A few years ago, I was hiking alone when I walked off the wrong side of the Rosalie Peak and got lost. And for about 10 minutes, it totally freaked my shit out.
You see, I’d gone hiking on a whim in the late afternoon. I hadn’t bothered to pack extra clothing layers, food, or a shelter tarp. Now it was getting dark, and I was in shorts surrounded by dicey late-spring snowfields. Cell phone service, you ask? Haha, not in the Rockies.
After pausing to hyperventilate, I started walking in the direction where the trail should be. Because I was racing the dark, I scampered across a snow field when I probably shouldn’t have. (Luckily, I didn’t slip and go whizzing into the jagged rocks below.)
And just as the dark was really coming on, I spotted the trail. Which was quite a feeling!
So you probably think I’m going to tell you to never hike alone, right?
Wrong. I totally adore hiking alone. (Yes, even after all that!)
I don’t have to worry about feeling slow. There’s endless time to catch up on my Podcasts and audiobooks. And hiking alone now and then means I actually hike a lot more.
Now, I’d be a total jerk if I tried to convince you hiking alone is just as safe as hiking in a group. Because demonstrably, it’s not. (Case in point: 91 percent of bear attacks in Yellowstone National Park happen to parties of one or two hikers.)
But I do think that if you want to hike alone — even in the deep backcountry — there are some things you can do to make it reasonably safe. So in this post, I’ll share my top five tips for solo hikers.
Photos: Returning to the scene of my near demise! Rosalie Peak via Deer Creek Trailhead near Bailey, Colo.
1. Be conservative
When you hike alone, your margin for error is lower.
There’s no one to borrow a snack from if you left your plantain chips at home. No one’s going to run back to the trailhead to summon help if you twist an ankle. And when it comes to making decisions about route finding and weather, you’re on your own.
(Though in some ways, this can be an advantage. Because groupthink can get you in trouble too.)
So when you hike alone, it pays to be conservative. Some tips:
- Stick to familiar trails where you’re less likely to become lost or disoriented. (The word trails is operative. One of the reasons I got turned around on Rosalie Peak was because I was hiking alone off-trail.)
- Time your hikes when others are likely to be out. No, you shouldn’t assume that strangers will save your ass in an emergency. But being in a crowd definitely increases the chance of assistance.
- Choose easy terrain. Hey, I’ll happily scramble a Class 4 ridge with friends. But when I hike alone, easy Class 3 is pretty much my limit.
2. Pack some extras
To return to those plantain chips for a moment (yum), borrowing isn’t an option when you hike alone. That is, unless you beg someone on the trail to share their food. (Which by the way, I have TOTALLY DONE. And let me assure you, it’s mortifying.)
It’s a lot safer (and less bruising to your ego) to throw some extras in your pack. Stuff like:
- Extra food and water, including some purification tablets.
- Warm clothing layers. This should include an insulated jacket, hat, gloves, and extra socks, even in summer. There’s always a possibility you could be sitting outside overnight.
- Emergency shelter. In summer, this could be as simple as a trash compactor bag you can wrap around yourself. Tarps and rescue bivvys provide extra protection in cooler months.
- A foolproof navigation system (including extra batteries for any electronic devices). Personally, I use an iPhone app for GPS, so I always carry my charger (and a map) when I hike alone.
For more on essential hiking gear, check out this post.
3. Leave a plan with someone
So when I had my little misadventure on Rosalie Peak, I was comforted by the fact that at least one person knew where I was. But only because I ran into a friend in the parking lot. (He was hiking in as I was hiking out.)
It was lucky, but it wasn’t good enough.
When you hike alone, always leave a trip plan with a responsible adult. It can seriously mean the difference between being lost for hours and being lost until the Browns win the Super Bowl. (Hey, if you live alone and work remotely like I do, that is not hyperbole.)
