Hiking alone is daunting… Camping overnight by your lonesome self, well, that has to be dangerous!
No, that’s not it… Hiking alone is an amazing experience that can put you in tune with yourself and the world around you. Camping overnight on a solo backpacking trip is far less dangerous than riding in your car or walking around most cities.
The internet abounds with people asking questions on solo backpacking that make it seem much more dangerous than it should. Searches for Appalachian Trail crime statistics are high. Stories of any female hiker attacked are shared thousands of times on social media. This is just sensationalism.
The truth is that hundreds if not thousands of people, both male and female, head to the woods. Some even hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone with never an issue. Though there are some minor dangers when camping alone, solo camping is probably safer than being alone most anywhere else.
So, if you are about to take your first solo backpacking trip. If you are hiking solo for the first time. Or, if you are just looking to freshen up your knowledge base, read on intrepid adventurer!
Getting Ready for your First Trip
Not quite there yet? You can’t be blamed. You have to approach it at your own pace. While there are a lot of websites that offer solo hiking essentials, we want to take it a step further.
We want to help you get there! In just four steps.
1. Find a Friend
While the ultimate goal may be to get out there alone if you have never spent a night in the woods it’s perfectly fine to seek company your first time. Worry shared is worry halved.
This gives you a chance to explore the challenges of camping and measure them against your skills. This will give you time to work on the basics and acclimate yourself to sleeping outside.
After a trip or two, you should be ready to go it alone. If not, keep going in groups. While solo camping is an awesome experience, camping with friends is also great fun!
2. Develop your Skills
Take a couple of day trips to learn the basics of what you need to do. Even the most skilled backwoods campers practice. Some things you want to know beforehand:
- How to set up your shelter
- How to build a fire
- How to clean or purify water
- How to navigate a trail
- How to use a basic first aid
The rest you can work on later but these are skills you need to work on before you take off alone. As your skill increases, so will your confidence. Every step is one step closer to your solo journey.
3. Start Small
It is probably not wise to start off long-distance thru hiking alone. Take a few short solo treks first. You don’t have to go far the first few times. Work your way up to it. Camping alone a few miles from your home will be perfect practice for taking longer solo camping trips that put you miles from civilization.
Your first night need not be in the middle of nowhere. Look for an isolated state park and give it a go. Many state parks will allow you to camp in the backcountry. This will get you some isolation while still keeping the outside world accessible.
Though there is some wisdom in taking longer trips up front to acclimate you to your shelter and the camping environment, that may not be best. At first, you want to get used to the woods. Start with a single overnight and build from there.
Go at your own pace. While you can always jump in with both feet and stay a week, don’t feel pressured to do so. We all started somewhere, you just have to find your comfort level.
4. Learn to be Alone
People are conditioned to want company. We are also conditioned to worry in the dark. Is it weird to hike alone? Yes, it is… At first. Camping will be just as strange your first time.
Your first night alone can be anywhere from a slight worry to absolutely terrifying. Just remember that it doesn’t need to be. What is there really to be afraid of?
You are going to hear strange noises from the wind and trees popping and cracking. You will hear animals and they may visit your campsite. None of these are anything worth worrying about.
Loneliness and boredom are often a bigger issue when staying overnight completely isolated. Bring something to amuse yourself. A book is a great idea but stick to something not horror related for your own sanity.
The two biggest comforts on your first night alone are going to be food and fire. Food relaxes us and refuels us. It helps us sleep. Fire is what keeps us feeling safe.
On extended trips, you really have to learn to like yourself. You are going to have a lot of time to think and it gets to some people. This isn’t anything you can practice, you just have to do it until it no longer bothers you.
The Benefits of Solo Camping and Hiking
Sure, it can get lonely. Sometimes you are going to be a little afraid. But there are a ton of beneficial reasons to hike and camp alone.
You Make the Plans
With no one to worry about on the trail, even day hiking alone can provide you with a great distraction from your everyday life. You can go at your own pace, see the sights you want to see, and do things your way with no boss to say otherwise.
You will Learn a lot about Yourself
Your time in the woods will inevitably lead to much pontificating and philosophizing about the world, you, and everything in your life. It can help solve problems, get you out of sticky situations, and just be healthy reflection. At the end of a trip, you will know you better than before.
You will Learn about the Wilderness and Nature
Solo hiking and camping are great ways to get in touch with nature. It is one thing to see animals who live close to people but seeing them in the wild will be much different. With time on your hands and no one to distract you, you can truly observe how the natural world works.
You Will Improve Yourself
While there isn’t anything specifically hard about camping, your first night alone will give you a vast sense of accomplishment. With only you to rely on, you will learn to trust yourself. Those that spend time being self-dependent become more motivated. They are more thoughtful, and better adapted to life’s daily challenges.
