As a solo female traveler, I frequently find myself hiking alone. People often ask me how I do it, am I ever scared, what if something happens, don’t you get lonely? All very similar questions I get about simply travelling alone.
The trend of solo travel is on a dramatic increase, and so is solo hiking. So, is hiking alone safe? Yes, hiking alone definitively can be safe. Through proper preparation, knowledge and the ability to make good choices anyone can embark on their adventure of choice – safely.
After reading books and watching movies such as Into the Wild,127 hours, or, Wild, you may be thinking that hiking alone should be totally out of the question. Why would anyone want to put themselves in such a situation where they have no food, no help and might even have to amputate their arm!
In reality, whilst all these situations are possible scenarios whilst hiking alone, they are also a lot more unlikely than these fabulous Hollywood dramatizations would lead you to believe. The underlying theme that links a lot of these stories together is a lack of preparation, knowledge and bad choices.
Why Hike Alone?
There are so many reasons that people hike alone. For some, it’s a conscious decision, maybe it’s for the solitude, the closer proximity to nature, the space to think, or maybe is a voyage of self-discovery.
For others, it’s situational. Maybe none of your friends like to hike, maybe the others in your circle don’t have the physical capabilities for a specific hike, or maybe they just don’t have the time. Just because you have no one to go with you, doesn’t mean you should miss out on that mountain, that amazing view or even just that sweet crisp air.
Benefits of Hiking Alone
You can go at your own pace! This is one of my favorite parts about hiking alone, as I would call myself a very varied paced hiker. A lot of the time I am significantly faster than others and it can get frustrating having to constantly wait for partners to catch up. Other times, I like to stop frequently to take photos and admire views.
This is all fine and well if I am hiking with a friend who is equally snap happy, however if not, I can begin to feel as if I am slowing them down, leading to rushed stops and missed moments.
Flexibility. Having no one else relying on you means the adventure is all yours for the making. I’m all about the last minute life and often roll out of bed and take myself for a spontaneous hike. Similarly, I frequently intend to get up early and be on track by a certain time, but by the time morning comes, I might decided I need a little more sleep first.
You do you when hiking solo, get up when you want, take breaks when you want, change your plans as often as you want!
Get closer to nature. Firstly, when hiking with friend’s you’re often busy chatting whilst walking and most likely oblivious to a lot of cool things that are going on around you.
Nature is an amazing thing but sometimes we just don’t take the time to notice the little details. When alone, it is a lot easier to be silent and stealth, meaning you have a higher chance of spotting interesting creatures along the way. Listen to the sounds of your environment and you never know what you might find.
It’s a great way to get your thoughts straight. Even if I don’t have anything in particular riding on my mind, I often find that I do my best thinking whilst hiking. There must be something about the cathartic rhythm of your own footsteps that gets the mind ticking, because each time I venture out, I seem to manage to solve problems and answer questions I didn’t even know I had.
It’s the perfect time to practice a new language! Now you may be thinking, how does language practice and hiking possibly fit together? Here me out!
This is something I actually discovered whilst hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia. Over the 6-day trek, my Norwegian hiking buddy taught me some basics of the language. Starting off with the numbers, I counted en,to,tre,fire in time with my steps, over and over until it stuck, then quickly moved onto words and sentences.
Even though at this point I was hiking with a friend, it’s a practice I have continued over the years. When learning a new language, speaking is usually the most difficult part for me and this is mostly because of my self-conscience and a lack of confidence. When
I’m alone in the middle of the mountains, I can ramble nonsense to myself in French, Spanish or whatever language takes my fancy to my hearts content with no witness. No one to judge your mispronunciation but all the time in the world to practice!
Feeling stressed? Go for a hike.
Need to make a big decision? Go for a hike.
Lacking in motivation? Go for a hike.
Getting Over Your Fears When Hiking Alone
A lot of the art of hiking alone is your head game. In reality, hiking alone is not all too physically different to hiking with company. Sure you should take a few less risks and be a little more prepared but in the end, hiking is mostly just putting one foot in front of the other.
As with anything, it takes knowledge, confidence and practice. If you have fears, start out small and work your way up. Take yourself on an easy day hike that you’ve done before for your first solo mission.
Related article: Feral Humans in National Parks and Dealing with Non-rational Fears
If you feel happy and confident maybe try another, more difficult hike that you have previously completed, and so on. Slowly work your way up to those elusive multi-day treks through unknown terrain. Or don’t-its totally up to you!
One thing that a lot of people think when they think of solo hikes is that they have to go harder, push themselves further… The best bit about hiking alone is that you are hiking for yourself, no one else. Do what makes you happy so you can get the most out of your solo adventure.
What are the Potential Dangers of Hiking Alone?
- Getting lost
This is a potential danger of anyone hiking, no matter whether you’re alone, in a pair or a group. Being alone simply means there is a higher chance of you missing a trail marking and only having yourself to rely on. Make sure you have the knowledge and experience to help yourself, keep calm, retrace your steps and find the markers.