Here’s what I leave with my emergency contact:
- Trailhead, planned route, and destination
- My license number and a description of my car
- GPS tracking info (if I plan to turn my SPOT on)
- Contact information for the local search and rescue unit (usually the county sheriff)
- Detailed instructions on what to do if I don’t call in after the hike
Sound way too complicated? Subscribe to Miss Adventure Pants to download a sample trip plan you can adapt for your own adventures.
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4. Consider taking a beacon
A lot of people assume that if something goes wrong in the wilderness, they’ll be able to call help on a cell phone. And sometimes, they can. (For example, from a prominent peak or ridge.)
But most of the time, cell service pretty much sucks in the mountains. So it’s good to carry some sort of device that can talk to satellites. Here are a few options.
SPOT and Garmin InReach are the all-singing, all-dancing monkeys of the beacon world. You can set them up so that friends and family can actually watch your tracks in real-time on a map. (When we were driving to Mount Rainier in July, we actually watched a party of friends in front of us climb the Emmons Glacier. Technology is cool.)
And if shit happens, hit the SOS button to connect with a rescue coordination agency. InReach will even let you text back and forth with the dispatcher and any other contacts you input. (Unfortunately, SPOT won’t. You just have to sit tight and have faith.)
The downside of messengers is cost. You have to subscribe to a pricey annual plan and then buy add-ons for various services. (For example, my SPOT is wired for search and rescue and also for roadside assistance.)
If you’re new to the satellite messenger club, I’ve written a detailed post on setting up and using your SPOT. (Because believe me, it’s about as intuitive as college calculus.)
Personal locator beacons
If you want something super simple with no ongoing subscription costs, look into personal locator beacons (like this one).
A PLB works a lot like the emergency beacon on a ship. When you hit the assist button, your device pings a satellite and notifies a preprogrammed rescue coordination agency. (In devices configured for the United States, that’s the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.)
The best beacons are GPS enabled. This allows rescuers to pinpoint your position quickly and accurately. It’s worth noting that non-GPS devices can have a margin of error of up to two miles and can take as long as 45 minutes to triangulate your location.
A downside of beacons: while they work worldwide, they can only alert one rescue agency. The Air Force isn’t going to be able to do much for you if you’re in, say, Bolivia. So if you plan to roam the planet with your device, you might want to upgrade to a satellite messenger.
And here I feel obliged to give you the beacon Miranda warning:
- Don’t let technology give you a false sense of security. You don’t know when your beacon’s going to binge drink its own battery juice. Or just stop working. So plan conservatively.
- Only use your beacon for life-threatening emergencies.
- Don’t call for help until you have exhausted all self rescue options.
5. Enjoy it
Maybe I’m weird, but I actually look forward to hiking alone. I never treat it like some “disaster plan” that I’m stuck with because my buddy is sick or everyone wants to watch the Broncos instead.
A few things that make it awesome:
- Catching up on ebooks and podcasts. Ever since I started writing for a living, I can’t stand to look at words on a page. These days, I have to read through my ears. And hiking is one of the best times to do it. It’s like curling up with a good book for a few hours, but I’m also burning calories the whole time. (For a rundown of my fav audio apps, check out this post.)
- Silence. I’ve got a noisy head full of racing thoughts. Walking in nature is about the only time my brain experiences radio silence.
- Making friends. I’m way more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger when I’m alone. (Not that I ever feel obliged to talk to anyone. Sometimes being antisocial is the best way to recharge and refresh.)
- Spirituality. I’m not religious in the traditional sense. But nature is definitely where I reflect on the meaning of it all.
So those are my tips on hiking alone.
If it appeals to you, please definitely give it a try! Sure, it’s a bit riskier than joining the herd, but the rewards are worth it.
And because life is ironic, I’ll share one more story. After I found the trail again on Rosalie Peak and was hiking out, I ran into a search and rescue group.
At first, I was freaked out thinking they were looking for me. But they were actually looking for another hiker who got separated from his party.
You know how big the party was? Eighteen people.
Sometimes safety in numbers is an illusion.
Are you tired of hiking alone? That’s OK too. Here’s a post on how to find people to hike with.
Originally published August 23, 2017.