FIVE TIPS FOR HIKING SOLO
Some people think I’m crazy for preferring to trek alone. “Isn’t it dangerous?” they ask. “Don’t you get lonely?” Of course there is an extra element of risk. If I fall and hurt myself, it’s up to me to get myself to safety or call for help. And yeah, sometimes I miss sharing magic moments with those dearest to me. But personally, I believe the benefits outweigh the negatives.
When I was younger, I backpacked around the world. I worked a few seasons as a snowboard instructor in the Alps. I moved to Sweden. I moved to Italy. And I did it all solo. But that’s not the same as heading into the wilderness with all you need to survive in your bag. There are no hostel get-togethers, no après-ski bars, no friendly antipodean colleagues. It’s just you.
But it’s this freedom that most appeals to me. I can be utterly selfish. I can go faster, slower, stop, take a short-cut or ‘long-cut’ whenever I want to. I don’t have to consult with anyone else. I don’t have to ask for anyone else’s opinion. There’s no one to question me. To put pressure on me. To slow me down.
Solo hiking is basically a form of therapy. I have days upon days to process my thoughts, to reflect, to learn, to move on.
Then there’s the whole aspect of discovering what you’re capable of, what your own strengths and weaknesses are. After each solo trekking experience I’m a little more prepared for the next one.
Here are my five top tips for safely enjoying and getting the most out of hiking alone.
Be realistic with your own limits
My first solo hiking trip was the Tour du Mont Blanc. It was 10 days and – with some re-routing – 190km. That sounds pretty long for a beginner. But bear in mind I’d been trekking for a long time before that, and I’d completed lots of through-hikes with friends. Also, I trained pretty hard to get in shape. Furthermore, I didn’t camp. I stayed in catered mountain huts.
If you’ve never through-hiked before, I’d suggest doing some longer, multi-night trips with friends before embarking on anything alone. Likewise, if you’re not used to carrying a massive backpack, go light and stay in huts, B&Bs etc. (You don’t get homemade jam and mountain cheese served on a platter in your tent!)
Always tell someone where you’re going and, better still, give them a detailed itinerary of your plans, including where you plan to camp/stay each night. Research where you’ll get mobile phone reception so you can check-in with loved ones. Always have local emergency numbers stored in your phone. There are certain things you need to be asking yourself regarding your own safety. If you don’t know the answers, don’t hike until you do.
- What are the risks posed by animals? In the Alps they’re pretty much zero. In the US and Canada you’ve got bears and wild cats to consider.
- Check the weather report as often as possible. Know the calmest times of year to visit your chosen area. Avoid hiking in thunderstorms. I’d recommend starting early each day to get ahead of gathering convection storms.
- Where can you refill your water bottle? Do you need a water filter? In the Alps you’re usually fine with a 1litre water bottle, as you can refill it regularly. Some places you’ll need to carry more and you’ll need to filter or purify your water.
- What about food? Are you able to buy more alone the way or do you need to pack enough for several days? Whatever – always take extra in case you get caught out.
- And a first aid kit is absolutely essential, including bandages, antiseptic, plasters and painkillers.
- Oh, even if you’re hiking on a marked trail, always take a map and compass and know how to use them.
Invest in good gear
Getting cold means you’re likely to get sick, which sucks as you’ll have to miss a day – or two – of trekking. But it can also lead to bigger problems. Hyperthermia doesn’t only happen when its -30°C. All you need is for your core body temperature to drop a few degrees. The first signs of hyperthermia include disorientation and reluctance to move. If you’re alone this is a real problem as you often don’t notice the symptoms until it’s too late. And you’ve got no one to motivate you into moving and getting help. Moral of the story: don’t get cold. Follow the layering principle to maintain an even temperature.
Set daily goals
Although you can go faster and slower as you please, you still need to stick to a rough plan (and have a Plan B). If you’re hut-to-hut hiking this is taken care of: you have to get to your chosen hut that evening. But if you’re trekking in Sweden, for example, where you can pitch your tent virtually anywhere, it’s easy to just say, “ah well, here’s far enough for today.” If you’re 1-2km from your goal this isn’t a big deal. But if you decide to set camp 10km shy of the day’s goal you’re going to seriously screw up your plan. I always marked on a map where I wanted to eat lunch and where I wanted to sleep. But don’t forget that plan B.
Don’t let other people’s fears stop you
You’ll hear people telling you you’re crazy, particularly if you’re a woman. Advice is great. Reading about the trail or talking to others who’ve done it is wise and prudent. But if you’ve taken all necessary precautions, you’re physically and psychologically ready, then just do it. Ignore the naysayers. And remember, you’re not really alone. You’ve got your thoughts. Your motivation. Your hopes and dreams. You’re the person you know best and you’re only going to become closer after this experience. Enjoy!