Again, injuries can happen to anyone at anytime. If you’re alone, there is no immediate help. You are on your own and you may not be able to walk out. It is important to be hyper aware of your surroundings when solo. Take extra precautions when in difficult terrain and have a plan for if something goes wrong.
- Dangerous people
I’m a big fan of talking to people you see on the trail or at camps. It can be an amazing way to meet people with similar interests and most of the time, it is pretty safe. On trails at the fringes of cities, you may find some people who aren’t necessarily loitering in the woods for noble reasons. Avoid these types of trails alone. Choose highly populated hikes over accessible but underused paths.
- Wild Animals
When hiking in a lot of parts of the world, you don’t even need to worry about the wild life! Luxury! But, it is always worth doing your research if you are looking at hiking in a new area.
As a general rule for areas with dangerous animals, make noise. The best way to survive in animal territory is to never see the animal in the first place.
Often, when hiking with others you will be making significantly more noise, whether it’s through chatting or the collective pounding of your boots on the earth, you are likely to scare off potential threats long before you encounter them. When alone, it’s important to remember to make some noise every now and then to let animals know you’re around.
I personally like to clap and stomp loudly however, I know people who hike with bells attached to their bags, sing to their hearts content or chat to the animals.
If you are hiking in snake territory, it is essential you know how to treat bite wounds and have a way to call for help.
- Natural events
You never know when Mother Nature wants to show off her all mighty power. Despite whether it may be a rockslide, avalanche or storm, know the warning signs and listen to them. Be aware, and remember that it’s okay to turn around if you feel like it’s the right choice.
If you do get caught in a sticky situation, make sure you have the knowledge to get out and an emergency plan in place.
Tips for Female Solo Hikers
In an ideal world, this shouldn’t even have to be a sub topic. Girls run the world and all that. But in the sad reality we live in, us females have to think a little more about safety not just in hiking but also in every aspect of life.
Aside from my other tips for anyone hiking alone, for females, I particularly suggest taking a little extra care when encountering other people on the trails.
Don’t post your location on social media. I know you may want to immediately post that sick sunset to your instagram story and geo tag your exact mountain top to make your friends insanely jealous. But take a second to think, you never know who is looking at your posts and may happen to be lurking nearby. It’s not worth the risk, why not simply wait until you are home, safe and sound before posting your snaps.
Don’t camp by roads or singular dwellings. You may think that camping near others is the safer option but in reality you never really know who there are. Creeps often hang out on the side of roads, sleep in cars or may even live alone in the woods. Unless it’s a group you trust or a designated campground, keep walking until you find a spot a little more hidden.
Be alert, don’t hike with headphones and be aware of your surroundings. Knowing what’s going on around you is extremely important.
Carry pepper spray in an accessible location. I have personally never done this as I usually hike solo either, in places where there is next to no chance of encountering another person OR, on trails popular enough that there is usually people around. Hopefully you will never have to use it but it could be for some peace of mind.
Trust your gut and remember that you don’t owe anyone anything. If you meet people along the way who want you to hike with them, don’t be afraid to decline. Firstly, you’re on a solo hike! It’s a perfectly legitimate excuse to simply say that you really wanted to do it alone. If you don’t have a good feeling about someone, or you don’t feel comfortable, don’t risk it.
Know your limits. Now is not the time to push them. Be realistic about your expectations and enjoy your hike. Knowing when to take a break or turn around, could just save you from an accident.
Solo Hiking Essentials
Whilst you don’t have to have been mountaineering your entire life, it is important to have a little bit of hiking under your belt before setting off. If you’ve never been out on the trails, it’s easy to miss signs (metaphorical or not) if you don’t know what to look for. Get informed, practice and stay safe.
If you’re thinking you might want to venture out on your own, first head out with a more experienced hiker. Pay attention to the way they walk, how they choose paths or terrain, what they pack, what they wear and ask questions! Generally, the outdoor community is more than happy to share information and experience to budding new adventurers.
- Research and plan your hike
Choosing an appropriate hike is the first important step in planning. It is always a good idea to pick a hike that is below your maximum ability level. There’s no point risking your own safety by pushing yourself past your limits. This is the kind of situation from which you hear the horror stories that make for great movies. Remember, no one is there to rescue you if you get stuck.
When choosing the hike, your ability level doesn’t simply end at your physical capabilities. Think about the length of the hike, time frame, altitude gain and gradient.
You also need to take into consideration the weather; is there likely to be storms, will it be too hot, will it poor with rain? Think about any natural phenomenon’s that may make your hike too dangerous or simply too long.
The terrain; is it something you have experience on and is it safe under the current and previous weather conditions. Slippery rocks on a steep ridge line are never a good idea right after, or during heavy rainfall. The risk of slipping on wet rocks is not one worth taking if the consequences are serious and there is no one around to help if something goes wrong.
Snow is another element to think about. Do you have much experience in snow? Will there be snow? This is not to say that you should never hike alone in the snow. I do it all the time. A few small patches here and there is nothing to be scared of but, I do personally think, that if don’t have extensive experience traversing snowy flats or kick stepping inclines, leave this type of hike for when you have company.