Better Health and Lower Stress
From your first solo backpacking trip, you will be improving your health. Walking is one of the best exercises. It is low impact, burns fat, works all major muscle groups, and will keep you active and living longer.
Fitness aside, spending time in the woods can do wonders at keeping your blood pressure down and your spirits up. Though you may return from a trip physically exhausted, most people return with a clear head and feel ready to face the world.
Dangers of Hiking Alone
Is it safe to hike alone? What about hiking alone at night?
No activity is completely safe so a good, realistic look at the challenges and dangers of backpacking and solo camping is only prudent. Just keep an open mind and a firm grip on your imagination. Solo hiking and camping are not as dangerous as you think.
What about Animals?
This is the number one concern of every new hiker and it is almost completely unwarranted. With proper precaution and good food storage habits, you will reduce the chances of being attacked by a wild animal to almost nil.
There are only a few thousand animal attacks a year that result in death and almost all of those are caused by bees, domestic dogs, and cows. The statistics for wild animal related deaths are so low they are almost non-existent. More people were killed by cows in Tennessee in 2017 than were killed across the U.S. by bears, wolves, big cats, and coyotes combined.
What about other People?
People are unpredictable but your chances of being attacked by a person are far greater where there are actually people. In the middle of the woods, there is rarely anyone to bother you.
On the Appalachian trail, there have been several highly publicized female thru hiker attacks. These were very unfortunate but statistically very isolated events. Across the U.S. there are thousands of men and women hiking alone every weekend. Only a fraction of a fraction of them ever encounter any danger from other people.
When you shouldn’t Camp Alone?
There are times where prudence says that camping alone may not be advisable. With some extra planning, most people can overcome any of these issues but caution should be used.
Some people with severe medical conditions should probably avoid being isolated far from help. While no one should feel barred from the outdoors, assess the risks before you head out. An ounce of caution goes a long way if you have an issue that could be more severe without assistance close by.
Young people who need supervision are, of course, best not trusted in the wild by themselves. Just remember that in the past children as young as 12 were expected to do this in the scouts. You will have to decide when your own children are ready. Just be realistic about it and let them have their adventures when they are mature enough.
Otherwise, you are fine to hike alone and camp solo. Stay as long as you like.
Dealing with Injuries
When you are in the wild, accidents can and do happen. Caution goes a long way but you can’t prevent everything. You can never plan for all eventualities and you can’t carry a paramedic’s first-aid kit with you all the time.
The best answer to this is to take a certified first aid class from a reputable source. REI commonly offers classes on first aid while in the woods if you live near one. Keep a small, expedient first-aid kit with you as well as any medications you may need.
If you are going to be in cell range, make sure your cell phone is charged and ready. Some people opt to carry an emergency locator with them. These can be a little costly but are a one-time investment. At the very least, carry a whistle and signal mirror with you.
If you end up hurt, you will have the tools you need to get help.
When Things Go Wrong
Being alone in the woods is a great experience but we all know that things go wrong from time to time. The chances of you have any major problem are statistically very small and you can be proactive in dealing with those situations.
First and foremost, make sure you have a plan and that you let people know what that plan is. The lives of many lost hikers would have been saved by this simple system. Make sure you include the location, course, and times on your plan. Make sure the person you entrust has the details about when to take action and who to contact.
The number one problem likely to trouble a camper or hiker is exposure followed by dehydration. Have the supplies on you to stay warm and dry in the cooler months and protected from the sun and well hydrated in the warmer months.
Prevention is the key to having a great time on any solo trekking expedition. Online you can find several gear lists and outlines of the 10 essentials to have with you. Explore these options when planning your trip and find what makes sense for you.
Packing for You First Solo Trip
When you have friends around, you can share some of the burden but when you go it alone, you have to have everything you will need with you. You always have to pack around your comfort and skills so the following list contains only suggestions. It is a starting point, not an all-inclusive list.
Three Prime Items
If you are going to spend money, spend it here first:
- Pack – Get a pack that is well fitted to your body. Most outdoor retailers can help you get fitted for a pack. For a solo trip, 50 liters is a minimum. 70 to 80 liters is a better choice.
- Shelter – You can go with a single person tent or hammock setup. Both will run about the same cost and weight in the end, it’s just a matter of preference.
If you’re sleeping in a hammock, consider a hammock underquilt to stay warm and a hammock tarp to stay dry and protected from wind.
- Sleeping Bag – Always go about 10 degrees colder than you think you will need. Even in summer, you will need a sleeping bag of some sort. The more you spend, the smaller and lighter your bag will be.
