourage any female hikers wary of solo hiking to reach out to women who live this kind of lifestyle and do it alone for more information on the matter.
I’m covering this so I’m not generalizing over one group, but I do legitimately feel disappointed to see people not acting on a dream they have as a whole and I think it’s worth investigating if you really want to do it. Hikers are generally very friendly and helpful people who would happily talk with you if you ask. Chances are you’ll feel better about it after talking through it with someone with a lot of experience.
Benefits of Group Hiking
I don’t want this to be completely one sided, there are benefits to hiking with others, such as:
- Extra help in case of an emergency.
- Wider range of skillset. If your group finds itself in a situation, the likelihood of there being someone who knows how to handle it is more in your favor.
- If you suffer an injury that requires immediate attention, you have an extra set of hands to help in treating said injury. Doing it alone may be difficult depending.
- You have people around you who might talk you out of doing something stupid. That being said, they may also encourage you to do it depending on who you hike with. This one’s a tossup.
- If you are in a dire situation, having others around you eases that primal tension of being alone in an unknown situation. It can calm you down and help you make logical decisions instead of falling victim to panic/paranoia and doing something stupid. The chances of having at least one person being level-headed in the face of adversity is pretty high.
- While I largely don’t find wildlife to be a huge issue, larger groups of people ensures they stay away. It’s not guaranteed to work, but you’re more likely to see animals alone than you are with a group. Similarly if you have a bad encounter with an animal, you have someone there to back you up (if they don’t run away first, but the joke’s on them because they’re likely going to be the ones who get attacked).
- Having extra bodies around for warmth can be a good thing in situations where hypothermia may set in, as well as if you are hypothermic you may find it difficult to accomplish the little tasks that could turn the situation around (lighting a fire for example).
- Last but not least, you have someone on-site who can run out and get help if necessary. I did cover that previously, but it’s still a bonus.
Like solo hiking I do find it to have a few cons, a bigger one being complacency. When I’m alone I’m more aware of my surroundings and I’m in general a bit more cautious about what I’m doing. When I’m with people I don’t really pay as much attention to the little things. On top of that, you need to understand it isn’t a shield against the universal rule of ‘shit happens’. Hazards that persist when you’re out there alone still persist when you’re with a group, and there are situations where your entire group is vulnerable to them. Like I said, there aren’t any circumstances where you’re really safe. All we can do is mitigate risk and make smart decisions when we’re out there.
Last but not least, solo hiking can be unnerving at times. I won’t lie, there have been times where I let my paranoia get the best of me out there and I’ve genuinely had moments where I was kinda freaking out. When you first start this happens more commonly, but as time went on I slowly started to get used to it. Sticks snapping outside my tent went from: “Holy shit there’s a bear outside of my tent”, to “If that’s a bear I swear to god I’m going to knock it on the head. Go away!“. I did have a night where I yelled at a bear scratching at my food canister near my camp to fuck off, and to its credit it fucked off. The biggest fear-inducer I have are dark forests. Sometimes it can be very serene and comfortable but I largely feel on edge with it, but I don’t let it prevent me from going out into the forest for an overnight trip or on a long distance hike. It’s generally irrational and silly, and the longer I stay out there the more comfortable I become with it. You just have to get through that one spooky night out there all by yourself, it gets a bit better from there on if you keep at it.
It starts becoming normal as the risks in your daily life do. You start to know how to handle these things and your illogical worries die down when you realize that a lot of the warning signs put up by society about nature and the wilderness are just signs of their own fears and concerns. Some of them are absolutely legitimate and you always have to respect that you can’t control absolutely every aspect about being outdoors, but it’s nothing that should keep you away from enjoying it. For me, that fear and sense of vulnerability kind of make the experience a bit better even if I don’t like it at the time. Moments like that make me realize there’s things bigger and more fascinating than myself or the usual world around me. If I felt 100% okay with my surroundings it wouldn’t be as raw as it is when I’m not because it makes the good moments that much better.
Weirdos in the Woods
This is a sub-topic I want to cover. This is more or less a myth unless the trail you’re walking on kinda winds its way through a community that’s out in the bush. More often than not these people are genuinely nice but there were stories of there being some strange and unbalanced folks out there that hikers couldn’t get away from fast enough that I do believe. A common theme you notice is the closer you get to the ‘real world’ the more stories of weird/creepy people are being told. Once you’re back out in the wilderness you hear of it less often.
It’s a theme that’s perpetuated too often through various facets of media and kinda drives me insane.
For All Those Out There..
Anyone who wishes you could go out and hike alone: Do it. There are people out there who will tell you not to, that you will die, that you’re not being smart, that the only way to experience nature is with other people. They mean well, but in the end it only serves as a way to entangle people in misconstrued fears and prevent you from going out and doing something that’s totally fine and you’ll get that within any community of enthusiasts. The kind of people who tell you to bring 8 guns out there with you, who say that 90lbs is a minimum base-weight for surviving an overnight trip, or who are just armchair hikers who for whatever reason can’t go out but still regurgitate false information or perpetuate common subjects of fear mongering. A lot of the time I find people sharing news articles of people dying in the wilderness and saying “See?! This is why you shouldn’t go out there!” are wildly inexperienced, and by the time they come back from a substantial adventure through the forest/desert they chill out a bit.
Look, I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who likes to go outside and more often than not I find myself doing it alone. I just want to shed light on the fact that while solo hiking does have a few more obvious risks to it, there’s things you can do to mitigate those risks. The wilderness can be dangerous, the regular world can be substantially more dangerous, the key to navigating either world is to be equipped for it physically and mentally. In terms of the overarching theme of danger and hazards in the wilderness, I haven’t found solo hiking to be substantially different to being with other people so long as I was making the right decisions on navigating my way through or around obstacles.
A Thing That’s Cool
I have this in my bookmarks and will prepare a similar plan when I go out on my next long hike and will continue to do so for as long as I live. It is overall a very well thought out ‘in case of..’ plan for those back home to follow that will cut out a few extra steps. Chances are you’ve heard of/have done a few of the things suggested in this article, but all-together it seems like a great way to kick off a search effort in case something happens to you out there.