Not only will markers be buried, the path unclear and your footing slippery, snow can dramatically change instantaneously, something you must have the knowledge and techniques to deal with alone.
The time of year and season. This goes hand in hand with the weather and terrain. I’m not only talking about the fact that trail conditions are heavily dependent on the time of year, but think about the business of the hike you would like to do.
Whilst it’s not exactly pleasant to be trekking in military formation as you find yourself stuck behind a crowd of millions, all hoping for the same amazing view or even more ironically the absolute serenity, it is often wiser to choose a more popular track or simply the peak time of year to complete it. Increasing the number of people you may encounter along the way significantly increases the chances of you finding help if anything goes wrong.
- Leave early
Not being a early bird myself, I am not saying you must leave before sunrise. But DO take into consideration the time of sunset before you set off. Leaving in the morning, even if your hike should only take a few hours, gives you plenty of wiggle room. You won’t be rushed to get home before dark, can take as long as you like for photos, lunch or even a nap in a scenic location.
This is also a great tip if you do choose a highly popular hike in peak season. Leave early, beat the crowds but have them as back up.
- Tell someone where you’re going
After you have your plan, tell someone. Let them know where you will walk, your route, trail head access points and what time you expect to be back. Agree to a time and if you haven’t called by then, ask them to notify emergency organizations with a pre organized plan.
Whilst not essentially necessary for shorter hikes, having a GPS tracker is a good idea if you are thinking of doing anything a little more off track or in difficult terrain. It will help you stay on the correct path, map your location and with some, issue SOS alerts in an emergency.
- Be prepared
This means being prepared for every situation, even on a simple day trip. Often people tell me that I carry way too much weight in extras, but you can never be too prepared and a little extra weight just means you’ll get a little more fit! Always carry a first aid kit, knife, whistle, torch, excess food, 2x the amount of water you expect to need, warm layers, beanie and gloves, maps and waterproofs.
- Take a phone or beacon
Make sure you have a way to call for help if needed, if possible, find out about cell phone coverage before you head off. Have the GPS on your phone active so your location can be tracked if need be. If heading off on a longer distance multiday hike, it is definitively a good idea to invest in an emergency beacon with GPS tracking.
You never know in what situation you may find yourself where you need to be able to alert authorities to a problem at the click of a button.
- Sign the log book or check in with the park ranger at the start and end of your hike.
Not all hikes, state or national parks have these but if they do, make sure you use them. If the trail has one, you will find the registration book at the trail head, usually in a little box or shelter. Sign your name, time, date, planned hike, approximate return time and emergency contact. Make sure that when you complete your hike, you remember to sign off on your safety.
Alternatively, if there is a park information center or ranger office, they may have a register in their office.
Is it safe to hike the Appalachian Trail alone?
It’s hard to say whether a 2,200-mile hike through 14 US states is totally safe to complete alone. As with anything, it has it’s risks and those risks are generally magnified when you go solo.
According to Bob Proudman, the director of conservation operations, there is an average of 2-3 deaths on the Appalachian Trail each year with the most common deaths being from heart attacks in elderly people.
Between 200-300 incidents are reported each year. However, the majority is for petty crimes such as stolen backpacks, Proudman said.
Although there has also been a number of murders and mysterious deaths on the trail over the last few decades, in a field of 2 to 3 million hikers ever year, statically speaking you’re still much more likely to be killed by a falling tree. That could happen whether you’re in a pair or not.
The main safety tip for the trail that I’ve seen repeated over and over is not to camp near intersections and roads. Make sure you keep hiking at least another couple of miles and find a hidden spot.
Speaking technically, as the Appalachian Trail is not particularly mountainous and passes through multiple towns and settlements (deterring wild animals), some risks that you may find in more extreme terrain are minimized. This means, a lot of the safety of the trail actually comes down to your knowledge and planning.
In the end, although it is an epic one, you couldn’t say whether the Appalachian Trail is any more or less safe to complete alone than any other long distance endeavors such as the PCT or the Colorado Trail.
Not quite ready to hike alone? Find yourself a hiking partner!
Maybe your friends are busy, your time lines don’t line up or they simply don’t like hiking. Don’t let this stop you from getting out there and climbing that mountain!
If you’re new to hiking or simply don’t feel ready to go alone, join a group. If you live in any major city or a town close to nature, I can almost guarantee you will find a hiking group with willing partners. Have a look around community notice boards, university clubs or ask at your local outdoor shops.
Networking with people already cemented in the outdoor world will help you find others with similar passions and can lead to some pretty epic adventures.
Since I almost always travel alone, when I arrive in a new town I immediately look up facebook for hikers, climbers and adventurers groups. They are found by searching multiple different combinations of the words above with the name of the town/state/country.
After I have been accepted into the groups I simply post the dates I’m available, potential hiking locations and ask for tips or anyone interested in joining me. Sometimes, you’ll get no responses, other times you will get an influx of replies and create an amazing group adventure.
If you decide to go with just one or two other people from a new group, it’s always a good idea to meet up in a public location for a no obligation coffee first. Get to know them and make sure to trust your gut, BEFORE you head off into the woods with them.