Other Important Items
With those out of the way, let’s cover the things you will have to have:
- Fire – This can be a lighter, storm matches, or a Ferro cerium rod. A lighter is the easiest and most utilitarian but also bring emergency matches.
- Knife – Most people feel confident enough with a decent quality folding knife for utilitarian tasks. Some want a larger fixed blade knife. Either will work in most cases, use what you like.
- Flashlight – You will need a headlamp or flashlight one, whichever you prefer. Make sure you take extra batteries.
- Navigation Aids – You could use a GPS with extra batteries but it is hard to beat a map, compass, and the knowledge on how to use them.
- Water Purification – A small water filter, Lifestraw or Purification Tablets are necessary for your safety. The filters are a better choice in most areas and are small and light enough to carry easily.
- Repair Items – A small bit of cordage, duct tape, and needle & thread can go a long way. Things break and being able to fix them in the field can prevent you from coming home early.
- Cooking – You will need some way to prepare your food unless you are eating dry or prepacked foods. This will depend on your food choices. For most people, this will include a small stove, eating container, and spork/spoon/fork.
- Extra Clothing – How much extra clothing you will need is up to you but you should have an extra layer for your upper body, a couple pair of socks, and whatever else your comfort and environment dictate.
Comfort and Care
There are a few things you may want to bring to make you more comfortable in the woods. These are often simple and cheap additions.
- Tooth Care – A small toothbrush and toothpaste. You may also include floss.
- Wet Wipes – Get biodegradable wet wipes for the outdoors. If you are going to be burying them, no one wants them hanging around forever.
- Hand Sanitizer – Some people opt to carry hand sanitizer with them. It can be handy to have but not necessary.
- Bug Repellent – This depends on time of year and location but it can be a lifesaver in the woods. A small can will go a long way with one person. Just make sure you don’t get it on any gear made of a plastic material like nylon.
- Sleeping Pad – A sleeping bag on the ground alone may not be warm or comfortable enough for some. Consider an inflatable sleeping pad if you need more protection from the ground.
There are a few additional items that can keep you safe on the trail and should be considered.
- Safety Whistle and Mirror – While the mirror can be argued, you should keep an emergency whistle on you at all times.
- First Aid Kit – This can be just the simple things like a few gauze bandages, adhesive bandages, wound wipes, and blister care. Don’t forget the medications: Benadryl, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Imodium, and anything OTC or prescription that you may need.
- Locator Beacon – While your cell phone can serve this purpose if you have cell signal, you can always get a Personal Locator Beacon for those just in case times. They aren’t cheap but should you get lost, they are the best way to get found.
- Bear Spray – If you are going to be in bear country, specifically Grizzly country, you may want to consider a small can of bear spray. It is affordable and effective. Outside of a few U.S. states, this is probably not needed.
Keeping Things Light
If you are going alone and packing it all yourself, it can get pretty heavy. You will need to save all the weight you can. Just don’t save it by leaving out an item you may need. Here are some tips on saving some weight.
- Start Heavy – When you are just getting going, the costs of ultralight camping gear can be very prohibitive. You also won’t know what you need and what you don’t need. On those shorter trips early on, take everything you may need. With time, you’ll figure out what you really must have.
- Invest More – The more you pay for most camping gear, the more weight you will save. Consider it an investment in your back and knees. The big-ticket items like your pack and sleeping bag will be more impactful than small items and can save as much as 10 pounds alone.
- Better Materials – Materials like carbon fiber and titanium can drastically reduce weight. They do cost more but the exchange can be worth it. Titanium is often used in cooking gear and can save considerable weight over steel.
- Watch Duplicate Items – It’s easy to take two items that serve the same purpose. Getting away from this can be hard but make the effort.
- Lithium Batteries – If your light is compatible, lithium batteries last longer and weigh less than standard alkaline batteries.
- Backpacking Food – Many companies sell dehydrated foods specifically for backpackers. They may cost a little more but weigh a lot less and all you need is boiling water to get them ready. Most are quite tasty.
- Upcycle – Do a quick search around the web for DIY ultralight gear and see all of the crazy ways people manage to trim weight. From using bottled water for hydration to using trash bags as pack covers, there are tons of inventive hikers out there that you can learn from.
There are many reasons why hitting the backwoods can be an amazing experience. Whether you want to commune with nature or simply get away from it all. You may be a little uncomfortable or get a poor night’s sleep but any major issues are very unlikely.
Statistically speaking, hiking is a safe activity. Very few people ever encounter any problems. Media can sometimes sensationalize and portray the dangers of the woods in a very dramatic light. People are rarely attacked by wild animals. Snakes rarely bite if you leave them alone. There are no mountain mutants waiting to take you captive.
Live a little. You are much more likely to find peace and solitude in the woods than anything threatening.